- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 6, 2004

‘Tis the season of the annual Bastille Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Officially on July 14, this year, Les Halles restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue, will host the famous celebration and exciting waiter race this Friday, July 9. Produced by Brotman-Winter-Fried, this festival has become a D.C. tradition and a “must attend” for tourists, workers on lunch, and all waiters as they can win prizes such as luxury weekends at Ritz-Carlton locations and sky-diving trips when they participate and win, place or show in the race.

Last week, I sat down with Philippe Lajaunie, owner of the popular Brasserie Les Halles on Pennsylvania Avenue, and three other Les Halles restaurants in New York and Miami. A career restaurateur for over twenty years, I asked Philippe about his success and what advice he could offer others who are working in the business or considering it as a profession.

In restaurants, glamour is at the top so how do you hire for the other positions?

Over the years, we have hired hundreds and hundreds of employees for every job from dishwasher to bartender to assistant chef to waiter/waitress. It continues to be our biggest challenge and here’s why. We have our career maitre’ds, wait staff, and chefs who get to know their customers and understand how important the dining experience must be for a patron to return — but most restaurant work is non-career positions. For this reason, we spend most of our energy training staff and retraining. Some who are serious and want to start from the bottom up, often discover it isn’t what they thought it was . So, turnover is high and hiring staff is a constant in the restaurant business.

What pecentage of restaurants workers are making it a career?

Approximately 40% of the people we hire are professionals who will stay with us long term, while another 30% are professionals who move on to other opportunities in the industry, such as hotel jobs. About 25% of employees are career opportunists, pursuing whatever job suits their needs at the moment - such as students. Lastly, around 5% will leave to try and open their own place (with our blessings of course!)

What is the importance of the Bastille Day Celebration?

In France, the several mile race and parade was started for the purpose of celebrating workers’ pride. At Les Halles, we are keeping this tradition. Our event is a fun nod to the industry, so very motivating for those that participate in the Waiter/Waitress Race and in the Chefs’ Race. Our sponsors this year include Kronenbourg 1664, Bordeaux Wine Region and Evian products.

How do you produce this annual Parade?

We don’t do it alone. With the help of Brotman-Winter-Fried (www.specialevent.com), we have been able to bring together a variety of performers including musicians, DJ, costumed French look-a-likes, magicians, and local personalities. BWF also builds the staging next to our patio seating, works with the city officials to close off the streets for safety during the Waiter race, and helps us find corporate sponsors who believe in the tradition.

What is required to be successful in the restaurant business?

First, is to start educated and over-capitalized! This business requires boundless energy for your staff and patrons. One must be a great motivator, have a keen eye for good people, accept people’s flaws and work at improving their skills and emphasizing their positive qualities.

What tips would you give to restaurant owner wannabees?

It is essential to understand the Big Three: food quality, genial service, and the theater effects (such as dcor, ambiance, marketing and promotions - the elements that give a restaurant it’s character). A restaurateur must understand that one guest’s satisfaction is directly or indirectly dependent on a chain of about 12 to 14 people, from receptionist to bartender, waiter to bussers and salad prep to chef and pastry chef, etc…. If one element fails, it could spoil the guests’ entire experience! There is a long way between the restaurateur’s vision and what is being delivered to each and every guest. There is no statistical approach in this business.

With so much that must go right, do you recommend this career to others?

Wholeheartedly! My advice for those interested in pursuing the dream of owning a restaurant is to do it! If you get it right, there will never be anything else more satisfying. It is a unique, rewarding career and an incomparable observation post on your fellow humans.

Jay Whitehead is America’s most-read, most-watched and most-listened-to expert on workstyles. Email your questions to [email protected]

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