10 things managing a pizzeria in Montana taught me about work and life

The manager in her element.
The manager in her element.
Image: Jessica Shambora
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When I was 22 I moved to Bozeman, Montana with no job. I had a degree from UCLA and a year of work experience at a non-profit. After a few weeks applying for roles at the local university, I needed money. So I took a job as a prep cook at the local pizza chain, MacKenzie River Pizza Co. I thought it would be temporary until I found something more suited to my skills.

After a few weeks cutting lettuce and tomatoes, I moved up to line cook, where I made pizzas, salads and sandwiches. A few weeks later, the managers approached me about a supervisor role at a smaller MacKenzie River location in town that mostly did takeout and delivery. I took it, and a short time later became a manager of “The Outpost.”

It was hard to adjust to the idea that this was my job. I thought that because I’d gone to college, I deserved something better. It was especially humbling because my boyfriend at the time was in med school. I was making pizza, he was learning to save lives. Also, we were quite the pair. While I smelled like I bathed in tomato sauce, he reeked of formaldehyde from his gross anatomy lab.

Today I work in marketing at a tech startup in Silicon Valley. More than a decade has passed but I often think about the year I spent as a pizza restaurant manager. It turns out the lessons I learned during that time were far more valuable than I ever could have imagined, and I still rely on them at work and in daily life. I share them here in hopes that they might help others embarking on their post-college lives.

1. Know how to do your team’s job and whenever possible, jump in and do it with them.
Even though I only spent a month or two prepping and working the line, I knew how to do everything that my cooks did. I also worked a couple of delivery shifts when I first started as a supervisor. This gave me credibility with the people on my team, many of whom were my age or older. And when I had down time, I jumped in to help, which built up reserves of goodwill.

2. Confront negativity and nip it in the bud before it spreads.
The tiny office in our little restaurant had a window that looked out on the line, and once when I was in there doing some paperwork, I overheard one of the cooks bad-mouthing me to her peers. I was a bit stunned, but almost without thinking, I pulled her off the line and brought her into the office. I told her that if she had an issue with me or the way I was managing the restaurant, I’d appreciate if she would please bring it up with me directly in the future. I said I really wanted to know how she thought I could improve. From that point forward I never had an issue with her again.

3. A real leader helps dig her team out of the weeds.
A supervisor on my team liked to work Friday nights. I could see why—we did lots of business and it was kind of a party in the restaurant, with a full kitchen staff and lots of drivers coming in and out for deliveries. This meant I had the night off to hang out with friends, but I was also on call in case things got crazy. On a handful of occasions, my Batphone rang and I was on my way to the restaurant. I walked in the door, grabbed an apron and without a word, plugged myself in where I could be most helpful. Often that meant clearing tables, washing dishes, answering the phone, or grabbing pizzas as they exited the oven. It usually only took an hour to get things back on track and there was an element of excitement and teamwork that was actually kind of fun.

4. Good managers set expectations and are consistent.
We didn’t get a ton of training from the MacKenzie River corporate office when it came to management skills, but the one thing I remember clearly was the emphasis on setting clear expectations with the team — when they were hired, at the start of each shift — and being consistent so that they knew those expectations held equally, for everyone on the team. People like clear expectations because it removes the need for guesswork, and they like knowing they will apply to everyone fairly. As a manager, this makes providing feedback much easier too.

5. You will make mistakes and be forgiven.
As the primary location for takeout and delivery, The Outpost got a lot of large corporate orders. Once a pharmaceutical rep called a week ahead to place a lunch order of 20 sandwiches and 10 pizzas. On the morning of that day, I gave my team a heads up that we’d need to move quickly to get the order prepped before the lunch rush hit. When the rep failed to show up for the food, I called him and he said that the order was for the next day. He’d given me the wrong date or I’d written it down wrong. Either way it didn’t matter, the food wouldn’t be paid for. I was really nervous about telling my regional manager Rick — a skier dude with a pony tail — but he was pretty cool about it and said that these things happen. I gave my team the extra pizza, we delivered the sandwiches to our repeat customers, and we made the order again the following day. I also stopped beating myself up about it.

6. Humility solves most missteps. So do Bronco Bucks.
We served three kinds of dough at MacKenzie River: sourdough, wheat and deep dish. Most people just ordered the regular sourdough. All were delivered to us par-baked by the company commisary. One afternoon, a family ordered a deep dish Good Ol’ Boy (that’s what we called a pepperoni pie) and was eating it at the restaurant when they came to me saying they tasted mold in the pizza. I rushed to the line to check the cheese, but couldn’t find a trace of it. Still, we pulled the cheese and started fresh, making them another pizza. Again they said it didn’t taste right. Then I went to check the dough — sure enough, the deep dish had flecks of mold in it, that were not immediately apparent among the herbs baked into the dough. I apologized profusely and had our cooks prep two large Good Ol’ Boys using the regular sourdough. The family was very understanding and appreciated that I took responsibility and jumped to rectify the situation. I also gave them some Bronco Bucks — our version of a “make good.” It was helpful to have something I could do for our customers to show that we cared about them and it’s amazing how far a small gesture like this goes.

7. You never know what someone else is going through.
Our Coca-Cola products were delivered every Thursday, always by the same big guy with a brown mullet and a quiet kindness. One week someone else came in his place, so I asked about the reason for the change and was told that our regular guy had lost his father and was away attending the funeral. When he returned the following week, we had a pizza waiting for him and let him know we were sorry for his loss.

8. The service industry is tough.
Most people who work in restaurants rely on tips, including cooks at takeout restaurants. So whenever you order at the counter, don’t forget about these hard working men and women. Tack on 15% if you can, or leave something good in the tip jar.

9. A job can be an unexpected refuge.
After about a year in Montana, my boyfriend and I saw that our relationship was coming to an end. Soon he would head back to Seattle to continue school and I decided I would return to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was from. We were living together so this made things even harder. I picked up extra shifts at the restaurant, where I could focus on getting work done and forget about how sad I was feeling. I was also grateful for the easy friendship of my coworkers, who made me feel less lonely and kept me laughing.

10. Put the toppings on before the cheese.
It helps them stay on the pizza. Except pepperoni. Put that on top so it gets extra crispy.