Thom Kreusch Award (by: Robbie Jester)

I apologize for the length but I feel like it’s important to tell the story.

Almost four years ago my journey with High 5 Hospitality began by a series of difficult but fortunate circumstances.  I was General Manager of 16 Mile Taphouse after leaving my 6-year stint as Executive Chef of Toscana and Toscana Catering in Wilmington.  Unhappy with changes that were happening to the company and culture, I left Toscana for a new experience managing operations of 16 Mile Taphouse.

Ownership at the time had told me that times were tough but that there was light at the end of the tunnel.  He would liquidate some assets and then we would have the necessary cash flow to improve operations and move forward with me as multi-unit of several properties of which he was a partner.  I truly believe that he wanted to deliver on those promises but the reality was he just couldn’t.

We only made payroll the first week I worked.  Then I had to ask employees to hold their checks until the deposits came in from the weekend.  I myself didn’t get paid a full paycheck and sometimes no check at all for almost 2 months.  The owner, not being able to face his employees, would drive up and leave $500.00 cash under the dumpster out back for us to operate with for the weekend.  That money was our bar drawer AND our ingredient money to make food. We owed so much money to all the food purveyors that they wouldn’t deliver to us. There were days that I went to the Farmer’s market in the morning to buy ingredients.  Then, if we were cash positive, I would go again after lunch to buy more to get through dinner.  Finally, if it was a busy day, I would go back again to make sure we could make it through late night.  I had brought on purveyors and employees from Toscana who were loyal to me and I used my personal savings to pay them and waited to be reimbursed.

At my wits end, I sought out other jobs.  I filled out 40 applications, received 2 calls, and had one interview.  I made the determination that it was no longer responsible for me to stay at 16 Mile Taphouse and I accepted the only job offer that was given.  The day I accepted the offer was the day Bobby walked into the Stone Balloon.

Bobby came in and had many questions for me.  I could immediately tell this was a mentor, leader, and a success model to follow.  We walked through the process of H5H buying 16 Mile Taphouse.  And, even though they had no obligation to do so, Bobby and Steve paid payroll of a restaurant that they weren’t even sure they were going to buy yet.  They did that not once but twice while they worked through negotiations with previous ownership.  There was a time that the deal almost fell through but Bobby and Steve were adamant about making it work.

My first week with H5H, we signed up with all our distributors, fixed and replaced broken equipment, and began getting deliveries.  After putting away the first food delivery in the walk-in, and everyone left for the day, I sat there for 15 minutes and cried.  To go from having nothing to work with to having absolute abundance was overwhelming for me.  Incredible gratitude is what I felt for the opportunity to turn something that had been so hard into something that might mean the world to myself and the people that had seen it at its worst.

That February, I attended the H5H awards banquet with the team at the Stone Balloon and I remember sitting there through all the awards.  I’m extremely competitive so it was hard to sit there and watch all the awards go to the other restaurants and none to the Stone Balloon.  That first year the team received only one.  Philip DiFebo received the Thom Kreusch award.  When that award is given out, the atmosphere in the room changes.  To see all the emotion from Bobby (and even Steve) when they tell the story of Mr. Kreusch and the award in his honor for the person who has had the most impact on the organization in their first two years of service, was incredible.  In my head, I counted the months until the next awards banquet to make sure I’d still be eligible.  I said to myself that I had to earn that award the next year around because, to me, that award was the one that meant the most to them to give.

The next year I made many decisions and took action to make the Stone Balloon Ale House the best it could be and to reach a level of execution and success that no one could have wished for.  “Is this rookie of the year worthy?” is the question I asked myself while making decisions.  That question guided my thought process and gave me the fire when it had gone out.  The January before the awards ceremony, I lost my father to lung cancer.

The loss of a father is a tragedy felt by everyone and it is especially difficult when that man was also your hero and the person who taught you how to do what you love to do.  I, however, was extremely fortunate that I had been given mentors to help ease the pain and keep me focused as my father’s health began to fade.  The next month Philip DiFebo, Bobby, and Steve presented me the Thom Kreusch award.  I can tell you that it was a BIG moment that I will never forget!!  The struggle had been recognized and this award meant something so much more than I could ever express.  That wasn’t even the coolest part.

The coolest part was the next year when, not only did I get to give the award to Mark Trewartha, but I called the shot about a month after he began with us in what I know was a BIG moment for him and our organization.  The Stone Balloon received a ton of awards last year and I was able to give the one that had meant so much to me to a man that I genuinely respect and admire so that he could have his BIG moment.

Now…I can’t wait to see who will have their BIG moment this year!!!  It’s one of my favorite days of the year, whether hard work is recognized that day or future successes are fueled!  Be Awesome!!