Taking the Initiative: Dirty Bathrooms and All
“I just wanted to let you know, that the ladies room is disgusting.”
Hot blood crept under my skin, burning my face to a plum red as the woman backed away from my ear, quickly turning to exit the restaurant. Mortified, I contained my urge to sprint into a brisk walk, imagining all the possible scenarios that could, and do, go wrong in a public restroom of a New York City restaurant.
Rewind to flipping through CEO Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table as a little self-assigned homework for the impending Day 1 of my Front-of-House internship with Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG). Skeptical, I read about the company’s value of excellence that is apparently so engrained into their culture that when a USHG staff member sees something wrong, they fix it. A piece of trash or food on the floor? They pick it up. A plate ready for pick-up, even though they’re assigned hostess? Still pick it up.
That’s what I originally thought initiative meant within USHG, and particularly at Blue Smoke restaurant, where I’ve been assigned to for the summer. And as my doubt turned into full affirmation of the USHG values when observing the staff that really did help all around, I realized that although this initiative of doing the dirty work is a great value to carry, the definition of initiative doesn’t stop there. Not for USHG, and not for myself.
My first lesson was that initiative is sure swell, but it can also backfire if you’re not paying enough attention. Third week on the job and I’m feeling confident; like I’m finally getting my footing in serving guests. I see a cleared table and immediately walk over with wet naps and dessert menus. As I’m placing them down, the gentleman says, “We’ve actually already paid…”
Although from the outside it may not seem like a big deal, I knew that to USHG showing up with dessert menus despite already paying makes the guest feel like we’re not paying attention, we’re not noticing that they already paid, and that we’re okay with making sloppy mistakes like that. Yes, I did take the initiative within that situation, but perhaps a better way of taking initiative would be to give them one last pour of water, or tell the hostess that the table is almost free. Taking initiative does not mean running around looking for things to do, it means thoughtfully observing and noticing where areas could be improved on, or what the right next step would be.
However, despite the risks of taking initiative that one will eventually come into contact with (some other disastrous personal example include: spilling a glass of water all over a table during a jazz performance, getting scolded by a guest to not clean the table next to them while they were eating, accidentally mis-seating a weekly regular at his favorite table…) it’s important to pick yourself up and continue making mistakes, taking initiative, and growing as a team member.
This idea of team members is another Danny Meyer belief that when working at a restaurant, the incorrect way of doing your job is thinking how you can better yourself. The best way for an employee to succeed is to think of the team as a whole, from the chefs, servers, food runners, server support, hosts, vendors, investors, and to the business as a whole. When thinking as a team, everyone benefits.
I decided to make it a personal mission of mine to take initiative in a way that may not directly impact my job, but still make a difference in my mind. I didn’t want to go through this 8 week internship thinking, “I’m never going to see these people again,” but instead to create connections and foster real relationships with my teammates. For me, this began with a timid “Uh… Do you have Instagram?” to eventually seeing some theater and music gigs of fellow staff, to hanging out with them outside of work! Taking the initiative to create these connections improved my work relations, helping to immerse myself within the team and continue to support the family-minded culture of USHG staff.
After what seems to have taken forever to reach the bathroom stalls, my anxiety melts to soft relief as I see a couple scattered paper towels and wet patches on the floor. Nothing major. Without a single grimace or look of disgust, I pull the disposable gloves out the bottom cabinet, tidy the bathroom and continue going about my day.
It’s funny; I’ve seen and heard that at some jobs it’s common to murmur, “Well if I don’t do it, no one else will.” But for me, and every other Blue Smoke team member, the thought is “Well if I don’t do it, someone else will!” This simple mindset of giving instead of taking is what motivates me every day to take the initiative and be my own leader within the USHG team.