In our series “Jump-start Your Job Search,” BU Today brings you short interviews with BU alums who are leaders in their fields, such as banking, advertising, tech start-ups, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.
They talk about how they got to be where they are and what they’ve learned from their mistakes. They tell us what they look for when hiring and offer advice for those just embarking on a career.
This week our featured alum is Eric Aulenback (COM’92), a partner at Broadway Restaurant Group, a company with more than 400 employees. He and his partners co-own four South Boston hot spots: Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, Loco Taqueria, Capo Restaurant, and Fat Baby Sushi. In addition, Aulenback owns several other eateries, including Monument Restaurant & Tavern in Charlestown, Lucky’s Lounge in Fort Point, Harvard Gardens on Beacon Hill, the Back Bay Social Club, and Dorchester restaurant and tavern 224 Boston.
Aulenback learned the restaurant and nightclub trade while working as an executive assistant and right-hand man to Patrick Lyons, whose Lyons Group has been a driving force in the region’s restaurant scene for decades.
The Broadway Restaurant Group partners opened their first venture, Lincoln Tavern, in 2012, followed in short order by three other community-based restaurants.
BU Today spoke with Aulenback about how the College of Communication prepared him for a career in the hospitality industry, what he looks for when interviewing potential employees, the biggest obstacle in working in the restaurant business, and the lessons he’s learned from two and a half decades in the industry.
BU Today: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the restaurant business?
Aulenback: Despite working as a pizza and line cook in college and a bouncer and barback after college, I never considered a career in hospitality. I didn’t know I wanted to be in the restaurant business until 1993, when I was hired by Patrick Lyons as his executive assistant, to be his right hand for the design, build-out, and launch of his first full-service establishment, Sonsie restaurant on Newbury Street. I got to be a fly on the wall for every meeting about design and construction, the purchasing of our furniture, fixtures, and equipment, the recruitment and hiring of our GM, chef, and the entire staff, as well as the development of the menu, atmosphere, and vibe. I also attended neighborhood and Licensing Board meetings and assisted in the development of opening marketing and public relations strategies, opening parties, and the official launch.
I worked at Sonsie as the marketing director and dining room manager for its first year. Sonsie restaurant was a slam-dunk success right out of the gate, which was a great feeling that I got hooked on immediately.
How did you end up working for Patrick Lyons?
I had worked at Zanzibar, a nightclub owned by Lyons in Boylston Place in the theater district, as a doorman while I was at BU. (The musician Prince and Kevin Costner were among the guests.) I went on to intern in marketing in their offices. I considered taking another internship, when Lyons himself asked me, ‘Who are you and what do you want? I just signed a lease on my first restaurant and I want it to work. I want someone who’s going to work really hard, and I don’t mean 9 to 5.” That was Sonsie.
What advice would you give new college graduates about becoming a restaurateur?
First the bad news: with over 11,000 restaurants in greater Boston, being successful in the restaurant business has never been more difficult. The cost of liquor licenses, construction, kitchen labor, and rents are at an all-time high. Despite these challenges, restaurants keep opening at a staggering rate, which has oversaturated many areas in Boston.
The good news for college graduates is that the influx of restaurant openings has created many opportunities for them to break into the industry. My advice is twofold. First, get any entry-level job in a restaurant you love. Be a server, host, bartender, barback, or food runner. This will give you a taste of what it’s like to be a soldier on the front line of the business and will serve you well if you ever become a general manager. Second, get an internship with a restaurant group that you admire, and work with the owner, general manager, or director of operations. Get acquainted with the jobs at the top and the lifestyles that go with them. There’s no sense climbing the ladder if you don’t like what’s waiting for you on the rooftop.
What questions do you ask job candidates during an interview?
There is one question we ask at every interview: “What would be your last meal?” We’re not looking for them to say “Loco’s chipotle-lime chicken taco,” or “Capo’s meatballs”—meals we serve. We’re looking to hear what they’re passionate about. Maybe they’d want their grandmother’s roast, or perhaps a slice of pizza from a local joint that’s open until 1 am. We want to form a connection with the candidate on a personal level and open up an opportunity for them to reflect on the experiences they’ve had with food and hospitality.
What are the qualities you look for when interviewing prospective employees? What are the deal breakers?
