An Interview with Beth Casey, Restaurant Owner and Manager

Beth Casey, owner and restaurant manager of Bubba’s Diner in San Anselmo, California,started in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher when she was 15. Since then, she has worked in every area of the restaurant, from the front to the back, and she is a graduate of the California Culinary Academy.

Ms. Casey has worked as a manager, in food sales, as a pastry chef, and under prominent names such as Chef Hubert Keller at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, where she did her externship, and Chef Bradley Ogden at the Lark Creek Inn, where she was Front of the House Manager for three years. She opened Bubba’s in 1995, and she calls the restaurant business a “love-hate relationship” in which “you definitely have to have grease (passion) in your veins to survive.”

As a business owner, she has placed special emphasis on community service and has received awards such as the 2001 National Community Service Award from the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, Business Person of the Year 2000 from the Marin County Chamber of Commerce, and Volunteer of the Year from the Town of San Anselmo. Also, as chair of a Beautification Project for San Anselmo, she helped to raise $350,000 for revitalizing the town.

Beth Casey & Her Career   |   The Actual Work   |   Career / Job Info. & Advice   |   Education Info. & Advice   |   Industry Trends   |   Closing Remarks

Beth Casey & Her Career

Why did you decide to pursue a career in the restaurant business?

It was the beginning of my work experience at 15 years old. It was fun, lively, people-oriented, action-oriented, and I got a start. I started as a dishwasher at a pie house called, “Bumbleberrys,” and I’ve been hooked in ever since.

Tell us about your career path. How did you get your start? How and why did you open Bubba’s Diner?

My career has been interesting because I wanted to learn all the aspects of the restaurant business. In college, I managed a restaurant called F. McLintocks, which is one of the top independently-owned and operated restaurants in the U.S. I was there for seven years, and then I decided to sell food with a food distributing company called Kaney Foods. There, I learned all about purchasing, ordering, sizing, volume, packs, delivery, etc. I was the only woman on the team and had the highest sales. I did that for three years. Then, I wanted to learn more about the kitchen, so I enrolled in the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I graduated with honors and made a connection with a friend to get a management job at Lark Creek Inn with Chef Bradley Ogden. I worked as a Front of the House Manager there for three years, met Chef Steve Simmons, and we got married. We bought Bubba’s Diner to start our own business, but, within the first year, we were divorced and I took over the restaurant. I have had the restaurant now for seven years, and it’s still rockin’.

You’ve emphasized community service in your career and through your restaurant. In addition to being active in many organizations, you’ve been recognized locally and nationally. Tell us about these honors, and why you do this kind of work.

Community service in my career is what I really do best. My motto is “MAKING A DIFFERENCE, IF YOU CAN WORK LOCALLY THEN YOU CAN CHANGE GLOBALLY”. To me, the whole idea of having the restaurant is to serve up “Community”. I want everyone who comes into the diner to feel connected in some way or another.

I do community service because I love it. It comes from my heart and it feels right. My honors include:

What community projects are you working on now? Which ones have been you favorites?

The Community projects I am doing now is a Culinary Extravaganza with 20 chefs from our town coming together to do a benefit called “Chefs for the Avenue 2002″. This benefit is a dinner to help raise around $30,000 for the San Anselmo Beautification Project. Another one is for Whistlestop, Meals on Wheels for Seniors, which benefits seniors who are home bound. Fot this one, we’re asking restaurants to give a percentage of their profits from Valentines’ and Mothers’ Day to Whistlestop since these days are especially hard for seniors.

My favorite project is probably the simplest one of all. Every year the San Anselmo Volunteer Effort plants daffodil bulbs for the town. So in the summer my son Alex (six years old) has a lemonade stand out front of the diner and sales lemonade for 5 cents. Then he gives the money to the San Anselmo Volunteer Effort for the purchasing of the bulbs. In the month of November, we go and help plant the bulbs. Then, in the spring, Alex gets to watch the bulbs turn into flowers, and we do the whole cycle again. It’s all about giving back.

The beauty of owning your own business is that it gives you the ability to become creative in whatever aspect of joy it brings. The joy it brings to me is bringing people together to make things happen in my community. If you work locally in your community you can make changes globally.

What has been your greatest professional success and biggest setback?

My greatest professional success has been to believe in myself. My biggest setback – I don’t think that way, I just keep moving forward.

The Actual Work

What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a restaurant owner and manager?

  • Ordering produce, meat, fish, and dry good once a week
  • Personnel, making sure that everyone is happy and working well
  • Overseeing the cleanliness of the restaurant
  • Checking wine and beer order
  • Rotation of food
  • Making sure all equipment is working properly
  • Chattin’ it up with the customers
  • Most important – “Being there”

What’s your secret to keeping customers coming in? What have been some of your most successful promotions, and where did they originate?

Secrets for customers to keep coming in? It’s a secret! Hee-hee. Seriously, the secret is to constantly create a “buzz”. Keep people talking about your establishment in some way or another. This is where creativity is key to business; the more creative the better.

