Santiago Peláez is an international food and beverage expert, specializing in fine Italian dining. He has cooked in numerous restaurants in the US and managed dozens of multinational luxury brand resorts across Mexico as the F&B Director at Grupo Diestra. Currently, Mr. Peláez is gearing up to become the F&B Director at Zanti Cucina Italiana, due to open in The Woodlands, TX, in the spring of 2019. Today, he sits down with Social Magazine to talk about the rewards and the challenges of working in the hospitality industry.
You have made a name for yourself in Mexico as the Director of Food & Beverage across a number of luxury resorts. What does a hotel restaurant F&B Director do?
The F&B director is in charge of everything related to food and beverage at the hotel. There could be from two to eight different areas where people eat and drink: there is the hotel restaurant, room service, possibly a pool restaurant, and then there is the bar. An F&B director oversees all food and beverage staff and managers, coordinates the menus to reflect the restaurant’s concept, needs to know the competition and must be current on pricing. We also handle and comply with all food and beverage costs and expenses in the hotel, as well as interact with investors and, of course, provide customer service for patrons who eat and drink at the hotel.
Are hotel restaurants different from stand-alone restaurants when it comes to handling food & beverage operations?
With a stand-alone restaurant, you have to thoroughly understand your market. What are the other restaurants in your area: what are their menus, what are their prices, what do they pay their managers? You need to know these things to compete. In hotels, the priority of the general manager is always with the rooms. The food and beverage part is secondary and is affected by all the decisions having to do with the entire hotel.
The classic mistake I have seen hotels make is to treat their clients as simply a captive audience for the food and beverage service and overcharge while not focusing on quality, from the minibar to the restaurant. That’s not doing right by your hotel guest and you are losing all the potential customers outside the hotel. So, when I was the F&B director with over a dozen resorts in Mexico, I insisted that we manage each hotel restaurant as if it were a stand-alone, separately from hotel matters. And it worked: the F&B numbers grew and we started getting clients who were not hotel guests and came just for the fine dining experience, which is rare today and was virtually unheard of a decade ago when we did it.
What kind of a personality type is best suited for a career as an F&B director?
You must absolutely love providing service. And even though you wear different hats in dealing with customers, employees and purveyors, you need to be a leader with everybody. Every time you speak to a customer, they have to believe in your concept and your service. With employees, the best ingredients for leadership are knowledge and fairness. Work your way up the restaurant system and know your stuff before you tell others what to do. And treat employees with dignity and make them feel like a part of the team. It does wonders for loyalty and effort. There are many different personalities working in hospitality but treating others ethically is a professional habit everyone can manage.
What are the most exciting aspects of your job? And what are the most frustrating?
The best part is that I work in something I am very passionate about. Since I was little, I loved the kitchen. My mother would invite my father’s colleagues for dinner after work and I would help her cook and serve the meals. I think the most exciting part for me is just the everyday operations of running the restaurant, the cooking, the talking with the customers, just whatever we do from day to day, I really love it.
The part I don’t enjoy so much is the crunching of the numbers. Even though I have an engineering degree and love math, sitting in the office and analyzing figures and checking invoices makes me restless. I also do not enjoy disciplining employees. You asked about personality: in this business, we are all about being accommodating and making people happy. So, telling staff that they are doing something incorrectly or poorly, or having to let someone go, that’s the part of my job where I have to force myself. But as a food and beverage director, like it or not, some things must be done because they are important.
Where do you see the hospitality industry heading in the near future?
I think that in the next two-three years, the industry will change more than it has in the last twenty. We’re putting computers in the tables. Today’s customers want things very fast. Take out / delivery is up and fine dining is starting to decline because people no longer want to sit down in a restaurant and enjoy a two-hour meal and have a conversation face-to-face.
On the other hand, wherever we go, there is abundance of food and drink available now. You can see it with huge brands like Hyatt and Marriott: you go to the new ones and there are no hotel lobbies as we know them anymore, there are “fast cash flow food areas”, kind of like the food court at the mall, but with more sophisticated, cosmopolitan offerings. There is sushi served, fresh juice available, vending machines everywhere. The future of hospitality is all about fast access to high-quality food at a good price.
We have to keep advancing ourselves with the new trends that are coming. The people who understand this are going to be the most successful. But also we need to be careful because if you stake all your business on new technology or concept that is a temporary fad: you could make a lot of money at first, but lose it all in the future when new trends completely replace what you have built.
What advice do you have for young professionals interested in pursuing a career in the food and beverage field?
You truly need to have the passion for the hospitality industry to survive in it. It’s a very hard industry, never an eight-hour job, it’s just non-stop. Usually, when everybody else is resting, you’re working. When others are on vacation, that’s when your restaurant is going to be most full. New Years? You’re going to be working. Christmas? Working. Saturdays and Sundays: working. If serving others is not your calling, don’t even bother trying, it will eat you up.
If you choose this path, make sure to finish your education, to have a complete career. Don’t change a lot of jobs: try to choose the concept that you like the most and stay and grow in the same company. Try to create a strong relationship with your boss, with your coworkers, by being responsible and honest.
What are the biggest challenges in becoming successful in the hospitality industry?
In the modern world where people are traveling and dining out all the time, just giving good service is not enough anymore. A lot of restaurants are offering good service. To be competitive in present hospitality space you need to know how to create a different experience. I believe that’s what the new generations are looking for, that’s why they are going on trips, reading, using social media: they are looking for more, better experiences — and every day they look for something different. You need to be very knowledgeable and creative to provide original and memorable experience to the customer.
A word of caution: be very intelligent in striking a balance in personal and professional life. It’s no joke, in this industry, many families break apart because the job demands too much time away from the home. For this reason, in the restaurants I’ve managed, I spent more money and hired larger numbers of staff to give each worker more family time. What I’ve seen is that, if they are successful in their personal lives, they will be more successful at the workplace. This balance is essential for any person, but in this particular career, you will have to overcome major obstacles to achieve and preserve it.
What is the Number One Career Suicide Move in your profession?
If your focus is purely on the numbers and making money, you’re going to fail in this industry. The reason why 80% of restaurants go out of business in their first two years is because they are blinded by the desire for instant profits. Usually, the easiest way of lowering your costs is buying cheaper, lower quality goods or reducing labor. But you will not advance your business without great quality and service! So, if you’re waiting to hire the correct size staff only when you get more clients, they are never going to be there. Because, in the restaurant business, all it takes is one bad experience and you’re done. The unhappy customer will talk about it with their family and coworkers, blast you on social media, write a bad review on Yelp or TripAdvisor: there may be no recovering from that.
By all means, do everything it takes to run a business: pay attention to finding the best quality goods at the best price and understand your numbers to see where to make better decisions for better revenue. But just remember that we are in the hospitality business and our first priority is to be hospitable. So, make sure to put the time and effort into hiring and training excellent staff. Our focus is first on serving the client and only then on good costs, good expenses, good revenue. All those positive returns are going to be the consequence of putting the customer first.