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 Peter Waters, a restaurateur who gave up the “safe” corporate world for the restaurant industry.

I used to joke that I was showing up at my job just to keep the lights on. Then, one morning, I realized I’d rather wake up in the dark than go to work one more day.

The corporate job wasn’t terrible. I worked mostly from a home office and could sneak away for a quick afternoon run, as long as my computer was on and I feigned I was online. But I was living from a script: Wake up. Follow up on warm leads. Cold call. Follow through with scheduled presentations. I sold conference phones. And tried to circumvent the inevitable question at social gatherings of: What do you do for a living? when people asked.

I hadn’t worked in a restaurant for over 10 years, and even that experience was a mere one-year stint as a server in Aspen while I was ski bumming in my early 20s. I knew nothing about bartending or restaurant marketing.

So the day of that epiphany I quit my corporate job, and started along a transformative stage in life that’s landed me where I am today: an operating partner at a successful urban taqueria in Boulder, Colorado.

Living in Boulder, there are many entrepreneurial and technology types doing new work. I connected with some friends who were in the throes of opening a small series of restaurants around Denver and Boulder, and convinced them to hire me as both a bartender and a sort of in-house marketer who could help drum up some clientele based on my personal network.

I hadn’t worked in a restaurant for over 10 years, and even that experience was a mere one-year stint as a server in Aspen while I was ski bumming in my early 20s. I knew nothing about bartending or restaurant marketing.

But I convinced them. The restaurant, T/aco (pronounced tee-ako) opened in May 2012 with me manning the bar. Over the next six months our operations failed fast. It culminated when our executive chef and general manager — battling personal conflicts between each other — both up and left in the same week.

I was the lone survivor. But I was determined to see this through.

I was forced to learn more in the next few weeks than I had learned in the past 10 years of corporate drudgery. I threw myself into my work. I found myself standing in the kitchen with my cooking staff needing to order food: cilantro, cheese, tortillas. I needed staff, and dishes, and a process. At times it was a forced scramble. We were flying the plane while constructing it.

But man, I remember those times with a haloed effect. They glowed.

I took the restaurant, which at one point was functioning like a glorified lemonade stand, and transformed it to a quality establishment with a regular clientele.

I worked tightly with our kitchen staff to make improvements. We wanted tastier tortillas and so we learned where to source non-GMO corn directly from the farm to mill our own masa, daily. We wanted a better outdoor seating section, so I built a deck. The interior decor was lackluster, so I hand collected refurbished wood and installed wood paneling in our dining room.

I needed staff, and dishes, and a process. At times it was a forced scramble. We were flying the plane while constructing it.

Our original founders noticed the personal impact I was making, and eventually brought me on as not only a revenue partner, but an equitable operating partner, and I stepped up into the co-founder role.

I found my career.

In the corporate world, I worked 50 weeks a year solely in anticipation of the two weeks of vacation time. In the restaurant, I actually work more. I put in more hours, and work seven days a week. But I love doing it. I love seeing our customers and talking with them. I love that our staff is happy. And I love that I never dream about my next vacation.

Our co-founder team is working on our next play. We’re toying around with things like canning our margaritas or jarring our salsas. I’m beyond excited to continue my learning into this new space.

There’s no doubt restaurant work is hard, and I clock many hours at T/aco. But for me, it’s a career that just feels right. It clicks. Like a light suddenly turned on.

Written by
Long-term Boulder resident, Peter Waters has consumed 15,000 tacos since opening up T/aco in the Spring of 2012. When he is not spending most of his waking hours at the restaurant he enjoys eating at some of his favorite local restaurants, collaborating on future dreams, supporting local entrepreneurs and nerding out at local tech meet-ups.
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