Our company hires people with the right personality for hospitality rather than looking solely at the technical skills they might have acquired. The qualities we look for in people revolve around emotional intelligence competencies: positive attitude, flexibility, caring, motivation, empathy, self-awareness, authenticity, and leadership potential. Ultimately, we are looking for people who want to thrive in a company committed to having a positive work environment (internal hospitality amongst our team), which allows our team to extend hospitality to our guests. We steer clear from narcissism and negativity, both of which can become contagious and contaminate our culture.
What are some common mistakes that young employees make?
One mistake that young employees make is using the phrase “but that’s not my job” or “that’s not in my job description.” Job descriptions should be treated as a broad overview of what you’ll do in your position, but it shouldn’t be treated as a limit to what you should expect to do. We value teamwork, and when we’re working on a project or setting up a restaurant for dinner service, it’s expected that you’ll pitch in where needed.
What advice would you give an employee for the first day on the job, and for the first six months?
On the first day of work, we give all new hires a list of rules to live by. There are only 10 rules in total and they’re incredibly straightforward, but they’re a guide to how we operate and how to be successful. The list includes rules like “Throw a party,” because we value the guest experience, and “Have fun,” because we want people to enjoy their work, as well as rules like “Fail hard, fail fast,” so that our team is empowered to try new things and come up with creative solutions.
“The other fellow first” is also high on the list, because we value teamwork and each other’s contributions to our success. We also include “Never lose your swagger,” because we hire cool, hard-working people and we want them to express themselves and their personality—that’s what makes us unique.
Who has had the greatest influence on your career, and what did you learn from that person?
My experience at the College of Communication, unbeknownst to me at the time, provided me with a very strong foundation of skills I have been able to use throughout my restaurant career. Advertising, journalism, and public relations courses helped me understand the need to communicate a clear message about what experiences our restaurant concepts offer customers, so we can find a spot in the Rolodex of the consumer’s mind.
The greatest career influence at BU came from a public speaking course I took with Marilyn Root [former COM associate dean], where I learned two important life and career lessons. Number one, passion for the topic is an essential ingredient for a successful speech, which later became my metric for choosing a career. Number two, relevance, or the ability to communicate about a subject in a way that helps others relate, experience their own passion, and join me in my admiration or dedication to a topic or cause. Long story short—one speech class guided my career path from finance to hospitality and gave me the verbal communication skills to lead others in the hospitality industry. Thanks, Dr. Root!
My hospitality career has been most influenced by Patrick Lyons, and working for the Lyons Group, which operates King’s dining and bowling, Scampo, Jasper White’s Summer Shack, and many other regional dining spots. When it comes to the how-to nuts and bolts of the business, there was more learning in those years working with him than most hospitality professionals are exposed to in a lifetime. The things I learned from him were on a creative, esoteric level; they were real insider tricks of the trade. Patrick has a method of studying trends, identifying market needs, and creating strong concepts. He taught me to consider every small detail regarding design in a restaurant: what will a customer be looking at from each and every seat in the restaurant? How will the ambient lighting make a customer look? What soundtrack will create the vibe for the restaurant?
He had a unique approach to Sonsie restaurant, which featured nightclub elements and yielded something new for Boston: a fusion type of restaurant that offered a social experience side by side with good food. Creating a restaurant is a lot like making a motion picture, except when you’re ready to shoot, it turns into a Broadway play at the last minute. You go live with an audience, are rated and reviewed based on each performance, and have to improvise quickly to make things work. You may have planned out each and every detail, but it evolves and changes once it’s opened.
Are there mistakes you’ve made during your career, and if so, what lessons have you learned from them?
I have made countless mistakes during my 25 years in the restaurant business. Mistakes have had powerful learning opportunities attached to them, which have guided my growth and evolution as a restaurateur. Mistakes in the restaurant business need to be quickly processed into adjustments and permanent improvements.
Do you have to be a night owl to succeed in this business?
That’s the biggest stumbling block for people trying to break into the business.
For me, it was both easy and difficult. I missed a couple of really key weddings back when I was starting out, and you give up a lot by stepping into this industry in terms of your personal time on weekends. But what’s great about working in the industry is that you come into a company where everyone is in your age group and they’re in the same boat. When you leave the womb of high school and college, that’s one of the hardest times in your life, but restaurants offer their own sense of community. In Southie, there’s a collegiate feel. I love to see that.
Are you an alum who would like to be interviewed for BU Today’s “Jump-start Your Job Search” series? Email John O’Rourke at email@example.com.
Read other stories in our “Jump-start Your Job Search” series here.
July 13, 2020
February 28, 2020
December 11, 2019