John Gargano

John Gargano

General Manger at Craft

My post-incarceration life has been about providing opportunities for those who might not otherwise have them. From the back waiters who have been stuck in the same position for 10 years here at Craft, to the developmentally disabled adults we employ with our partner Smile Farms, to the justice impacted applicants that come our way through DRIVE CHANGE, each representing a segment of what I call the “Unconventional Workforce”. I asked my classmates during my ’21 Commencement Speech at NYU-SPS, to “Make life bigger than self”, this is the guiding principle that has driven me to uncover those workers who have the motivation and the thirst to take on larger roles in the organization and help us delivery great guest experiences each night at 5 PM when the “Show” begins.

Changing a person's life is the most rewarding thing one can experience I agree, we are not performing brain surgery, or building nuclear weapons, but as a hiring manager or a General Manager in this industry you meet many types of individuals. Some striving for careers in other industries, college kids looking for a direction, young kids from disadvantaged communities, and lifers who make this industry their passion. In each of these instances, we have the ability to provide them with a career, a way to earn a decent living without breaking laws or committing crimes. Each time I see the face on a young staffer who just made more money than they ever have before, it pleases me. Call it retribution if you may, retribution to a criminal justice system that has stripped many just like myself of dignity, freedom, and opportunity.
Empathy and compassion are two crucial ingredients to effective Human Resource Management. If you don’t understand your workers, if you cannot put yourself in their shoes to realize what it is they need or what it is that they desire, you will fail, your restaurant will fail and your strategy to create great guest experiences will fail. Many leaders are too wrapped up in protecting their own positions or attempting to protect the status quo. Alternative ideas, conflicting opinions, and different perspectives are always healthier than blind leadership. Barack Obama filled his cabinet with leaders from both parties because he wanted a healthy debate on important issues.
Self-reflection and humility are great attributes of every leader. After each shift, I always self-reflect, thinking over my words and my decisions to see if I could have delivered my message more precise, or if I should have waited to correct a captain about a service issue. Time and place are key factors in leading your team. When I find myself being wrong, or making a bad choice, my humility allows me to correct those issues and clear the air.
“Every Guest, Every Night” that’s my modus operandi. I was taught this by Chef Georges Perrier at Brasserie Perrier in the late 90’s early 2000’s. I remember it like it was yesterday, the Chicago Blackhawks just won the Stanley Cup and they were in the private dining room. The culinary team had fired 21 lobsters, but it was supposed to be 22. Chef lost it, screaming in three languages, told the Chef De Cuisine to fire 22 new lobsters. Then he took two or three magnums of Champagne with Roseann (who was the General Manager) and they went upstairs to keep the team entertained while their meals were getting re-fired. At the end of the night, nobody knew what happened. Georges protected the ultimate commandment, “Every Guest, Every Night”.
The biggest lessons I have learned in my career is that as a hospitality professional, we never really know what is going on in the lives of our guests. One example of this follows... I was working at Riverpark, one Sunday afternoon in the winter right before a widely broadcasted winter storm warning. We had one table of five on the reservation list, all others had cancelled. There was talk of calling them and asking them to reschedule or send them elsewhere. Chef and I said we would stay and take care of them. The guests came and left, without much hype or remarkable event. Three days later, I received a call from the host that evening to thank us for a great experience. I will remember his words forever. “John, I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful service and food you delivered the other night. You did not know it at the time, but the lady with the pink hat, my aunt, died this morning and her last wish was to eat dinner along the East River. You guys killed it and our family will be forever grateful.”
