Climbing Hospitality’s Ladder of Opportunity.
By Paul Schlienz
Photos by Lisa Ellefson
Many people stumble into hospitality careers almost by accident. They get a summer job at a restaurant. They work their way through college at the front desk of a hotel. Attracted to the flexible hours a restaurant or a hotel can often provide, they work part time while raising a family or holding down another job. Suddenly or gradually, somewhere along the line, a light bulb switches on in their brains that they are in the right place, that they really love what they’re doing, that they are noticed and appreciated by their supervisors and their guests, and that there is room for them to grow in an actual career as they prove themselves, gaining more valuable experience along the way. What initially seemed like a temporary job turns into the first step on the ladder of a lifetime, and a career is born.
That serendipitous route to success was true for these Washington women who are now pursuing distinguished careers in our industry.
Tonya Delacruz, General Manager, Coast Gateway Hotel, SeaTac
If you want to see how someone with talent, determination and a penchant for hard work can progress on the hospitality career ladder, Tonya Delacruz is a good example.
Tonya started at Coast Gateway Hotel on the day it opened in 1990.
“I started out as a housekeeper,” Tonya recalled.
Her supervisors soon discovered that she had a “hands on-can do” attitude and was willing, on numerous occasions to work an extra shift in order to support her team, which led to her next steps on the career ladder.
“Our company likes to promote from within, so I was able to move from being a room attendant to the front desk.” said Tonya. “I had lots of different positions along the way – after working the front desk, eventually getting into office management.”
Over the course of 15 years with Coast Hotels, Tonya worked her way up to the position of general manager of the 143-room property. She has steadily grown her average daily rate, occupancy rate and revenue per available room over the last four years, and her hotel has become a major player in the three-star market in SeaTac.
“Hospitality is a great field for growth for the right kind of person,” said Tonya. “One thing that you really need if you’re going to make a hospitality career for yourself is a good work ethic. I always look for people who aren’t afraid to work hard and are very dependable and flexible.”
Tonya’s commitment to her employees, her hotel and the Coast brand, her leadership skills, and her great sense of humor are valued assets that led the Washington Lodging Association to present her with the 2015 General Manager of the Year Award in the full-service property category.
Donna Moodie, Owner, Marjorie Restaurant, Seattle
Born in Jamaica and reared in Chicago, some of Donna’s earliest memories were of her mother Marjorie’s kitchen. Marjorie’s food left a big impression on her daughter, but even more importantly, Donna saw her mother’s hospitality when she would host dinner parties, and never forgot the importance of bringing comfort and pleasure to guests at the family table.
“I started out working in a restaurant to put myself through school,” said Donna. “After college, I discovered that I liked working in restaurants so much that I just kept doing it, learning more as I went along, working in different positions at different restaurants, usually ones that were independently owned.”
After years of working in other people’s eateries, Donna felt ready to strike out on her own. In 1993, she moved to Seattle and with then husband and business partner Marco Rulff opened her first restaurant, Marco’s Supperclub, to great public acclaim. They opened a second restaurant, Lush Life, in 1997, featuring regional Italian cuisine. Like Marco’s Supperclub, it was located in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, a formerly neglected area that was being brought to life by sophisticated eateries like hers.
In 2003, Donna transformed Lush Life into Marjorie, a homage to the inspirational role her mother played in her life, featuring fresh and seasonal foods primarily grown and harvested in the Pacific Northwest. She relocated the restaurant to Capitol Hill in 2010.
In addition to being a restaurateur, Donna is president and CEO of Mint Holdings, a food and design consulting company. She is also active in community affairs and serves as a Seattle Center commissioner. She has served as well on the CD Forum and Capitol Hill Housing boards of directors.
Donna has no regrets about choosing a hospitality career.
“It’s a career to see yourself in,” Donna said. “There’s a lot of room for many kinds of talents with so many different jobs where you can gain experience, and there’s a large need for people who are knowledgeable in our field.”
While there’s much opportunity in the restaurant world, Donna discourages anyone from thinking that this is an easy career choice.
“I really enjoy what I do and find it gratifying, but you have to expect very hard work,” Donna stressed. “As well as hard work, you have to prepare to work long hours. Most importantly, you need to be passionate about what you’re doing and willing to invest in the long term. The industry is changing in many ways, and you need to be able to adapt.”
Kay Washington, Assistant General Manager, Renaissance Seattle Hotel
Kay Washington is one of the most energetic and positive persons you will ever encounter. Her enthusiasm is overwhelming and contagious even over the phone. It is easy to see how she rose to an executive position at one of downtown Seattle’s top hotels.
Although it is obvious that she is a perfect fit for her job, a hospitality career was not always her goal.
“Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse,” Kay remembered. “I was focused on jobs in the health field because I figured they wouldn’t go away.”
While studying nursing in college, she took an entry-level job at the Downtown Chicago Marriott. From there, the wheels began turning for Kay as she moved to different positions within the hotel, gaining new skills and increased responsibility. The experience was transformative as she began to see a world of potential opportunities.
“The hotel industry changed my perspective as to what I could do as an African-American,” said Kay.
