How To Hire, Train & Retain BOH Employees With Steve Konopelski (Ep 189)

publication date: Mar 23, 2023
author/source: Jaime Oikle with Chef Steve Konopelski

Chef Steve Konopelski


Such a timely and important topic. Join Jaime Oikle of Running Restaurants for a great chat with Chef Steve Konopelski of the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts about BOH staff—how to find, hire, train, and retain. It's an excellent collection of tips for any restaurant operator or chef to follow for growing their team effectively.

Chef Steve has appeared on the Food Network, had his wedding cakes featured in Martha Stewart Weddings, Brides, and The Knot, and owned a Bed & Breakfast, plus a bakery. He is a current Chef Instructor for Baking & Pastry Arts at Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. He has extensive experience in the restaurant industry and has won numerous awards, including Best Chef on the Eastern Shore of Maryland 2017,Best Dessert on the Eastern Shore 2016, and Winner and Recipient of a $25,000 prize - Haunted Gingerbread Showdown on Food Network, 2018.

We hit on a lot about hiring, training, and retaining BOH staff, including:

Be sure to check out the episode! Find out more at Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts and Running Restaurants.

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How to Hire, Train, And Retain BOH Employees With Steve Konopelski

Coming up on this episode of the show, I speak with Chef Steve Konopelski of the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. You are not going to want to miss the fantastic collection of tips Chef Steve shares about recruiting and retaining back-of-house staff. Really great stuff. Stay tuned.


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Welcome to the show. We've got a great episode for you with Chef Steve Konopelski from the Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Chef Steve, how are you, man?

I am great, Jaime. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you, everybody, that's tuning in to listen right now. We appreciate it.

Challenges In Hiring BOH Staff

I'm looking forward to it. We're going to go in some other directions for sure in the conversation, but I want to start with something that's really on top of everybody's mind in the business, and that's the hiring stuff. I want to focus on the back of the house, where you have to have some experience. You can call on what you guys are doing there at the school, what you're seeing restaurants struggle with, and hiring, training, and retaining back-of-house employees. How do you want to start that?

You're asking the $100,000 question right out of the gate. This is great. I think one of the things that are very challenging right now is that sort of finding and maintaining are our two difficulties in this industry. There is sort of, especially depending on where you are in the country, there may not be much of a talent pool at all, or it may need a little chlorine. There is kind of this, sometimes we have to have I guess a little bit of a give and take. We have sort of this idea of what our dream employee is going to be, but oftentimes we're not able to find that. Especially in the kitchen world, we need people with specialized skills.

What we also need is somebody that is open and sponge-like as it were, that's going to be able to grow within that space. I think perhaps the focus sometimes is too much on who has all of the skills. A better focus might be on who is moldable, who is worth our investment, and who will be able to grow within our setup, our industry, and our business. For me, that was something that I tried to look for when hiring my back of the house, my front of the house as well, but especially my back of the house. At the end of the day, we have to sort of set a vision for what the restaurant is going to be, but we also have to be very sort of realistic with ourselves and understand that that will probably grow and evolve and potentially change over time.

We also want to make sure that we're going to have a staff that will be able to ride that sort of long train with us. For me, I was definitely more like, “Who is also moldable? Who is going to accept the critiques? Who is going to grow with me?” Versus somebody who maybe has all of those skills, but also is perhaps coming with a lot of bad habits. I'm going to maybe need to spend more time kind of perhaps breaking some of those or changing them. Who is moldable? Who is shapeable? Who wants to be there? The techniques can come.

Question. I wrote this down because I like you grabbed me right in the beginning part of that where you use the phrase might need a little bit of chlorine, which I think of the pool here to clean out, and you already mentioned there in the last part of the bad habits that they might have to do that. In the kitchen is much more experienced, but I think a front of the house is a little bit easier to hire.

You can grab someone with a smile, and they can kind of learn that. You talk, there's definitely some skills in the back. I really like what you said about wanting it, the moldable part. What are some ways now to find them? Whether it is word of mouth? Of course, some of it. Is it friends, or referrals? Is it school resources like you guys? What are some other things people are using to find folks? What do you think?

I think that there are sort of a lot more resources out there for hiring than there were 5, 10, 15 years ago. We even have like, in deeds and zip recruiters and all of that kind of stuff. Like at the school where I teach right now, all of our students are required to do an externship, and our career services are actually very good at making relationships throughout the country. Our students can be placed no matter where they might be. Developing a relationship as a business with a local training environment is something that really should be key, even if it is at the high school level, where you can maybe have a student come in and do a little bit of learning labor situation.


Develop personal relationships with local training institutions. It benefits both parties and ensures a steady stream of talented, motivated employees.


