Oct 132010

If you have given up your own restaurant and are seeking to reenter the world of the employed, you face a few challenges. You probably already know this.

The ranks of recovering restaurateur chefs and entrepreneur managers thrown back  into the labor pool exploded in 2009, as the economy took down even some of  the best restaurants. Watching most of them find jobs but not keep them has been a revelation. Most ex entrepreneurs face both internal and external hurdles in reentering the market. Recognizing them may help.

Anyone who has owned a restaurant has a lot to offer, such as peripheral vision encompassing both front and back of the house issues.

Financial responsibility for all aspects of a restaurant has provided them with insights into expense to profit relationships, so they appreciate the value of product, energy, equipment and people.

They have developed  holistic business perspectives, understanding of the necessity of pleasing the customer, marketing and advertising, sourcing.

They are, by definition, entrepreneurial. Ownership builds a profound  buck stops here sense of responsibility. Entrepreneurs learn to think on their feet and make quick decisions. Most are accustomed to working hard and long.

So why do we see the average entrepreneur come employee is a series of jobs beginning with about three months, the second counting about six, then a year before they stand back in the labor market?

Employee and entrepreneurial realities are harder to reconcile than most people realize. Giving up the reins is traumatic, occasionally impossible. The habit of making unilateral decisions rarely succeeds in someone else’s restaurant, where trip wires, egos, and territorial expectations obstruct the best intended actions.

Transitioning from your own arbitrary decisions or logically set policy to that of another location is full of pitfalls.The purpose of policy is not to produce the best outcome but to keep some fool from provoking the worst. The problem with policy is that it punishes good performance, since if it is required of one employee, it has to be required of all.  People with a strong sense of responsibility have trouble doing what is prescribed instead of doing what’s best.

Surprisingly, the entrepreneurs who seem to have the fewest problems transitioning work in hotels and executive dining rooms for large corporations, the places with the strictest policies and standards. This may be because these policies are clearly written, so the chef or manager knows precisely what is expected of him, while policy in free standing restaurants may be spoken or just a matter of culture.

Every kitchen has a culture that can become a stumbling block for someone not expecting it.  Having ruled kingdoms of their own, entrepreneurs are not practiced in watching out for the trip wires, territorial issues and occasional obstructionist behavior  in a less than perfect  working world.  The compliment your waitress accepted with a smile in your restaurant can be carried to HR as sexual harassment in someone else’s.  Speaking to a customer wanting a bridal shower without passing it by the Catering Director can lead to internecine wars which end in the last person hired leaving.

And then there are habits and liberties you cannot take on someone else’s dime. You can’t pick up the kids after school, you can’t come a little later on one day a week. Perhaps you can’t make last minute purchasing decisions.

Of course some chefs weren’t prepared in the first place to run a restaurant and taking another chef position after trying unsuccessfully to reinvent the wheel just isn’t going to work.

Knowing this, employers are rarely eager to hire someone they see themselves having to press back under the yoke by force.

“Why did his restaurant fail, if he’s so good?” “If I hire an ex owner, I am just going to have to argue to get what I expect.”  The recently self employed have a well earned reputation for head butting and arrogance, and although you may not engage in either, you are likely to be painted with the same brush as the worst of the bunch.

Sooner or later, these issues work themselves out. Some ex owners take three or five bumps to relearn the art of being employed. Others will later open another  and do better the second round. Some of the most celebrated chefs in America have at least one closing behind them.  It’s a no guts, no glory world, and having the spunk to get up and try again pays off.  The knowledge gained in the first or second restaurant  serves them well in the next.

I’ve no call to give advice here. My experience is vicarious, and anyone who has owned a restaurant knows way more than I ever will about this business, but perhaps a little insight about why you are being told, “Sorry, but you are overqualified,” can help.