Mike Wiacek || Logo

Founder, Engineer, Security Leader

Lessons from the line...

What a breakfast restaurant taught me about teamwork


6 minute read

My first real job wasn’t in technology. It was washing dishes in a restaurant at the Jersey Shore. [A shout out to my first real boss, Keven, who was the head cook there. He recently opened his own restaurant in Ocean City, NJ - Hooked on Breakfast. If you’re nearby, check it out].

Back to the story, allow me to craft the scene for you: the dish room was small, hot, and so humid that steam would collect on the ceiling and drops would rain down on you. Thirty minutes after arriving, you were soaked from head to toe. The floor had a solid ¼ inch of water on it and it was as slippery as ice. Most of us spent our days carrying twenty five pound stacks of 140F plates up to the kitchen in a non-stop loop. The last five feet of the journey to the grill counter involved walking through the air conditioned front-of-house, and that 10 seconds of cool, crisp, dehumidified air is what kept us going. On top of that, the restaurant was no more than 50 feet from the beach. Most customers came in wearing bathing suits and coverups, a quick spot for breakfast on their way to the ocean. Meanwhile, we looked like fools who forgot to get undressed before getting a shower. I think we made a princely sum of $5.15 an hour, and after working 25-30 hours a week, we’d get a paycheck for $75 or thereabouts. Welcome to taxes you naive 15 year old boy.

Having never worked a hard day in my life until that point, I remember scrubbing plates with swollen prunish hands thinking, “Man, they should hire some people to help make this easier.” Two minutes later, some mildly less arrogant part of my brain said, “Dude, you’re the person they hired.” Oh damn, I was right. Despite not coming from a wealthy family, I subconsciously thought I was too good to scrub toilets or wash strangers’ dirty plates. I thought I was better than that. It’s embarrassing to say that now, because I quickly realized that the world owed me nothing. Some people work their way up from the bottom, few manage to succeed, many fail, but the constant through all of it is hardship. The world owes us nothing, and that was the moment that I realized that for myself. I resolved to never take anything for granted, and I’ve done my best to hold truth to that thought ever since.

I decided that I’d work really hard at my job to earn my place… from the dishroom up. I’d try and work as much as I could. I remember asking Keven if I could move up to the kitchen. I felt like learning to cook would be a useful skill, and I’d take the dry heat of the grill over the humidity of the dish room every single day. It’s in this kitchen that I earned the nickname Chainsaw, but that’s a story for another time.

Towards the end of the summer I managed to get a few shifts in the kitchen. I’d make bacon, tens of pounds of bacon every morning. But more importantly, I learned lessons there that have carried with me to this day. Yes, I learned how to cook things, and that instilled a love of cooking that I still have, however, it was the first time that I worked as part of a group that was a high stakes team. As tickets (orders) came in, Keven would shout out what was on the ticket. It was your job to know that bacon came with certain things and not others. You needed to know how long others would take to say, cook the eggs, so that when the eggs were done, your bacon or sausage was ready simultaneously. Should you get it wrong, the customer would almost always send it back for being cold, and then that caused more of a backlog in the kitchen as it threw off the timing for everything else. When one thing went sideways, everything would go sideways faster than you could imagine.

Now, the cooks in a kitchen are frequently called a brigade, and they work on the line. No matter what you did, you had to hold that line. These are military terms, because during a busy service, it was war. It was fun, it was stressful, it was unlike anything else I ever did. It was individual execution, but also group execution. The most magical part of it all, was when it worked. When everyone was in the zone, there was efficient and constant communication. The man to my left would turn right, and I would turn right as well in a near perfect harmony. I’ve heard people describe service with a well run brigade as a ballet. Each person knew the moves the others would make, and the line would produce and execute.

I bring this up because this is how every team should be. In that environment, we had to trust each other, we had to know that the person on my left would soon go this way, so I’d go that way. There was no time to argue, there was only time to support. Unwritten rules in a kitchen would say that if someone asked for help, you dropped what you were doing and helped them immediately. There were no false alarms, asking for “help” was like a red alert klaxon screaming that doom for everyone was near.

There is something about the environment of a commercial kitchen during service, that brings out selfless support of others. It brings out a desire to see the group successfully cross the finish line together. It’s what every leader wants their team to be like, but rarely achieve.

Perhaps instead of ropes courses and trust falls, teams should work in a kitchen together, with hungry customers demanding food and a line growing out the door. Think people would sign up for it?

As I work to build and grow our new company, this style of efficient and rewarding teamwork and collaboration are the thoughts that are in my mind from the moment I wake up, through every meeting, and until I go to bed. I think the group that we’ve built so far exemplifies a flawless brigade and it’s easy to say that this has been the most rewarding and demanding of journeys. If you think this sounds like the type of group you want to work with, reach out and say hi! We’ve got a lot of open roles, and we would love to work with people who are diverse and well rounded, but share a common interest in being part of a high impact team where trust, support, and service of each other are paramount.

If you’d really like to inquire about joining us, do it here!

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