My Story – by Luke Luckini

We are all, in our own ways, selfish.  Growing up in Old New Castle I played sports year-round because I loved competition which in turn promised accolades upon victory.  Not much has changed.  I still base many of my decisions on being competitive and ultimately receiving rewards;  money, pats on the back, thanks and even rewarding myself via a growth in self-esteem.

Graduating from a parochial school in the Spring of 1995, I chose the path of most 18-year old’s hoping to avoid disappointing their parents.  My grades were not stellar, but I had an above average SAT score and my folks had enough money, on paper anyway, to justify my acceptance to the local state university.  I spent the Summer working at the same Mom and Pop hardware store that I had worked at since turning 15.  I spent most of my money on fast food and alcohol purchased through a 3rd party vendor.  Shortly before leaving to start my college career the GM of the hardware store terminated my employment.  I was always on time and rarely complained.  Picked up every shift that needed to be covered, but frankly, I was terrible.  There was no doubt in my mind that he made the right choice.  How had I lasted that long?!  Most keys that I had duplicated needed to be recut.  I wasted tons of product while cutting glass, threading pipe and misdiagnosing plumbing problems repeatedly.  I was soooooo baaaad!

Late August of that year my folks helped me move into my dorm room that I shared with a close friend from high school.  The housing was less than 10 miles from my parent’s home and I saw my folks about as often as I saw my professors.  I made an 8:15 Microeconomics class maybe a dozen times.  The 11:30 class was Anthropology.  I recall vividly watching cricket matches between warring tribes and wondering what lifelong career could utilize this information.  I was young, arrogant and bored.  My desk in E101 and at least two other classes was presumably empty for every class except the 1st.  Business Ethics? Now that was a great class!  It was at 7pm, a short walk from the dorm and philosophy was something that sparked my interest.  Then the weather changed, and that short walk became brutal.

Drinking, getting high, playing video games, listening to music and enjoying the company of new friends were the sirens on the rocks that would be my official undoing.  My parents were nice enough to pay for me to go on a retreat and learn.  Very little book knowledge was ascertained on my part, but what was learned was the mentality of youth and how it plays a role in the decision-making processes of those just like me. Lessons I still lean on to help me to empathize with my staff.  My kid’s and my team may never understand that I was once just like them, but such is my advantage.

After the university made the official decision that I should discontinue my sponsored education and move on I went on the job hunt.  Upon the recommendation of a friend, I joined a Tex Mex spot in Christiana, a national chain and at the time, one of the busiest restaurants in town, pre-Route 1 for those of you playing along at home. For 6 months, I left everyday splattered with tomato seeds and reeking of onions and garlic.  Earned new scars.  Put some high school Spanish to use and lost my first new friend at the job to heroin.  Though the newness of the experience had not lost its luster, there were some integrity issues within management that made working there uncomfortable, so I chose to leave.

I now had experience and could land a new restaurant job no problem, right?!  I could chop onions, thaw IQF chicken breast, mix this bagged sauce with that pre-chopped protein and put it in a bin until it was time to microwave it.  Hell, I was almost a chef!

After a few interviews at different restaurants with no employment offered, I stumbled in to a place that my Mom found in the “want ads.”  Walking in the door of the Irish pub I would spend the next 11yrs working for I was struck by a smell that will forever bring back memories, their signature sautéed mushrooms.  I, to this day, am not a fan but folks will publicly shame you for being skimpy on the plate with them.  Open kitchens are not for the meek.  It was early in the morning so there were no Guests.  I flagged down the first person I saw presuming he was the manager or owner and struck up a conversation.  After talking for 15 minutes or so he realized I was looking for a job & let me know he was the dishwasher.  Leo was older, maybe 70 at the time, but loved his part time job in the morning.  It allowed him to spend time with his wife and play trumpet in his band on the weekends.  He introduced me to the man that would put up with me for the next several years.  I was hired on the spot and asked to start that day.  I thought I must have really impressed him.  Now I realize, sometimes that is just the nature of the business; 7 days a week, 18 hours a day and the Guests won’t give you a pass for being shorthanded.

70-hour weeks working a kitchen line helped to prove to the bosses that I was ready, or at least willing to try management.  I became the KM of a new restaurant when my predecessor gave the owner an ultimatum (Lesson #1 in my new career) I confessed to my wife that I could handle all the responsibilities except talking to people.  Little did I know… that is the job!!!  I was quiet, nervous, reserved and scared stupid.

By the age of 23 I was promoted to the GM role of a $2.1 million Irish Pub.

