The way that Kristin Senter likes to put it, her career in the restaurant world chose her.
Growing up in Johnson City, Tenn., her mother and father gave her a couple of options as she began to become more mobile in her life.
“My parents told me if I wanted to drive, then I needed a job,” she said. “Also, my French class was going to Italy and they said they would pay for half of the trip if I paid for the other half. And I said, oh, what better place to work than an Italian restaurant.”
Thus, a week after turning 16, Senter landed her first job as a hostess at the local Olive Garden restaurant. That was in 1999 and she has stuck with it ever since, with the exception of a couple of breaks, and while earning an education. Her career most recently led her to Columbus, where the 33-year-old is now the general manager of the Olive Garden on Whittlesey Boulevard at Columbus Park Crossing. She’s responsible for pleasing guests on a daily basis with her staff of more than 120 full- and part-timers.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Senter last week, following a typical lunch-crowd rush, discussing her job and what it’s like to manage a well-known restaurant in a growing area of Columbus, as well as her career aspirations. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Q. What has been your career path in general?
A. I’ve worked in multiple locations and I’ve just continued to move up. I’ve worked in practically every position at a variety of different restaurants. I was approached about management when I was in college and I was like, I’m not ready. Then I graduated and student loans were right around the corner and I was like, oh, maybe I do want to be an Olive Garden manager. Because at this point I know it, I enjoy my line of work, and here I am. ... I was a culinary manager in Kingsport, Tenn., for about four-and-a-half years before this.
Q. What’s the difference between that job and your current one?
A. Quite a bit actually. As the culinary manager, you’re strictly in charge of that department. Yes, you take care of the guests and the team member experience, but you’re focused mainly on the quality of food, the production of the food, the order and receiving of the inventory, etc. As a general manager, you’re in charge of overseeing the entire restaurant.
Q. What is it like to hire staff for a restaurant? They always say leaders should surround themselves with good people.
A. I would agree that the hiring process can be difficult in a restaurant atmosphere, because you can set up interviews and then it can just be crazy during that timeframe. Sometimes you have to ask the people to come back. I’m learning that about Columbus. There’s really not a set time for volume.
Q. It can become really busy at a moment’s notice?
A. Uh-huh. Because of the military base. I’m not from an area with a military base, like with graduations and family days and when all of those things take place. I’m glad that they choose to come here, but it can get very busy.
Q. What’s your day-to-day job like?
A. That’s a difficult question to answer, mainly because some days we can be in here as early at 5 or 6 a.m. and you never know when you’re going to finish. It depends on how busy you are. If the last guest leaves at midnight, even though we close at 11, we still have responsibilities that we can’t take care of until the last guest leaves … A normal day could easily be about nine to 11 hours.
Q. What are you doing during that time?
A. The general manager is going to be the face of the restaurant. Even though I’m not from here, I definitely try to go through and make sure that I talk to the guests that come in. I’m always smiling and carrying on conversations. But, just day to day, it’s seeing that your team members are working, they’re living the standard, they’re taking care of our guests, they’re smiling, they’re on time, that the food comes out with quality. There’s a lot that it entails. It’s never the same.
Q. What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?
A. I would say the most challenging part is during the times when so much is going on and you have to prioritize what is the most important thing. You may have one guest who has an experience here. You have another guest who wants to tell you how great their service was. You have a team member who got hurt. You’re missing a team member. You’ve got a phone call. Somebody wants to make a reservation. And I also haven’t had lunch. You have to prioritize what needs to be taken care of first.
Q. You’re pulled in many directions?
Q. What’s your favorite part of the job?
A. I love being pulled in all of those different directions and just having the capability to know that I can prioritize things and the time management, and that somewhere along the line all of that became fun for me. It makes you feel good at the end of the day to think about all of the things you did. Like I said, no shift will ever be the same because you’ll always have different team members working, you’ll always have guests in the building. You’ll have so many aspects come together that it will never duplicate. It’s just the variety of it that’s the most exciting part.
Q. What’s your favorite Olive Garden dish?
A. My favorite dish was chicken castellina, but we don’t have that dish anymore. It’s a very long time ago. Now my favorite dish? I actually like to take our chicken parmesan and put it on our garden salad, but you have to put the chick parm on the grill. When you do that, the salad dressing accents the flavor of the chicken. I eat relatively healthy.
Q. We’re heading into the holidays? Will your job get busier?
A. Absolutely. I haven’t been in Columbus during the holidays, but I’m super excited about tomorrow (Veterans Day). I hear that it will be the busiest shift that I have ever worked because we give away free food to all of the veterans. … From Thanksgiving through the middle of January, there shouldn’t be a moment that you get to sit back.
Q. Is there a tour of duty for a general manager? Do you stay here a bit and then move on?
A. I think it’s really situational. Some general managers want to end up in a certain location. Other general managers like to travel, so they’ll take other opportunities. Some managers are looking to move up, so they’ll take opportunities that give them potential for advancement.
Q. Where do you fit in there?
A. At this point I would like to say I made it from hostess to senior vice president of Olive Garden. (laughs) I think that would be a great story. I definitely want to move up. I don’t know that Columbus is the place that I want to be forever. I’m still young and, honestly, Columbus seems like a stepping stone to me. But I’m willing to put everything I have into it to make it the best possible restaurant.
Q. You want this Olive Garden to be a high performer?
A. I want my successor to come into this restaurant and just feel like, wow, what a great job that person did.
Q. That they’ll be taking over a well-olive-oiled machine?
A. Yes. (laughs)
Q. How long do you expect to be here?
A. My goal, I would like to be here three to five years. I don’t want to be the manager that comes in and goes out (quickly). I don’t think that’s good for your team or for the restaurant because there’s too many changes in ideas and opinions, etc. I think to run a successful restaurant and to be a good leader and produce good leaders, you have to put the time into it.
Q. Is that part of your job, looking for potential leaders?
A. Absolutely. Every day you want to be mentoring your management team, because a lot of (middle) managers don’t want to stop there. They want to become a general manager or work at the RSC, which is our regional support center in Orlando, and maybe get into HR or the training programs down there. But you have to be successful at what you’re currently doing to make that transition or have that opportunity. So you want to coach and develop the people around you, and it also makes your job more worthwhile when you look back and say, I helped do this.
Q. Finally, what are the basic skills or qualities needed to be a solid general manager here or elsewhere?
A. I think that you have to be patient and empathetic. You have to be able to prioritize, have good time management and, ultimately, you have to be consistent and adaptable. No textbook is going to tell you how to work in a restaurant. So if you’re not adaptable, it’s very hard to be successful, because you’re going to be focused on something that’s way over there.
Q. It’s a bit of learning as you go?
A. Absolutely. I learn something every single day.
Hometown: Born in Virginia, but considers her hometown to be Johnson City, Tenn., because she was raised there
Current residence: Columbus
Education: Graduated in 2000 from University School, a college preparatory school on the East Tennessee State University campus; earned degrees in women’s studies and in sociology from ETSU, finishing up in 2009
Family: Single mother of a 19-month-old son, with a Golden retriever and poodle mix named Hera (for a Greek goddess)