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. [Read more…]