Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A chain-linked restaurant career

Published in the LRA magazine, A La Carte, Winter 2014 edition. By Wendy Waren, VP of Communications. 

Meet Bruce Attinger, 2014 Louisiana Restaurant Association Chairman, a University of Maryland graduate with a B.S. in Biology, who changed the course of his life with his first restaurant job in 1971.  

Bruce Attinger and his wife of 32 years, Jan
grace the cover of the LRA's A La Carte
magazine, Leadership Edition, Winter 2014.
More than 40 years ago, Bruce Attinger began his restaurant career at the Black Steer Restaurant in Washington, D.C. With no previous experience in the business, he took the job at the urging of one of his roommates, Bob Basham, and hit the ground running. His stint as a bartender lasted two short weeks before taking on various positions in the family run business.

Nick Berbakos and his wife, Dottie, owned the Black Steer Restaurant located just a block from the White House and were Attinger’s first mentors in the business.

“I just wanted to learn the business and Mr. Nick gave me a chance and a parking pass,” said Attinger. “The Black Steer was right around the corner from the White House and did 350 covers at lunch, with the clientele made up primarily of the [White House]Press Corps who came to the Black Steer because they couldn’t afford to eat next door at the pricey Sans Souci.”

Working at a restaurant in the nation’s capital, Attinger found that he would have to recognize the town’s movers and shakers.

At the time, Attinger admits he was so apathetic when it came to politics, that Berbakos would instruct him on who was important enough to sit in the main dining room and who to send to the upstairs dining room.

“There was this one guy who I would always send upstairs because he was so arrogant,” Attinger said. “After the first day of testimony in the Watergate trials, the gentleman entered the restaurant and received a standing ovation from the diners. He was Robert Odle, the first to testify in the Watergate trials. From that moment on, he was seated in the main dining room.”

At the early age of 21 and shortly after he started, Berbakos got sick and told Attinger, “I’m going to have to lean on you.” He began learning the ordering process, which on some days were three different meat orders depending on who had the best prices, along with shopping prices from half a dozen produce and grocery houses. During the year and a half he worked there, Berbakos was sick most of that time. Attinger admits, he never seriously considered a future at the Black Steer, because he erroneously assumed Berbakos would turn the restaurant over to his daughters.

“When Mr. Nick came back to work, he was so indebted to me that he gave me a sizeable bonus,” said Attinger. “But again, my roommate, Basham, was egging me to explore other options and ‘go see how corporate restaurants run’.”

Basham and Attinger went to interview with Steak & Ale. Having never gone through a formal interview, Attinger found himself sitting down with a corporate recruiter being asked questions of which he had no answers. What he did instead was ask the interviewer questions, which made the recruiter sit up and take notice.

“I ordered and cut meat every day for one location. I asked the recruiter, ‘What are you all paying for tri-tips (that’s what we cut our sirloins from)?’” Attinger laughs. “After a little while of turning questions around on him, I asked, ‘where do we go from here?’”

His next step was a flight to Dallas for a second interview. Attinger remembers Basham was shocked that they weren’t flying him anywhere following his first interview.

“This was the first time I’d ever been on a plane and there was a stopover in Atlanta, and I was feeling so confident, I ordered a Manhattan. I had never had one,” he chuckles at his naivet√©. “From Atlanta to Dallas, I ordered a second Manhattan.”

From the moment the Steak & Ale executives picked him up at the airport they were asking him questions and taking notes. He then had a session with their industrial psychologist who asked such questions as “What’s the difference between a tree and a fly?” He was then seriously regretting his decision to imbibe in flight.

Over dinner Attinger was thinking “this place is pretty cool and these people are really nice,” and when they offered him the job making $850 a month, he happily accepted and he moved to Houston to begin a 10-year career with Steak & Ale and Bennigan’s.  

Basham was ticked. Nothing of Attinger’s adventure had happened to him. However, the recruiter called Attinger and asked him what he thought about Basham, to which he responded, “Bob’s forgotten more about the restaurant industry than I know.” Basham was then offered the same position as Attinger with the company in Virginia Beach.

“In multi-unit businesses, I don’t care how consistent you try to make your training, it varies in different restaurants and different parts of the company,” Attinger advises. “This was my first taste of that.”

As the two would progress in their new positions, they would talk often and share what they were learning in their respective restaurants, which turned out to be dramatically different.

“I was taking things from my conversations with Bob back to my restaurant and he was doing the same,” said Attinger. “They were amazed and thought we were prodigies.”

For a while, the two had parallel career paths, until Attinger became the first multi-unit supervisor at Bennigan’s. Then Bascham became the Regional Manager for the Eastern Territory and Attinger, the Regional Manager for the Western Territory. They both reported to Chris Sullivan who ultimately went on to cofound Outback Steak House with Basham and Tim Gannon.

Attinger found himself contemplating leaving Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s after 10 years to take an equity position in a small restaurant chain in San Antonio. Then the oil bust happened and their aspiration of expanding the company was finished. Instead of building restaurants, the company was closing them.

As fate would have it though, Sullivan was looking out for Attinger and suggested he join Hugh Connerty, who was contemplating opening a chicken wing concept. But instead of building their own concept, they bought the expansion rights to Hooters. By the mid-1980s, Attinger had worked for several national brands and was tapped to be the president of Hooter’s of America.

Hooter’s was born from a single Florida beach bar and in 2003, according to CNN Money, had 342 locations (27 of them abroad), four lines of retail food, one golf tour and two car-racing circuits.

“What made the position so fun was the constant publicity events and grassroots marketing,” said Attinger. “When I started, the girls were just wearing running shorts and tees, but as the brand grew, the clothes got a little tighter.”

Attinger was asked questions like, “Do you have to have a great body to work at Hooters?” His wife of 32 years, Jan, was instrumental in the early hiring progress and she was tough, he said.

“You had to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Jan Attinger maintained.

For several years, Attinger traveled the country opening new Hooter’s locations and a building a brand that started the chicken wings craze. In the 1990s, he realized he wanted to secure a solid future for himself and needed ownership in a company. He was recruited to be President of a company in Southern California, Grand American Fare, which operated restaurants and bars in California, Colorado, Arizona and Nebraska. And Chris Sullivan entered the picture once more with a new opportunity.

“Basham and Sullivan had just started their new steakhouse concept, Outback, and asked me if I wanted to join them,” Attinger shakes his head smiling. “Today, after opening 14 Outbacks in Louisiana and three more in Arkansas, I’m currently charged with overseeing eight locations in Louisiana and Arkansas with more than 600 employees.”

Attinger has served as President of the LRA Greater Baton Rouge Chapter, serves on the LRA Education Foundation and received the LRA’s most prestigious honor—Restaurateur of the Year—in 2006. 

No comments:

Post a Comment