Soon, without initially intending to do so, she found herself with a hospitality career.
“There comes a fork in the road where you realize you’re in the career you want to pursue, and your original goals have changed,” said Kay. “I took what was available, did what I could do and developed a resume of accomplishment.”
Throughout her 21 years as a hotelier, Kay has maintained a strong and genuine commitment to helping owners and general managers realize success at the property level. She has been promoted routinely for her efforts by demonstrating success at the department and division head level. Her accolades include recognition from Bill Marriott, Jr., executive chairman of one of the world’s largest hotel companies.
Her engagement in the industry goes beyond her day job. In 2006 Kay wanted a more convenient alternative to her hotel’s bulky cleaning cart. When she couldn’t find one, she invented the easy-to-transport Mobile-Pack, which discreetly stores cleaning products and room amenities and remains out of sight and out of guests’ way. Mobile-Pack is now used by many of the world’s leading hotels.
Kay’s advice for success?
“Be integrity driven,” she said. “Think outside the box on how you can serve your guests. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but always learn from your mistakes.”
Sarah Scott, Executive Chef, El Gaucho Bellevue
“It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s world,” James Brown first sang in 1966. There has been enormous progress in the workplace since then, but in many fields there is still a ways to go.
One of those places is in the back-of-house world of chefs, where men still significantly outnumber women in the top positions. Yet even in high-end kitchens the ceiling is cracking. And one of those who has broken through is Sarah Scott, executive chef at El Gaucho Bellevue since 2014.
Sarah’s interest in food goes back a long way. “I always loved to cook,” Sarah said.
“Growing up, I was always encouraged to try new things and experiment. My mother and I would cook together. It was a really nice family experience, and I learned a lot from it.”
When she was in college, Sarah took a job as an entry-level cook.“I just fell in love with the high-pressure environment,” Sarah recalled. “I wanted to be there for the rest of my life.”
Sarah immediately noticed the restaurant’s culture of promoting from within, and saw that it could be to her advantage in the long run.“Chefs actually prefer it if someone who starts as a dishwasher moves up in the kitchen,” she said. “You get trust and loyalty that way.”
Moving up to the chef level, however, can be difficult for women. “There are not too many females in kitchens,” said Sarah. “We are sometimes looked down upon until we prove ourselves.”
Prove herself, she did. Now executive chef at one of the region’s top restaurants, Sarah sees herself as part of a positive and growing trend. In part, she feels women are becoming interested in being chefs because of the pervasiveness of foodie culture and the glamorous image of chefs on television.
“People see this on TV and think, ‘Hey, I can do this for a living,’” she said. “More and more women are going into this field, and as they move up in the ranks, they are making a difference, and their dreams are going to come true.”
Women may still face challenges. It’s extremely demanding physical work, the hours are long and there is often a nothing-held-back culture. Yet women like Sarah are finding success in traditionally male-dominated kitchens. Her recipe?
“It all comes down to work ethic,” said Sarah. “Work as hard as you can. Always lead by example and always keep learning. Keep your head down, check on food and be the hardest working employee in the restaurant, and when you’ve finished your own work, help others.”
Jennifer Faught, Owner, Zip’s Drive-In, Spokane
Like many teenagers, Jennifer Faught’s first job was at a restaurant while she was still in high school.
“I loved the drive, the rush, the cooking, the fast pace and the customer-service orientation,” she said. “You get on-site training, and you can move on if you are eager and want to learn more. I knew I wanted to stay in the field somehow, and I kept opening up every door that came to me, leaping into it, hoping for the best, and just kept moving up with Zip’s Drive-In.”
Jennifer has done well in the hospitality industry since that first job at a Zip’s Drive-In 14 years ago. Having started as a teenage entry-level employee, she now owns her own Zip’s Drive-In in Spokane.
“My customers are the thing I enjoy most,” Jennifer said. “I love seeing people leave my restaurant satisfied. That always makes my day.”
Jennifer’s high school experience with ProStart paved the way for her satisfying career as a restaurateur.
Jennifer fondly remembers her experience with the national program that trains new generations of employees for the restaurant industry.
“When I was in ProStart, it was the passion that my teacher had that really affected me,” Jennifer said. “I came to realize that I wanted to be in hotel or restaurant management of some sort. When I got my first job at a restaurant, I knew I was in the right place. I think women do well in this field because we often are good at organization, and it is also natural for us to teach, which I’ve done a lot of throughout my career in restaurants, and I haven’t run into any discrimination against me for being a woman.”
After her own experience as a restaurateur, Jennifer is eager to get the word out to young people that there may be a wonderful career future for them in our industry if they are willing to put in some hard work.
“Don’t listen to people who don’t like our industry or think there’s no opportunity in it,” she said. “There are many opportunities in the restaurant field that I don’t think people are aware of. It does take a lot of hard work and dedication, but if it’s something that you enjoy and something that drives you, don’t give up on it, and follow through. It may take you awhile, but your hard work pays off.”
(From the March 2016 issue of Washington Restaurant & Lodging Magazine)