The Restaurant Scene Fed My Addictions. Now It’s Giving Me Purpose.

This is a column in a series from Upserve called “Restaurant Voices,” which features firsthand experiences and lessons from people working within the restaurant industry. Each column in the series describes a specific turning point or moment for restaurateurs that changed or defined their careers. This column is by Ted Ripko, a 25-year industry veteran.

In hindsight, the turning point in my career probably should have happened 25 years ago.

I was 17, a busser who could clear dishes and reset tables faster than anyone – when it was busy. Slow nights I slacked off. Then a manager I respected pulled me aside and said, “There’s no doubt about your ability, but you can’t only be good when we’re busy, you need to be good all the time.”

The conversation stuck with me, but I wish I could say the lesson stuck. The reality is my years in restaurants led to a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse. And now, sober and in a new stage of my career, the restaurant is where I’m looking for transformation.

Anyone who started out in the restaurant scene when I did – the early 90’s – knows how much it’s changed. Back then, being a part of a restaurant staff meant being part of the party—which really, never stopped.

The reality is my years in restaurants led to a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse. And now, sober and in a new stage of my career, the restaurant is where I’m looking for transformation.

You worked alongside a team of say, 20 or 30 people, all of whom were inextricably tied to your success. Those interdependencies meant you ended up building friendships at work, and we often hung out all together after work, too. Drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes were rampant, and fun, and in a lot of ways central to the culture. Partying was half of the reason we loved our jobs, and at least a third of where all our money went.

Managers permitted smoking breaks. Many of us started smoking just to get those precious minutes of freedom from the floor. Those short breaks became a 20-year addiction. And cigarettes were just the start. I was addicted to the whole scene: the drugs, the alcohol, the parties, and the jocular back-and-forth banter on the floor that occurred between friends.

When I was drinking and doing drugs I was fine. I was getting by. But in hindsight, I was never truly doing my best. I wasn’t striving to do my best. I was doing what I had to do to get people off my back.

But even then, through the fog of drink and drugs, that influential manager’s words from when I was 17 were ringing. I was just doing “enough.”

At 22 I became a manager in a large national chain. Eventually, I moved off the floor and into a corporate role as a coordinator of operations and training. But even then, through the fog of drink and drugs, that influential manager’s words from when I was 17 were ringing. I was just doing “enough.”

Last year, I got a new chance.

I was offered a new position as general manager for Hub & Spoke Diner in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was an opportunity to take an eatery with all the right ingredients – good staff, great food – and transform the service. At the time, Yelp reviews revealed about 50% of people ranked the establishment positively, and 50% ranked it negatively. That almost never happens for food establishments. It seemed the restaurant was at a tipping point. So was I.

We made fast, strategic decisions to improve the quality and consistency of our guest experience. We reduced our dining room size in an effort to relieve the burden on the kitchen. We opened an outdoor porch to expand guest waiting room space. The effects were immediate: faster ticket times, growing brunch crowds, increased sales, and happier guests. Yelp and other online reviews became 9 to 1 positive to negative.

The bigger changes were cultural. And they were directly related to my personal growth. I knew that to keep the new level of satisfaction felt by both our guests and our staff, I had to embed a culture of respect, honor, and support for personal growth. This where I feel my “real work” has gone, and maybe represents some of the best restaurant work of my career.

I knew that to keep the new level of satisfaction felt by both our guests and our staff, I had to embed a culture of respect, honor, and support for personal growth.

The cultural shifts we’ve adopted has not only supported our team to lead a healthier life, but has also supported my new sobriety, now 6 months in the making.

In a restaurant, you may be busting your butt to grab a slice of lemon, or rushing to ensure an omelet doesn’t have onions before it makes it to table 11. Those may seem trivial but only a culture of integrity, where showing up and doing your best is expected all the time, can deliver service that stands out.

Maybe I could have learned that lesson earlier if I hadn’t got lost in the restaurant scene, and instead focused on the restaurant culture. But it’s sunk in now. And I’m ready to meet the challenge.

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Ted Ripko
Written by
Ted lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and two boys. He's worked in the restaurant industry for 25 years, scoring his first gig at the age of 15. He spent his first 13 years with corporate restaurant chains, specifically Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. However, he's recently have found a new home in privately owned restaurant groups and loves it.