Regarding successful promotions, I have a chef come into the diner with a winery on Tuesday nights (when we are closed) and have the chef cook up their version of “Homestyle Cooking.” The diner can only seat 36 people, but the beauty of this event is that it is intimate and the customers get to be with the chef and the winery on more of a personal level. Beforehand, I also ask a merchant on the street to open their store for us to have a reception – so, not only do the merchants get to be recognized, but they can sell goods from their store as well. It’s a blast! Where did this come from? Just ideas that come from bringing people together in win-win situations.

You’ve worked in all areas of the restaurant, from the kitchen to the floor to sales. What insights can you share about the differences and the difficulties?

One of the most difficult aspects of restaurant management is getting the introverts (kitchen) and the extroverts (front of the house) to learn to work together. They are a team and need to learn to respect each others’ position. It is almost like a basketball team with different positions that depend on one another to make the event happen. If you respect each others’ job and position, you are headed in the right direction.

As a restaurant manager, how important is it to have actual experience in every aspect of the business, as you have?

Restaurant management experience only comes with time. The more experience you have, the better seasoned you are. The more you learn about the restaurant, the more valuable you are – not only to yourself, but to any company.

What are some of the challenges of being a restaurant owner and manager?

The challenge of being a restaurant owner and manager is to always try to make your business better. Being the best you can. Re-evaluate, create, be different, have a niche.

Career / Job Information & Advice

What advice can you give to those who would like to open a restaurant of their own someday? How can they get from Point A (thinking about an education) to Point B (being a restaurant owner)?

You have to qualify for the following:

  1. Crazy
  2. Passionate about the business
  3. Have investors
  4. Get ready to rock and roll
  5. You live the job
  6. You live the job
  7. You live the job

What are the best ways for graduating students to find a job in restaurant management? How can they best break into the field?

If you put your mind to finding a restaurant job, you can find it. It truly depends on what type of restaurant you want to work in and what is right for you.

How much are restaurant managers generally paid to start? How about those at the top of the profession?

Managers are the most under paid position in the restaurant industry, based on what they have in responsibilities. It is the same analogy as teachers being underpaid, and it truly needs to change. I don’t see any trends toward it now because managers typically love the position so much that they’re willing to take lower paid positions based on the experience they’ll get. But it isn’t fair, considering the amount of work they do.

I can’t really give a salary range because it varies so much, but I can say that wait people often make more money than managers – and they leave with money in their pockets, and they don’t take home the responsibilities like a manager does.

How can the reality of restaurant management as a career differ from typical expectations?

What you read in a book about what a manager is versus what you experience is completely different. But each experience is different, based on the circumstance and how it was delivered by that individual. Learn by doing is the best motto for restaurant experience.

How is the job market right now? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?

The job market right now in the Bay Area for managers is scarce since September 11, but hope is in the horizon. It is all about the economy and consumer confidence. Keep listening to Alan Greenspan to keep yourself updated on the financial state of our country. In five or ten years I really don’t know what will be happening, but people will still need to eat.

Education Information & Advice

Tell us about your education related to restaurant management and culinary. What did you like and dislike about it? In retrospect, would you change anything if you could?

Education related to my business is so important. When I was in college, I didn’t think I would end up in the restaurant business. But you learn so many things in college, not only in the academic arena – most importantly, you learn about people. Once you have graduated from any trade school, college, or Art Institute, it is like having a lunch bucket. You can carry this with you for the rest of your life. It’s your life line. Still, my management education was through on the job experience, and I wouldn’t change it.

How did graduating from the California Culinary Academy enhance your abilities as a restaurant manager? Would you recommend this path for others entering the field?

I wanted to learn the kitchen side of the business, and it was a lot of fun. It’s important for me as a manager to know what they go through in the kitchen. But what I learned in the restaurant was far more valuable than what I learned at the Culinary Academy. Hands-on management in a true work environment is the best experience.

I’m not putting down the school system because I feel that education is always a plus, but, a lot of times, I think it’s better to learn hands-on because that’s where the real experience is. It’s much harder to break into management without a degree, but you can do it. You have to be persistent and willing to work hard – even be willing work for free if you have to to learn the trade. You really have to put yourself out there.

As an employer, what kinds of degrees, certifications and experience do you look for in new hires?

When I am hiring, I don’t look for degrees – honestly, I look for NICE. Then, I look for experience. And this is definitely a common approach in the industry: Experience is important!

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the five most respected and prestigious schools in the world for restaurant management that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?

It all depends on the interest which that person is pursuing, and every situation is different. The ranking of schools is really based on the ranking of what you want.

Industry Trends

What are some trends that you see in the field of restaurant management that might help prospective students?

Trends of the restaurant business are going back to “Donna Reed Show”. Homestyle cooking, everyone eating together, more personal, small restaurants.

You mentioned a little bit about an emerging field that links food to speech development. Can you tell us what this is about and why you are interested?

I think that people in the industry haven’t even tapped into true communicative benefits of food. Here’s my perspective:

A. Food is a verbal stimulant, and it helps to create conversation. This is very exciting because this can be used with programs such as English as A Second Language, Speech for all ages in the school system.

B. Food is universal; it is something that we all have in common.

C. If food is universal, just imagine all the programs that can be developed through weaving it with speech, literacy, education, and so much more.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in the restaurant business?

“Go for it” and don’t be afraid. If you believe in yourself you can do anything. Dream big, why not, it’s your life. The more you connect with people the more exciting the dream becomes.

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