It benefits both parties for sure. There's a lot more opportunity for that type of development. I think, as you said, developing personal relationships with training institutions. Word of mouth is great. That's where a lot of my sort of very strong employees came from, especially in a smaller community. If there are only 12 restaurants, it's sort of like Tinder. Everybody's been with everybody at some point. You kind of start to figure out who are really like great performers and who's the person they've jumped ship nine different times.

There's maybe a reason that this person has worked in nine different restaurants over the course of a year and a half. The word-of-mouth thing is great at kind of maybe being able to sort of do a little like pre-interviewing as it were. I can say for myself personally, didn't have very much success with sort of online formats for the back of the house. That's because we have some special skills that we're looking for. For the front of the house, I definitely had a little bit more success in that respect. I think the personal relationships with places like a community college, a school, that type of stuff, at least they're coming to you now with an understanding of the vocabulary.

They may not have a mastery of all the skills, but who does? They are coming there for a reason. They went to school for a reason. If we can kind of find those people and bring them in and grow them very quickly, that's a really good investment as far as a back-of-house situation is concerned and as someone who may also have a financial interest, you're an investor in the restaurant as well. Making that investment in those people is going to pay off in the end.

Effective Interview Techniques

What about the interview process itself? I want to, if you can maybe think about it from both sides of the script, and perhaps you train your students there on how to interview well. You can talk perhaps from that perspective. Also, what are some good questions? What are some good techniques to interview back a house staff? Anything along those lines?

I actually think that is one of the most important things in an interview process, no matter where they're going to be. Let's kind of think about the way the back of the house is. You are in close quarters, you are on top of each other, and you are on top of each other for very long hours. Some of my first questions in the interview process are, I just want to get to know you as a human being. I want to know, is your voice going to annoy me over the course of the next hour and a half because maybe that might be enough, and I'm human enough to admit that I don't think I could listen to you for two and a half hours or an entire shift? Is there a personality there?

We are people at the end of the day, and we want to kind of grow and have this sort of family-type of environment and atmosphere. I think there's nothing wrong with trying to get to know someone as a person. That's actually one of the very first questions that was asked to me when I went to interview with James Beard award winner, Claudia Fleming, name drop, and I ended up becoming her assistant. The first part of our interview was not, “I see that you went to school.” It was, “Let me get to know you as a human being. Then let me see what skills you have. Talk to me about those things.”

That's the opportunity for you as the person being interviewed to sell yourself. Now we're going to go in the kitchen, and we're going to work side by side for the next six hours, unpaid. We'll see if you can kind of cash the check that you just wrote by saying, I can do 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Now let's go in and kind of put those things into practice. When I had my business, I kind of operated my interviews that same way. I would usually do a little bit of a pre-interview, maybe 5 or 10 minutes, just over the phone. That's where some of that kind of personality stuff came through.

Saying, “Yes, I would like you to come into the bakery, and we're going to do a stage. You're going to work for about 3 or 4 hours, whatever.” When they showed up, again, started with that let me get to know you a little bit more as a person. Talk to me about the skills that you have, and then I'm going to basically sort of test your skills. Let me see what you can do. Within that process, I always took a moment to have a teaching moment because that's how you're going to find out, not only what can this employee do, but will they be open and accepting of your critique.

Will they be able to sort of implement that critique in a very short period of time? I always made sure in my stages to make sure that there was something there that was going to be a little bit tricky or it was a very specific way that I did things. At our bakery, it was frosting cakes, for example. I have a very specific way that I like mine done. Can you frost a cake, A, but can you now learn to do it my way?

Are you open to that or are you going to fight me and be like, “I've always done it like this.” That's great. Awesome but here we do it this way. I think that is a very important thing. Have a teachable moment within your interviewing process because you'll see, are they open and accepting of that or are they going to fight you? If they're going to fight you in the interview where they're supposed to be on their best behavior, you know that down the road, this is going to become an issue.


Always include a teachable moment in your interviews. See if candidates can learn and adapt quickly. It's a great way to gauge their potential.


Generational Differences In Interviews

That's a good point, of course. Question. I'm thinking of generational stuff for a second here. Younger folks growing up with phone interviewing skills, a little different interaction, different communication, different looking, looking you in the eye, a little bit different. Any tips you can share? Let's flip it for the interviewing folks like, “I know you're young, but do these things to make yourself stand out in an interview.”

That's a great question. Here are a couple of things that I tell my students all the time. Number one, be early, but not too early, and never be late. Five minutes early is completely acceptable. Ten minutes early actually says you don't have enough respect for the time of the other person. You could be ten minutes early, but sit in the parking lot. Don't come into the kitchen here. I'm ten minutes early because they have planned that you're supposed to be there at two and in the kitchen, they're working up till 1:59:30 seconds. Then they're going to come out and grab you.

