Culinary Career Choices: Restaurants: Chains, QRS, “Family Style”


Restaurants:  Corporate family dining and Chain.

When you read the financial news about restaurant business, you will often see statements that restaurant industry earnings are up or down, you will usually see numbers based on McDonalds, Burger King or Carl Jr’s.

Despite the fact that these QSR/fast food  locations serve food, they are not restaurants from the career point of view. Each is a small factory where pre-fabricated items are assembled and delivered to customers.  They do not have chefs or sous chefs, and there is little to be learned in their kitchens aside from a few mechanics and possibly some rote food safety. The entire mission of these plants is directed at preventing any variation.

These locations offer two main benefits for anyone entering the industry:  First, many people who begin  in these operations do learn the rhythm and get curious about other and better product, eventually moving into a full food and beverage career. Second, for some who begin in the operations, there is a career promotion path to unit and occasionally regional manager, which involves mastering and following the property formulas, standards, processes and systems.

A large number of the upper level and corporate managers hired by QSR chains, however,  do not come up through the ranks.

Some smaller chains offer more responsibility to their unit management, both front and back, but if they grow to over ten units, they  generally find it necessary to standardize all processes in order to maintain a given level of product and service while reducing liability. For those interested in the process and finances rather than just product, these groups can offer interesting employment. They rarely however allow reentry into the fine dining or free standing restaurant sector.

Those fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of a chain which successfully goes from two or three to a dozen or more units generally  find the work challenging, satisfying and financially rewarding.

The hallmarks of a chain are the standardized menu,  cookie-cutter facility system and centralized management of everything from guest policies to waste management. If the menu is encased in plastic film, it is likely a chain. Chains can be perceived by some to be full fledged restaurants with fully resonsible chefs, but so called “family dining” restaurants like Olive Garden, International House of Pancakes, TGI Friday’s, the Cheesecake Factory and Morton’s have their menus, employee policies and handbooks, service manuals etc determined and printed at a main office distant from most locations. A few – Cheesecake Factory among them – allow local sourcing of product and one or  two require their chefs to create an occasional specials. Since their menu in Las Vegas is identical to their menu atop Macy’s San Francisco, however, they are still a chain.

Chefs of most chain units are called “kitchen managers”. They are  essentially kitchen foremen. They may be given the title of “general manager”,  but they will not be recognized as such in another environment.  It is the General/Kitchen manager’s  responsibility to carry out precisely the  preset corporate guidelines and to finish  pre-portioned product without any individual input.

Our limited experience in placing management from the upper level chains in non-chain groups is that they have neither been given the opportunity nor the encouragement to make decisions or excel beyond the benchmarks set in the manuals.

Chains frequently take their  culinary and FoH managers straight out of college or training programs, offer them corporate training at a central location and place them directly into management positions which pay substantially better salaries than a position reached outside of the group. The negative of this is the lack of growth through experience and the possibility that the high initial compensation may limit later career choices. Employment in these locations thus limits career growth.

Aside from the lack of entrepreneurial encouragement, however, many of these groups do have excellent management training programs for their service staff and FoH supervisors, which can at some point be transferred to  other sectors. The very high end chains furthermore, such as Roy’s, P.F. Chang’s or Ruth’s Chris  offer  not only generous pay for their upper managers but partner them into highly lucrative relationships. These groups may offer more autonomy for their management and extensive product preparation process in their kitchens – i.e. less of the product comes prepacked or formatted in sous vide pouches or frozen portions – so a cook or sous chef is exposed to, learns and practices a wider range of culinary processes and gains professional growth.

Your employment options following chain positions depends on the group you work for and at what point you move on.

A large number of successful culinary professionals began in “family style” restaurants as dishwashers or cook, then went to school or managed to take their mechanical skills to a higher level. A few of these groups actually contribute to culinary training.  At least one San Francisco chef has noted that he appreciates the work ethic and focus of people from this latter group of chain facilities and hires them preferentially compared to students from the local culinary schools.

The higher the position reached in a chain, however, the fewer non chain options are available.  It is not realistic to rise to the  level of kitchen manager at one of the mid to lower level properties and expect to crack the fine or popular dining restaurant circle even as a sous chef. These two sectors have completely different expectations and requirements.

This does not always apply to the high end chains, where the kitchens are chef driven. A chef from a Roy’s has enough autonomy and responsibility in his position combined with the group’s reputation for quality be considered for a wide variety of desirable positions beyond the chain environment. A chef from Marie Calendar’s does not.

The higher end chains frequently promote from within and offer some opportunities for multi- unit and regional positions. Corporate level staff from these groups are desired in most restaurant organizations. Corporate level positions in product development and training in these groups can also be extremely  satisfying and lucrative. Many furthermore offer exceptional benefits, retirement plans and some restaurant percentage.

Even so, although a number of them promote from within for their corporate and multi-unit positions, a substantial number of corporate culinary managers are recruited from outside the group.

For the most part employment in QSR chains and many “family style” chains represents a job rather than a career path. Once an employee has achieved a career in QSR,  he will probably remain in that sector, but there will be choices. Any QSR will gladly hire any qualified employee from another one, so when one position ends, a proven QSR employee can expect little difficulty in finding another. The same generally holds true for the family style groups. FoH employees enjoy more outside opportunities than kitchen managers.