Two years and a lifetime ago: Hospitality experts embrace change

Updated January 11, 2022 - 1:18 pm

When I reflect on New Year’s Day 2020, like everyone, I was excited for the fresh start the New Year presents and the promise of growth and opportunity that January holds. I certainly wasn’t asking myself what I would do if all our companies stopped in their tracks, revenues went to zero in a week and our team members and families were risking their lives by leaving the house. As we all know, that’s what we and so many others faced in March of 2020.

In one day, we were forced to lay off more than 100 people across the four restaurants that we spent a decade building. It was a moment I will never forget and something that sticks with me to this day. We were forced to ask ourselves some deep questions as we faced the unthinkable and never had our values as leaders and entrepreneurs been more greatly tested. Thankfully, after many grim and challenging initial emotions, the overriding question for me and my partners became, how can we use this as an opportunity to get better?

All in the restaurant business were in the same boat; we were confused, afraid and looking for reassurance and positivity wherever we could find it. So, we turned to what we know best. We connected with each other (virtually). We organized wine classes, shared recipes and talked about all the bread we were making. We learned things about each other we never knew, we read personal development books, talked about what we took from them, talked a lot about how we could grow and improve, not just as restaurant people, but as fathers, mothers, husbands, wives. We formed a new kind of bond, centered around who we were outside the restaurant and how we could get better in all areas of life. And this served as a great foundation when the hard work began. How do we reopen? What will that look like, how do we create hospitality in an inhospitable environment? For us, it began with reinvesting in our people.

We spent time re-evaluating, and to be frank, re-establishing our values and purpose. So often in the restaurant business we get caught up in the daily grind and forget why we chose to be in this crazy business in the first place. It was important to make choices that benefited the team and the business first. That sounds simple, even obvious, but when you get into it, there are some complexities that arise. We used this reset to be smarter about the experiences we offer, and to look at our business on a more technical level, which has been a great thing. And all that said, hospitality has and always will be about saying yes and making yes happen for our customers every single night before they even have to ask the question. So, instead of scaling back, we created totally unique experiences and leaned into showcasing what we do best.

Our team, from top to bottom, has been forced to wear a lot of hats over the last 10 months as the business demand has returned. We are grateful for the top line, but it is not a secret that we have navigated this time with one hand tied behind our back. Rising costs from products to people has made it harder than ever to achieve the margin we need to make the business work. Culture has been the key to sustaining momentum during this time, and we’ve stayed focused on creating an environment where people see the purpose and feel the passion of what we do. I feel it’s important to take those extra hours every week to show people that you care, ask the personal questions, find out about how they’re doing outside of work. It can be gratifying, and it only reinforces the power of a team when they feel valued, recognized and are working toward a common goal. This year is going to be about rebuilding and enriching our teams with the values and perspective we gained in our darkest hours, that is where the true change comes from.

Richard Camarota is the operations manager and founding partner of McClain Camarota Hospitality Group, home of Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay, the upcoming Ballo at Sahara, and acclaimed Highlands in Detroit.

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