Be early, but don't be in their space too early, and never be late. Especially don't be late walking in with a cup of coffee in your hand because now we know why you're late. That was always my biggest pet peeve is people that were super early, that they were like, “I'm here now. Can we start this interview early?” No, I have a business that I'm running and I am on a very tight schedule. Have some kind of understanding of that. Definitely eye contact. I think that is so key. As you said, it is a little bit of a challenge for a younger generation that's growing up communicating with people sight unseen or even in a Zoom situation where you're not really looking at someone in the eyes.

Nonverbal Communication Skills

You're looking at your own eyes in the camera, not in the camera to sort of make it look like you and I are looking at each other. Eye contact is important. Present yourself in a professional manner. Comb your hair, wear a clean shirt. Don't look like an unmade bed. Just a very kind of basic type of stuff. Then have confidence in what you are bringing to the table. Let that come through. Sometimes that just means a smile. Sometimes that means in the way you actually are carrying yourself, nonverbal communication, you're standing straight, your shoulders are back, you're kind of hunched over and looking up the top. There's no self-confidence there.

Have confidence, they need you as much as you need them. You can bring something to the table. Every single person does have something that they can bring to the table. The person who is interviewing you is looking for that. For those of us that are running the back of the house, we have to also understand everybody out there can bring something to the table. It's our opportunity to discover that. When you're being interviewed, let them know what it is that you can bring to the table. What is your personal experience? No, I came to this industry late in life. I had an entire career before I became a chef. I have a lot of experience in that career that I can bring to the table.


Have confidence in what you bring to the table. Every person has unique skills and experiences that can add value to any team.


Maybe you've only been working in a kitchen for a year but you were a nurse for 25 years before that, what it's like to be on your feet for long hours, make sure that they know that. You understand how important it is for details in record keeping. Make sure that they know that. You are a team player. Make sure that they know that. That's what we need in the kitchen, is all of those other kind of soft skills, that type of stuff. We don't just need people who can hold a knife really well and cook a steak to the perfect temperature. We need everything else. To flip it back for those of us who are looking for our staff, I think we have to remember more and more that there are so many sort of transferable skills that people have from whatever walk of life that they've walked.

That is going to bring something to the table. That's where to go back to, I want to get to know you as a person. I also want to know like, “What have you done? What are these soft skills, these other things that you're going to be able to bring here? Is that something that my team is actually kind of missing? Am I missing somebody that's like a yes-chef kind of person?” That's going to sort of maybe rub off on some of the other teams. Am I missing somebody who is really punctual? Am I missing somebody who is just very attentive to the world around them? They're not so much sort of focused on what they're doing, but they're involved in what everybody else is doing.

That is something that I think, for me, made my experience in the kitchen kind of easy before I came to this world. I was a dancer. One of the biggest things that I was trained in is spatial awareness and knowing what everybody else is doing around me at all times. I remember when I was in the conservatory, it was actually something that my teachers commented to my parents about is like, “Steve is really good at not only knowing what he needs to do, but he knows what everybody else needs to do at the same time. It's not even on stage. He probably could tell you what the stage managers are doing right now. He just has this sort of knack of being attentive to everything else in the world around him.”

That is so huge in the kitchen. You have to know what everybody else is doing too. If you can operate on a line where you never have to stay behind as you're passing through because everyone is just so aware of what everybody else is doing. That is phenomenal. I think that's one of the reasons I was a very good assistant to Claudia is when I was working in the kitchen beside her, I was not only doing what I needed to do, but I was also always having one eye on what she was doing. When Claudia walked out of the kitchen, she never needed to tell me, "Steve, that thing has five more minutes in the oven." She never needed to tell me, "When this is cool, can you put it in the refrigerator?”

I knew what she was doing as well. If she had to step out to do the bazillion other things that she had to do, I could just absorb her job as well and never need to be told about it. That is a huge skill. If you can discover those types of people because that unfortunately is the disease that is in the kitchen. We have our sort of, “This is my job, this is your job,” and we have to have some of that because we cannot have this sort of free-for-all. What we also have to have is everybody should be aware of how what they do affects the people around them and what the people around them are doing so that Slack can be picked up if need be or that we can all operate together. If this just becomes, “Nope, I'm Garde Manger, that's all I do, I do nothing else.” Those are the people that you don't want.

