Interview with James Carpenter, Restaurant Manager

Interview with James Carpenter, Restaurant Manager

Hospitality management taught James Carpenter the managerial skills he has used throughout his career – from managing one of the largest chain restaurants in Indianapolis to research management for the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau to online marketing management.

Carpenter holds a bachelor's degree in hospitality and tourism management from Purdue University in Indiana.

Education Information & Advice

What drew you to study hospitality management in the first place?

Growing up, I've always had a fascination with the tourism industry, from my early pre-teen visits to Disney World to running smaller association meetings during college. When I started at Purdue, I entered as a chemistry major, and quickly found myself "bored" stuck in the lab for 3 hours a day.  So I looked around at several other majors and discovered that Purdue had one of the leading hospitality programs in the nation, and that the majority of their undergrad classes are taught by experienced faculty in the industry. (For example, I had a professor who was part of the opening consulting team of the Bellagio in Vegas.) 

What did you look for when choosing a Hospitality Management program? What factors should prospective students consider?

  1. Class Size
    This is especially helpful for the  finance-related courses.
  2. Availability of Faculty
    As an undergrad, I was able to help my marketing professor edit and do case study research for his next book
  3. Broad Reach of Programs
    When I first entered into the hospitality program, I really didn't know what I wanted to specialize in.  I took classes in golf club management, wine tasting, timeshare real estate and information technology (back in 1997, this was a new concept.) In what other major can you get such a broad education before figuring out what you want to be when you grow up?

Which classes were most valuable to your career in the hospitality industry?

  1. Accounting/Financial Management – need this just to survive when talking about Cost/Inventory controls
  2. Human Resources – don't concentrate too much on the "law" part of this course, just the "wrongs vs rights" part
  3. Wine Tasting/Beverage Management – just for the fun of it, but it really is hard work!

How necessary are internships in hospitality management? Any tips for seeking out (and landing) one?

I did three internships while in college (Front Desk, Hotel Sales, Restaurant Management). Why?  Because every professor I had said "get experience". 

I didn't realize the real "why" until I started interviewing for my first job out of college.  Imagine yourself a recent graduate, then 9-11 happens! No one in "travel" was hiring.  So, I was competing for ANY job out there.  The internship experiences gave me something different to talk about rather than "class projects" or "my GPA". Although those are important factors in getting an interview, remember everyone has similar project experiences (i.e., "I was the team leader"). By talking about real life situations and how I handled them, I was able to get four job offers in a VERY tough economy. Sounds familiar in today's world.

Tips on landing an internship -- Obviously, check out your school's career center, but remember EVERYONE in your class is doing the same thing.  Instead, research companies that don't come to your school for interviews and contact them directly.

My first "internship" was at a small 40-room hotel where I contacted the manager and told them I will do anything!  And that's what I did -- front desk, housekeeping, breakfast setup, maintenance, swimming pool clean-up, and other tasks. I learned more about running a hotel that summer than working as an official "intern" the next summer at a 2000-room hotel in downtown Chicago.

The Hospitality Management Industry & Your Career

Tell us about your hospitality management career. How did you get started? What did you do?

After I graduated from college with a degree in hospitality and tourism management, I took my first position in Darden's (Red Lobster, Olive Garden) Management Training Program.  After the three-month training, I was placed at the largest Red Lobster restaurant in Indianapolis, Ind., as the Front of the House Manager.  After about two years in this position, I relocated to Chicago to take a position as a Meeting/Convention Services Coordinator at the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau (CCTB), working in an account management role with meeting planners on increasing attendance through city-wide marketing initiatives.  Later at the CCTB, I was promoted to Assistant Manager of Research, where I led projects relating to visitor/convention data, city competitive analytics and city revenue impacts from Chicago tourism efforts.

What was your biggest challenge as a restaurant manager?

Inexperience! Funny thing about the restaurant industry is that no matter the training you get in school and the internships you have, nothing prepares you for the first time you as a 23-year old manager have to look at a server with 15 years of experience and tell them they are doing their job wrong!

What did you enjoy the most?

Control over your own business. Most people in the restaurant industry will tell you "it's the people industry" that makes it most enjoyable.  Even though this is true, that can only take you so far (because sometimes the public isn't so fun to work with! ).  I enjoyed the fact that in this industry, no matter what size of a restaurant you work for, whether it's a family-owned bistro or franchise of larger corporation, you as a manager have the full sense of what it takes to run your own business.  I was responsible for financials, staffing/human resources, inventory control, training, food quality, sanitation and most of all, making people happy.

You have moved on from restaurant management to online marketing. What lessons from hospitality or restaurant management do you still use in your career?

The most important lesson from my hospitality experience that I have used in my current role in online marketing is the ability to recover from mistakes.

In any fast-paced job where situations arise at any moment, you must be able to make decisions, act on those decisions and evaluate the outcomes.  What do you do when your head line cook walks out in the middle of a Friday night dinner service because you yelled at him about an undercooked piece of fish?  You react immediately to keep things moving.  You can't go to a meeting, discuss what you're going to do, put together a 6-month plan and then react.  In my current role in marketing, I make mistakes, but it's how I recover from them that makes the difference between succeeding and failing.

Do you have any other advice for someone thinking about a hospitality management degree and career?

Be ready for anything! In today's economy, the travel industry adapts to almost any situation faster than any other segment out there.  You have to have the base knowledge you get in school, but also the "on your feet" mentality to survive the roughest days (Mother's Day is the WORST – you go in at 8am and don't leave until midnight!!!).  However, when you can count more "good days" than "bad days" you will have a successful career ahead of you!

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