This feature is part of a regular series called “How I Got Promoted,” spotlighting the stories of how top hospitality professionals took their careers to the next level. This week, we’re talking to Karen Lin, executive general manager of SakaMai and Bar Moga in New York, whose love of learning propelled her to go from pharmacist to one of the city’s top general managers.
I started my career in pharmacy. It was a stable job, I was doing well, and I had spent a lot of time getting my degree. But it just didn’t feel right. I wasn’t happy. I fell into a depression because I knew I wasn’t doing what I love.
So I left my pharmacy job, and I was living with my sister, who was working as a bartender at an Irish bar in New York. She asked if I wanted to help, and I figured I would give it a shot. It turns out that the bar also needed someone to make dessert, so I started doing that, too. I realized that this was an industry that I could really enjoy being a part of. In hospitality, I was in a position to provide an experience for people that was positive — no matter what was going on in the world, and no matter what issues someone had, they were coming into a bar or restaurant looking for a good memory. And I was in a position to provide that. I decided to look into other restaurants and see if I could find something more.
I loved Japanese restaurants, so I found a place called Lan, where I was a floor captain and bartender. There, I learned Japanese hospitality and made connections within the industry that would end up being really helpful in my career. The captain and the manager at Lan taught me so much — they were strict with me, I was stressed often, and it was not easy. But I loved it. I never gave up, no matter how hard things got.
I developed that foundation of service, which, I think, is something that people overlook — even if you are at a casual restaurant, knowing those little details about service that come from working in fine dining helps to provide a better experience. Service is about the details.
It’s at Lan that I also met the legendary bartender Shingo Gokan, who trained me as a bartender and ended up inspiring me to learn more about the trade. He was just supposed to do basic training with me, but I ended up asking tons of questions and learning so much from him about the art of Japanese bartending. I didn’t even know where this knowledge would lead me, but it was just something I was interested in at the time.
I took initiative beyond bartending, too. I would go to the farmers market before service just to see if I could find something different or seasonal to put in a cocktail. I also took cooking classes at a local culinary school, so I could learn more about food. And, on my day off, I would stage at the kitchen at Lan so I could learn about kitchen operations, too. I wanted to show how much I cared about the industry. My bosses were always like, “Really, you are going to stage on your day off?” But I wanted to learn about both the front and the back of house. I knowingly built the foundation for the rest of my career.
After Lan closed, I went to a bar called B Flat and learned even more about bartending, but I wanted to also build my experience with back-of-house operations, so I applied to a six-month program in Italy where I could learn more about food, cooking, and ingredients.
From there, I moved to a Japanese-Italian restaurant called Dieci, where I could fuse my background in Japanese restaurants with my recent Italian training. More importantly, at Dieci, I got a manager job — the owner of Lan was running the restaurant, and he knew, from seeing me at Lan, that I was capable. And I proved that I was! It was a twenty-seat restaurant, and I had to serve as well as manage. Because of my exposure to the back of the house, I knew how to communicate with the kitchen, and service, as a result, was a lot smoother. There’s often a gap between the front of house and back of house, and it can really affect the end product of the diner experience.
Soon, I decided I wanted to go back to the bar again. It just so happened that Bohemian, the Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, was looking for a bar manager. It was supposed to be part-time, but I ended up coming on board full time because Bohemian is such a special place; they have this incredible philosophy of hospitality, and the owners are all heart. That all really resonated with me. At Bohemian, there’s no, “Oh, that’s not my job, so I’m not doing it.” Everyone did everything. There was a mutual respect between all the staffers. No one treated me as junior, even though I was still early in my experience level. Everyone was so open to talking to me about the way they did things — it created an environment for me to keep learning.
I was at Bohemian for five and a half years, and then I was offered the chance to help to open a new restaurant. That restaurant is actually still in the works, but in the meantime, the chef of SakaMai — who is a part of this new project — brought me on to be an executive general manager of SakaMai. I’ve also been helping to manage Bar Moga, another Japanese spot downtown.
My experiences in the hospitality world have reinforced my desire to never stop learning. There is always something we can improve on. I ended up getting certified as a sake sommelier — because I know that, as cliché as it sounds, more knowledge is power.
The big piece of advice I have, specifically for aspiring managers: when people get to the manager level, there is this tendency to become less hands on — you can lose that passion of why you are in this industry in the first place, which is to serve people and provide an experience. Managers end up in an office, doing admin work. But I know my first passion is being on the floor and interacting with guests. I try to always keep that in mind, and I think it makes me a better employee.
Photo credit: 3 Day Monk.