A lot of good tips there. I was jotting stuff down the whole time. If folks go back and listen to that section, both from the interview side and the interviewee side, I'm sure there are a lot of horror stories that you could share that restaurant tourists could share about people coming in, even with the clothing and stuff people wear and how they behave. We won't get into that right now. Let's go to the retention side real quickly.

This has been a big challenge over the last couple of years because as labor is tight, people try to pull people out of your kitchen to bring them into their kitchen. For a while, there were bonuses and pay hikes and this and that. You need to do something at your restaurant that makes people want to stay. That's a culture thing. That's growth opportunities, lots of things, but what do you see retention tools and techniques that folks have been successful with? What do you think?

I think one of the good retention techniques is to let everybody know how important they are to the whole picture of the operation. Then let each of your employees become invested in some way, usually emotionally, as to what is the goal here. If we're shooting for a Michelin star, everybody in the kitchen should be aware that is the goal and that's where we're moving towards and so that everyone can kind of participate in that together. When you have the successes, everyone feels it. When there is a misstep or whatever, everyone feels that as well.

I used to involve my employees a lot, kind of letting them know, “This is what we're going to be doing over the course of the next couple of months. This is what we're trying to achieve with growth.” Again, I had a bakery, so I would always let my employees know, “I've been talking with this other thing. We're working on a wholesale deal with another hotel to do the pastries for the breakfast and the continental thing. If this happens, we will then be getting these other big orders and this is going to happen.” I wanted them to always be aware of that.

It wasn't a situation where I just sort of arrived one day and said, “Now we have to double the amount of stuff that we're doing because we just got this thing.” I wanted them to know that. I wanted them to be excited about the potential opportunities that were coming our way. Even when I did television things and I wasn't supposed to tell anybody, my back-of-house staff knew, and my front-of-house staff didn't. My back-of-house staff knew because I didn't just all of a sudden not want to be there for two weeks and they're going, “What the heck?”

I wanted them to be invested in that. Of course, when I would come home, I wouldn't say, “I won,” but I would say it was a great experience and I cannot wait for you to be able to watch what I did and kind of become a part of that. Another thing that I think might sort of help psychologically is to use the term we and not the term I and instill that in every single one of your employees. This is a we situation. This is not an I situation. It just drives home the sort of importance of teamwork that nobody does anything by themselves. Sometimes as executive chef, owner, whatever.


Use 'we' instead of 'I' to foster a sense of teamwork. Success is a collective effort, not an individual one.


There's kind of that sort of temptation. It's like, “This is what I did. This is what I've built,” but that's not true. It's a we situation. The more and more that everybody can be part of the we and you can make the we part of the vocabulary, even when I did interviews and things like that, I never said I, I always said we because one of my employees might be hearing that. When they realized that they helped to get us to where we were. That's huge. That might be enough. Of course, then treating them well with monetary incentives.

Understanding them as a human being, again, helps you to sort of realize, “Is this somebody that maybe has some financial struggles? If so, can I toss like extra few hours their way every now and then? Or this is somebody who is struggling with daycare and the situations.” To kind of have an open conversation with them privately, “Is this schedule too hard for you right now? What can we do to sort of adjust that to make it so that it works for you?”

I had an employee once who was like, “This is becoming very hard because of our daycare situation, which we've lost.” I was like, “Would you like to come in then and work at night? You can come in in the evenings by yourself and get your stuff done. You don't have to be here from 8 to 3 with everyone else. If that will help you in your situation, I am happy to do that so that we can keep you but the struggles that you're having at home might not affect your performance when you're here at work.”

That's right. People will say, “Money is the easiest one when you're looking for a new job. Money is always kind of a top priority.” Then things like you just talked about schedule flexibility, growth opportunities, people that you're working with culture, those are big parts of every position too. Just stay here for a second. How much is money playing a factor in the kitchen, do you think, in terms of pulling people in and out? Any other thoughts?

I think it's always going to be there. As much as we might kind of want to say, “No, hopefully, the kitchen culture can kind of be like Google, and we just want everybody to be happy all of the time. It doesn't really matter but they get paid.” At the end of the day, it's a job. It's a career. This is maybe their sole source of income. I think that that's going to always be there. When you understand sort of the lifestyle, even a little bit of each one of your employees, that might help you to understand, like when it comes time for raising or bonuses or whatever, it might be more beneficial than like less hours, more money type of situation or more hours, same pay.

An overtime situation may be a bit more beneficial than an actual sort of pay raise in general. Even when it comes time for bonuses and things, is it like a cash bonus situation? Or might it be more beneficial to, I don't know, throw them like a gift card to a grocery store so that your employee is going to be able to take care of their family, whereas cash sometimes goes other places. Here's stuff that will have. For some of our employees, it was like, “There's extra stuff. Why don't you just take that home.”