Another example…. One night, I was closing the restaurant and the phone rang. Now, this was at 2 AM as Riverpark was known for late evening events and contracted affairs. I answered the phone to an upset guest who had ordered a gift certificate from Guest Relations, and it was supposed to have been mailed to his aging mother for a lunch event the next morning. His mother was a huge “Top Chef” fan and she was coming in to lunch with her three best friends, all retired and this was supposed to be a very celebratory event that he wanted to pay for. I took it upon myself to create the gift card and drop it off to his mother’s house on the Upper East Side on my way home. I left it with her doorman and she received the gift certificate the following morning. When she arrived the next day, we had special menus printed with her name on them, a birthday greeting and Chef’s signature. We also gifted her a book called “The Craft of Cooking”, also signed by Tom. Four months later I received a thank you letter, I still have it, from the same guest who called me. It read “thank you for all of the special attention you gave my mother, it was the highlight of our holiday season. You did not know this, but when I called you, I was in Minnesota at The Mayo Center battling stage 4 cancer and our entire family’s spirits were not great. Your generosity and willingness to take the extra step is what got us through the season. I am now in remission and Riverpark, Tom, and you will always be in our memories as a class act.”
My Mother Penny is a giver. I speak in my @HumansofNY Instagram story about “the show” and the “givers”. All my life I have watched my mom and dad make selfless decisions to impact the lives of others. Mom would always be the one who arranged and entertained the parties during the holiday season. I remember her telling us “do not eat the shrimp cocktail until everyone else does. I want to make sure we have enough.” Of course, each time, there was more left than consumed, but Mom was always worried about the “guests,” the way the house was cleaned or decorated, each event, it was all about the “show."
A true leader understands it takes a team to be successful. Team building is paramount to continued success. Recognition and positive reinforcement, showing staff the rewards of their efforts and explaining that investing in a guest experience will go a long way.
I recently read Will Guidara’s book “Unreasonable Hospitality” – every industry worker should read this to understand the value of taking it to the next level. This not only applies to interactions with our guests, but also our staff. Cheron Cowan, our Beverage Director here at Craft, she gets “it,” always teaching the team, being the role model, and sharing the knowledge she has acquired to our newer team members each night. Leaders understand the principle of “Paying it Forward," Cheron sets the tone each day on what that looks like.
OpenTable Reservation System has been one of the most effective applications that has enabled hospitality professionals to track guest preferences, increase the aggregate covers, and to promote slower meal periods.
I regularly listen to the podcast, “Beyond the Plate” by Andrew Kaplan. I was actually featured on one of his episodes recently.
The biggest accomplishment of my career was being asked to take the reins of this timeless icon Craft, a well-respected dining institution, and guiding it into its successful new chapter. But it is not “my” accomplishment, it is “our” accomplishment – “our” being every member of this team. Many would say from the dishwashers to Tom himself. I take this a bit further and include all of our vendors, suppliers, investors and guests. On January 12th of this year (2023), under my suggestion, with a lot of help from our Director of Marketing, Meghann Longo and Tom’s Chief of Staff, Maya Land, we held the first ever “Celebration of our Guests”. We invited the 50 most frequented guests all time to join us in an evening of recognition for those guests and our vendors. The unbelievable thing is that number 50 on this list has been to Craft 674 times, the most frequented had 1,274 visits and was just again in last night. Our guests packed the room with some of our service staff that has been with us for 22 years. We invited our endeared vendors like Arcobaleno Pasta Machines, Mauviel Copper, REVOL China and Chilewhich Place Mats. It was a special occasion, Chef Michael, one of the very few members of the Back of the House who has “It”, cooked almost all of the food and plated it himself in the open kitchen of our private dining room. (Michael understands the concept of “Every Guest, Every Night”, and for that I proclaim here he will be the next rising star in a city filled with great Chefs.) At this event, we all stepped aside to recognize the value of lengthy partnerships that are mutually beneficial to all. This is exactly what Aristotle was speaking of in his quote, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." A genuine representation of how we are much stronger and much more effective as a group than we will ever be individually.
