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. Today, we hear from Okan Yazici, general manager of one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated restaurants, Zahav.
I moved to Philadelphia on a student visa to attend Drexel University and immediately started looking for jobs in the restaurant industry. I had worked in bars and casinos back home in Istanbul, so I figured that would be the easiest thing to do. I didn’t speak great English at the time, so I also enrolled in English classes at school in order to get better quickly.
My first job was at a Mediterranean restaurant as a dishwasher. I was so passionate about food and wine, even though I didn’t always have the words to say what, exactly, I wanted to. And I had very high standards for service, even when I was washing dishes. One day, the general manager of Zahav came in — I had waited on her a few times, and she was the wife of one of my coworkers — and she asked if I would be interested in working at Zahav, which had just opened.
I started working weekends as a busboy at Zahav. At most restaurants where I worked, when I came in, the owners barely said hello to me. At Zahav, everyone was very welcoming and interested in hearing my story. I remember one day, for staff meal, we all got Chinese food. I had never eaten Chinese food in my life, but I remember opening up my fortune cookie and it said: “You are going to be surrounded by great people.” I still keep it — because it’s true.
Being a busboy was very challenging. American restaurant culture is very different from European restaurant culture. For example, in Europe, when someone is done eating, they raise their hand to get the bill. In America, the server just brings the bill when the last course is finished. People started complaining that they hadn’t gotten the check for 30 minutes, but I thought it was disrespectful to bring a bill if they didn’t ask! But my European background also proved to be an asset. In Europe, the training for front-of-house staff is very disciplined and strict. I remember one time back in Istanbul, I was clearing a table, and I was sent home because I was making too much noise with the silverware! My bosses here liked that I was the kind of person who always wanted to put my head down and work. I made sure I was learning something different every single day.
Eventually, the restaurant asked me to be a food runner. I was handed a packet, and I only had two days to memorize all of the food at the restaurant. My school schedule was already so jammed — I would leave school at 3:30, run to the restaurant, work my shift, and then go to the library and work through the night. But I took my job very seriously. I memorized every single spice on the menu like it was my name. I am a doer. If you give me a deadline, I will meet it.
I ended up loving being a food runner — I enjoyed interacting with people, explaining dishes, and sharing my story. Within a couple of weeks, I was promoted to expediting. Expediting is hard because you have to balance front-of-house with back-of -house and make sure everything is on time. The restaurant was only getting busier, and there was a lot of coordination required. Soon, I became a server, and then a de facto service captain. I have the personality to be a leader, so I took it upon myself to help train new people and set an example of the high service standards the restaurant has. I was working alongside Mike [Solomonov, the chef/owner of Zahav], and he took notice of my passion and dedication. He said he was keeping me in mind to be a manager someday.
Eventually, the company expanded. Mike wanted to open new restaurants, and that’s when he finally asked me to be the manager at Zahav. He knew I would work hard and deliver on his standards. And I do love being a manager — you get to take things under control, talk to every single employee, and help the company to grow. When I first started as a manager, Zahav had 45 to 50 employees. Now we have 90. It’s a stressful but good challenge to take on.
At the beginning of 2016, I was asked to be a partner in the company. I’d like to think I’m an example for everyone else: anyone can start from the bottom and then become a partner. I’m happy that people trust me, that they know how enthusiastic and invested I am in the company.
We have tons of employees, and still, every day that I walk into work, I try to say hello to everybody. I try to learn everybody’s stories. You have to get at everyone’s level. You have to hear everyone’s opinions. That’s how you become an effective leader.
Photo credit: Alexandra Hawkins.