‘It is a truly emotional connection and not just a job for me’ – Restaurateur Elaine Murphy on Love Your Work
23rd Jul 2018
Women are making their mark in the world of business like never before. In every industry and at every level, we look to women who’ve made it their own as an example for us to do the same. For our latest series, entitled ‘Love Your Work‘, we ask women who have achieved stunning success in their field to tell us how they got there, and their advice on how we can join them.
We all love a great meal out, but running the restaurant serving it is a different story. Elaine Murphy, director of the Winding Stair Group is passionate about shining a spotlight on the best of Irish food and drink, and the best restaurants to boot. But the glamorous image of a restaurateurs’ life can be far from the truth – here, Elaine discusses her daily routine (or lack thereof), where her dreams originally lay and the most important part of her job.
What was your favourite subject in school?
I loved school in its totality! The only subject I disliked was PE. I’m much more cerebral than physical (apart from dancing) and I loved English, history, music, all the sciences, maths, languages – I loved everything, just nothing sporty.
What was your first job, and what other jobs have you had since?
My first job was baking cakes for a wonderful café on North Great George’s Street called The Georgian Tearooms. I started when I was 12 or 13, baking at home and delivering the cakes and ended up working there as a waiter later. The owners went on to open an Italian restaurant on Fade street (the site of L’Gueuleton), and I worked there for many years; as a waiter, chief bottle washer and even played the piano. I worked in some pretty diverse and interesting jobs over the years – in factories in Munich; as a cleaner in multinational corporations; housekeeping in luxury hotels in Berlin; insurance in San Francisco. They were all hugely character-building and gave me a big insight into the challenges of working in the low-paid, physically tough and decidedly unglamorous side of outwardly glamorous industries. I certainly have not forgotten that, and I hope it has informed my practices as a fair employer. Throughout my Trinity years, I remained in hospitality and fell ever more deeply in love with it, eventually going on to manage the two most influential restaurants of my career, both to my career and to the restaurant scene in Ireland – the 101 Talbot and The Mermaid Café.
What does your daily routine look like?
That’s quite an amusing question, as I’m sure anyone in hospitality will agree! ‘Routine’ is a word not synonymous with running restaurants! It changes from day-to-day (based on whichever catastrophic events may have taken place) but I normally try to start the day by checking on the previous night’s activity in each of the restaurants. We have some decent software now, which means we are very ‘connected’ and can see activity and revenue reports live. I will start my mornings at home for a few hours, checking emails and making a plan for the day, before checking our social media platforms (15 in total) and checking for restaurant/food/hospitality news or any mentions, accolades or attention worthy of sharing. I will also look for new restaurant postings or interesting developments in the food world. When I arrive at the office, there is always a pressing issue; either staff, food, logistics, operational, press, media, HR or any number of unforeseen issues! There is always website or menu updates, press requests, meetings with builders, suppliers, staff members, roster analysis, financial reviewing and forecasting, design issues, marketing decisions, food tastings…the list goes on and on. But it changes, as I said, based on the many surprise happenings of the previous evening.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
The favourite part for me is making a difference in our staff’s lives – allowing them to progress, watching them grow creatively (not always in hospitality but always facilitated by hospitality), being a solid base and a reliable and steady constant in their lives, particularly if the outside world is a challenging space for them. Of course, second to that is the unequalled feeling of a room full of happy diners. A night where you have made a customer happy and have a sense of a welcoming space for staff and customers alike is amazing. The sense of achievement on opening night is also wonderful for me. Seeing the labour of love in design and concept development and seeing it reach fruition is wonderful. It is a truly emotional connection and not just a job for me.
What’s your least favourite part?
My least favourite part is probably connected to that emotional connection. Any creative industry is highly personal and criticism is extremely personally affecting. With so many chain and group roll-outs happening in Dublin, people forget that many of us smaller restaurateurs, even ones with more than one restaurant, have a deeply personal connection to them. They are labours of love and are like my children and so constant commentary and criticism weighs heavily.
What are the key skills you need to make it in your industry?
Passion is the most important factor. It’s not the glamorous life that many people believe it to be, and so you really must remain in love with what you do, as well as learning and honing your craft and knowing what you don’t know. Your staff are your most precious asset so treasure them and treat them well. Make sure that your door (and heart) is always open to them.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned for success in your career?
I think being clear about your identity is incredibly important. Know who you are and what you do and stay true to that. You can’t be all things to all people. Never apologise for being passionate and even emotional about your vision because this is what sets you apart from others. Don’t ask any of your staff to do something you haven’t or won’t do yourself. Spend a lot of time at the restaurant before you ‘take a step back’, but know when and how to do this if you need to. Try to involve yourself in as many aspects of the restaurant as you can but try not to micro-manage – it’s hard to find that balance.
Pay as little attention to review sites and reviews as you professionally can, but be close to your product so that nothing comes as a surprise.
Your customers’ opinions are as valid as your own and though I don’t agree with the idiom that they are always right, they should always be and feel listened to and heard. Whether or not you agree with a complaint, you should always invite them back and give them a chance to change their mind and give yourself a chance to put it right.
Good service can make good a bad food experience.
Hospitality. Hospitality. Hospitality.
Love food in all its guises, shapes and sizes.
What do you wish you knew when you were starting your career?
I wish I had looked after my knees. I also wish I had married a good kitchen porter and kept him on a retainer.
What’s the number one piece of advice you would give to young people starting out who want to follow in your footsteps?
Actually, I think it’s more important to ask questions than give advice! You may not be cut out for the industry. It’s hard, sweaty, late, unhealthy and tough as nails. You will not get rich. You will most likely not get famous. You will get bad knees and calloused hands. Will you still love it?
Most importantly, work in a restaurant first. As a chef, as a porter, as a waiter, and as a manager. Deal with a full restaurant, on a full moon, with a water shortage, a power-outage, a no-show chef, an un-accounted-for booking, a boorish host, a broken toilet, a kitchen porter walk-out and a valued concierge on the phone demanding a table for a ‘VIP’. Are you still in? Do you love people? If the answer is yes, then go for it.
Elaine Murphy is Director of The Winding Stair Group. The group are celebrating two recent wins at The Legal Eagle including Best Gastro Pub at the RAI Awards and most recently a Wine Spectator 2018 Award of Excellence – the only pub in the country to win such a prestigious wine award.
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