After 11 years and multiple roles:  line Cook, KM, AGM and Gm roles at 3 different company owned locations, it was time to move on.  I spent the next 5 yrs. as AGM at a Cajun Creole place doing $90k a week on $4 beers, $5 Margaritas and an entree average of $11.  To allow my wife to stay home with our boys I picked up a second job working 3 nights a week at Middletown BDubs learning the fine art of wing spinning and vacuuming tile floors. I eventually was asked to resign my position at the Creole restaurant due to a mixture of catalysts: a supervisor who enjoyed Jack Daniels throughout his shift and my inability/ lack of desire to play office politics.  I sent out 30+ resumes and the only return phone call was from Hooters for a Gm position at a restaurant doing $22k a week for the first 6 months.  By the time I chose to leave we were executing at $33k a week.  Huge improvement but still brutally slow.  It was a humbling experience working at a concept that I didn’t believe in and was also viewed as less than respectable.  Truth be told, there were some amazing folks working in and around that company!  After almost two years and some very unusual conversations with the owner of the franchise, I reached out to Mark Ford to see if he had a home for me.  Sure enough… I came on board full time with H5H.  I was punched by a Guest during training and hadn’t even gotten to the restaurant I was told was a “tough location.”  Uhhh… had I made a huge mistake?

In Bear, I found a store with personality and heart.  Tough, yes, but such is the nature of our business.  Find out who our team is and help them grow.  In Bear, we grew in sales, confidence and teamwork.  It became the official “Boomtown!”

After 4 years in Bear and about to leave for vacation, I was offered the opportunity to return to independent service at the Stone Balloon.  Within the week, my wife and I agreed it was the right move and I have once again been blessed with a great team.

Early in my career, I learned that my greatest sin was: I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  Feel free to read that line again.  No one was responsible for educating me at any greater a level than I was willing to work toward for knowledge.   What I have seen is that food, beverage and service is the same everywhere.  It should be executed at the highest standards that you, and no one else, are willing to accept.  While you play for a team, regardless of the restaurant in which you are employed, you are ultimately representing yourself and your family name.  Brown lettuce is just shameful at Chili’s, McGlynn’s, Deer Park, Border Cafe, Hooters, Buffalo Wild Wings and Stone Balloon.

Over the years, I would throw ladles, slam doors, punch french fry boxes, drink too much, sleep too little, lose pants and shirts to grease stains, dump 35lbs of fryer oil on the hood of a 3000GT (ask me sometime), make new friends, meet my Wife (a bit of a Frankie and Johnny tale) and find my calling. I’ve helped run a $20k Superbowl, a $36K St Patty’s Day and a $40K Cinco de Mayo! What was once considered a nontraditional career is now viewed as a thriving industry of opportunity.  The hours don’t get any easier, but the rewards have been amazing!

Here I stand, almost 23 years later; line Cook, Dishwasher, Server, Bartender, Host, Manager, GM, Porter, life Coach, Psychiatrist or whatever form I must take each day.  Our mortgage is paid. We have food in the cupboard. Our family has a roof over their heads.  Our 3 kids make me a little prouder with each day that passes.  I would rather Clopen than miss one of my kid’s games or a chance to take my Wife on a date

The Hospitality industry is not for everyone, but it is for me. Sometimes the path we choose will meander in directions that we never expected.  When all is said and done we can only make the best possible decisions for those around us in the moment. Impact who you can when you can. Those decisions, no matter how seemingly insignificant, will change our trajectory.

The young men and women that work for us deserve the best of what we have to offer: both knowledge and compassion.  We can never forget where we came from or that what is now second nature was once personal uncharted territory.

My selfishness has now evolved only slightly.  While I secretly, or not so secretly anymore, seek praise even as I type this, my greed now manifests itself in the desire to help others succeed.  If I can, in any way, assist my Kids, my Wife, my Team, my Supervisors, my Colleagues and my Friends to do more, achieve more and be more than I can assure you in my selfish mind I am patting myself on the back.  But as stated earlier we are all selfish.  We all want what is best not only for those around us but for ourselves, so I encourage you to take your credit.  You earned it!  Celebrate your victories!  But know that those that you impact are looking for the same.  Give freely to them your love, praise and the accolades that they have earned.  No participation trophies but rather sing their praises in moments of little victories and moments of greatness.  Shine on them like a spotlight on a disco ball allowing them to, in turn, shine on others.

Be the selfish light that accepts energy but also pours brightly out to others. 

What’s your Story?