Mentorship is alive and well at Craft. Greg Tomicich, our Director of Operations, and Kelly Berg, Director of Human Resources here at Crafted, both are solid role models of being a mentor. On any given day, they might slam the door and tell you what you didn’t want to hear, or what you would never let anyone else say to you, but in the same breath support you whole heartedly. Both, challenging you to be the best version of yourself. The greatest accomplishment of my mentorship is my relationship with Saul Herrera. Saul started at Riverpark at 17 years old, moving tables and chairs for events. He had just got promoted to an event support position when I reported to my first shift at Riverpark. He trained me my first night. After that, every three months when I was promoted, he was promoted into my position, dragging him all the way up the ladder with me. One day, he will be a better General Manager than I ever was because he had a bird's eye view to the many mistakes I have made. His wisdom and knowledge at 25 is far superior to any other person of his age. Knowing I had such a positive impact on him and his trajectory is priceless. Mentorship is power, leaders who think status demands respect, they are not mentors, they will always have ever-changing teams, almost like a revolving door.
My current boss, Greg Tomicich, always told me that situations in life are not always black and white. The great managers, the ones who succeed and inspire, they are the ones who can operate within the “grey.” Understanding an employee who might not always be the perfect employee, but is always making guest experience a priority, that is what we call “grey."
To help my team avoid burnout, I negotiated a barter with Equinox Gym here by our restaurant. Each one of our managers is awarded with an all-access membership to the gym. This provides everyone with the ability to exercise and release stress from daily life and services.
It was 1998, I was working at the Bell-Hennessy Funeral home in Williamstown, New Jersey. Bell-Hennessy is owned by the Hennessy family, Bob-Diane-Bobby-and Patrick. They are like my second family. Diane Hennessy is the Webster dictionary definition of hospitality. When you lose a loved one, it is the most difficult life event to overcome. Diane has a way of just making you feel like everything is OK. A gift, Diane has what I call “it.” Having “it” is this added sense of awareness that makes one capable of knowing just what you need when you need it. Diane and I talk about this all the time. Cesar at Craft he has “it” also. The common denominator among all of us, we all experienced such pain and loss in our lives that we never want anyone else to ever experience it. This “it" whether gifted to us, cursed to us or created by us out of our own desire to never see anyone hurt like we did. “It” is the reason all three of us kill it at the occupations we chose.
My advice to any hiring manager, regardless of the sector of the economy they function in, is to think outside the box. Look at the candidate, do not judge them on their worst day or by something that is not relevant to their capabilities. When I returned home from prison, I was a 48 year old man, with 5-star dining experience, a hand-written letter of recommendation from Georges Perrier, one of the greatest Chef’s to ever step foot on American soil, and guess what… Every last chef, every last hiring manager, every last HR director would not offer me a job, many not even an interview. I was the epitome of the “Unconventional Workforce.” I charge hiring managers in this industry to think about the hundreds and thousands of unconventional workers who might deliver them the unprecedented level of success I have delivered Tom and Crafted. I plan to talk about this when I speak at the Welcome Conference in September.
My current educational path is centered on the industry – how do we make better guest experiences, where do purchasing decisions occur in the city we live, how do we refine a skill set that is long in the tooth, how do we transfer the passion and desire to please from someone experienced in it to someone who doesn’t understand it or never experienced it.
It was New Year’s Eve 2021 with a four course chef’s tasting menu. The culinary team had a rough night, we were dragging 45 minutes between courses, it was midnight and the desserts were one hour out. The band was supposed to stop at 12:30 AM and we were not going to be done with service. A complete debacle, as we all have them at times. Staff was lined up at the top of the steps going down to the kitchen. Everyone was defeated. I thought back to Brasserie Perrier and the Chicago Blackhawks, the images of Chef with those magnums of champagne saving the day. That is when I went into action. My first move, I extended the band for an hour. My next move, I gathered the leaders of the team and said this is where we become the partners to the culinary team that we are supposed to be. I handed each one a bottle of the finest champagne. I told them to do what they do, pour it, dance with the guests, make them forget the timing. The end result? A few criticisms of the timing, a few comments here and there, but no comps, no refunds, one bad review, and many return guests on NYE 2022. The moral of the story here is what Chef Perrier taught me in the late 90’s, and Danny Meyer reiterated in the early 2000’s with his “Three A’s”; it is how you handle guest complaints or imperfect services, it is what you do and say when the guest experiences the shortcoming. This is what will keep your restaurant full.

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