$3.15 an hour. I was a kitchen attendant at a full-service restaurant inside the theme park SeaWorld. Mama Rosa’s Italian restaurant was located beneath the water skiing stadium. As each of the six daily waterskiing shows ended, our restaurant provided an air-conditioned sanctuary with full bar service and all-you-could-eat breadsticks and salad.
Growing up in Aurora, Ohio, I held a paper route, worked landscaping for the Parks & Rec department and umpired little league baseball through high school. I also picked up extra cash selling and trading baseball cards, but this was my first exposure to working for a corporation.
Aurora was an unusual location for a SeaWorld. Operating seasonally, the park would attract families vacationing in the Midwest. It attracted high school and college-aged employees all around the Cleveland area. That job provided my first real social connections beyond our small town. My first exposure to college girls was a bonus I didn’t anticipate.
The work was exactly what you’d expect. Busing tables, mopping floors, cleaning walk-in refrigerators and washing dishes in a kitchen that would often exceed 100 degrees on a hot day in July. I quickly graduated to food preparation and I didn’t mind the hard work. I loved meeting new people and having the extra cash in my pocket. I showed up on time, with a spotless uniform (thanks, Mom) and worked my ass off. At the end of my first season I was extended an invitation to return the following summer for $3.25 an hour. Moving up the ladder! I readily accepted.
During my second season, I started taking on more responsibility. I worked the line and supported the kitchen manager. I pulled a double anytime it was needed. I approached Doug, our area supervisor, who I knew casually from the co-ed SeaWorld softball league and made my case for a bump to $3.50. He agreed and approved the raise. This was a pivotal moment that introduced me to a philosophy that would later be reinforced to me by the incredible Jim Rohn:
“You don’t get paid for the hour. You get paid for the value YOU bring to an hour.”
Want to earn more? Deliver more value. I have subscribed to that philosophy ever since and it’s something we often consider in our business today:
How can we bring more value to the hour?
My third season was a breakthrough. With a year of college under my belt, I returned to the restaurant with bit more confidence and perspective. I was also 19 and able to legally serve alcohol. I approached Doug to discuss a transition to the front of house in order to wait tables. This meant a drop in my hourly wage to $2.80 but I was hopeful that through tips, I could move beyond what I was making in the kitchen.
Kitchen attendant at Mama’s Rosa’s was the last job I ever had that didn’t include a significant portion of variable compensation (commissions, bonuses, profit sharing). I learned more about sales, marketing and customer service waiting tables than I did during my four years of college. School was fun. Mama Rosa’s was my research lab.
By the second summer, I was approaching every table with recommendations. I had my upsell down: frozen coladas in a Shamu souvenir glass to start and our signature apple crisp a la mode with the chef’s special cinnamon sauce to close. Speed and accuracy counted. So did my relationship with the customer.
I learned about the park. I’d recommend my favorite attractions (I loved the seal & otter show) and looked for every opportunity to guide a family through their dining experience and deliver a little bit more than they expected. Creating a meaningful connection just took a little creative effort. I wanted to learn something about them and would also offer up a bit of personal information about me. I grew up in Aurora, where are you from? How long are you staying? Where are you staying? Can I help you with dining suggestions outside the park?
I learned to love getting paid for the value I brought to both the company and our customers.
Tips provided a significant boost to my income and I was addicted. I parlayed that job into catering work and a waiting gig in a more upscale restaurant with a serious wine list and more serious income potential. As my skills improved, so did my opportunities.
When I graduated from college, I actually interviewed in the corporate marketing department at SeaWorld and was offered a full time, entry-level job for $23,000 a year plus benefits. Boom! My time in the kitchen paid off.
But I passed. The problem? No upsell or upside. I wanted to earn based on the value I contributed.
I accepted an account executive job with an ad agency for a $21,000 base plus commission. That was absolutely the right decision and once again, as my skills improved, so did my opportunities. I didn’t ignore the pattern.
I have been dedicated to self-improvement, bringing more value and making sales ever since. That notion is something I reinforce whenever I have the opportunity to speak with young people just starting their career:
How can I bring more value? How can I get better?
Those are two questions I am going to keep challenging myself to answer every day.