I knew that they were struggling, but I also knew that that was a very embarrassing conversation to have. We have these extra things. I could sell them as day old, but that's going to maybe bring the perceived quality of my business down. I'm much happier to send this extra stuff home with my one employee because I know what they've got going on at home. That might just be enough to help today. They don't have to think about, “What am I going to do for dinner tonight? Here's all this extra stuff.”

Your point is good. Different folks have different levers that are meaningful to them and so having that understanding is important. Let's kind of wrap with what's going on for you at the school there. I know you talked about some of the awards that you've done in the past a lot. A lot of great stuff you've been a part of if you want to get to any of the TV stuff or what you guys are doing there. I want to get out to share the website. How do you want to kind of lead folks here at the end?

Since I am an educator now and training the next generation, I think I'd like to live in that little world for a moment. I know in this industry, there is still this sort of double-edged sword when it comes to looking at education. Is it worth it? Is it not worth it? Can you learn on the job versus whatever? Since I came from a technique-driven conservatory type of background, I'm a huge advocate for education. Not just because I work for a culinary school, but just in general, I found that that was my personal experience. I loved going to culinary school.

I thrived there because it was a situation that was instilled in me. It's so important to have a foundation in base technique. Once I have that foundation, I can kind of do anything. When you know what all the rules are, you now know also how to manipulate them and perhaps even break them and still be successful. I'm a huge advocate for an education of some kind. If you are, as a restaurant that's looking for somebody and you're in a situation where there is a school around you, I highly encourage you to make a connection with that school. What students do they have? This is a great resource for you as far as finding your employees.

For people that are students at a school, do your best. Put your best foot forward at all times. Understand that you are there to learn a huge variety of skills and techniques that will allow you to sort of the world can become your oyster if you sort of pigeonhole yourself in school and say, “I don't think I really need to learn this. I only need to learn this.” Then you're not going to have all of the doors open for you. Again, that kind of understanding of the vocabulary that we have in the kitchen. It's a very specific vocabulary. Like you can kind of say things outside of the kitchen and people don't get it. That's kind of fun.

It's like having this sort of little secret language. Having people who understand that vocabulary, who know what you're talking about, I think is crucial. Then as the owners or whoever, as you're looking for people, figure out ways to implement some training not just in your hiring process, but I think that also is a retention thing. Can you bring in some chefs every now and then? Can you have some workshops, some training? Is there even a way that you can maybe send some of your employees to classes outside of your kitchen? That is going to keep people there that they know that they're going to be able to sort of grow.


Incorporate training and workshops in your kitchen. It boosts retention and keeps your team growing.


Again, that's where being an advocate for school kind of comes in handy. There are so many opportunities for workshops and guest chefs to come in. That's always so exciting to learn these new things. Nobody knows everything. We all will grow with experience, and let's grow together. Let's have our team, our family that we're trying to build. Everyone wants to be in this kitchen that's like this family environment. Let's learn together every now and then. Let's grow together. Let's have this sort of give-and-take type of conversation and see what happens.

I love it. Question for you about your school in particular. I know I go on the site as We'll put the link everywhere, but there's an online piece, and there's in-person. Where are you guys physically? What happens online? What does it look like these days because it's different than 10, 15, 20 years ago?

We have two ground campuses, one in Boulder, Colorado, and one in Austin, Texas, which are fantastic. We also have a very large online program. Our online program is just sort of growing. We have essentially a diploma program, and we have an associate degree. Within that, we have a culinary program, a pastry program, a plant-based program, and now we have a holistic program. We also have a hotel restaurant management and operations program. There's a lot of stuff that we can kind of learn in this online format.

I think there is this sort of negative perception about online culinary school where it's like, “Yes, this is a technique kind of driven thing. there are also kind of flavor components and stuff like that to take into consideration.” Let's look at training on its very basis. There is a vocabulary that everyone needs to understand. There are some techniques that are there. Also, let's remember anyone who's ever been to culinary school, when we graduated, we did not know everything. We were still kitchen grunts coming out of that situation, but we understood the vocabulary, we understood the techniques, and we had maybe a bit of a quicker trajectory in growth than someone who doesn't speak that kitchen language.

That's what we are instilling in so many of our students, even in the online program. We're helping them to understand what that vocabulary is. We're giving them a base understanding of technique. Yes, we cannot taste their food, but I am getting very good at looking at things and going, “I know exactly what happened here.” I think that has helped me a lot as a chef because I can recognize when errors are happening solely now just by looking at something. I don't even have to taste it to know that's dry. That is absolutely dry because I can see all of these other key things.

Cooking is something where we use all five of our senses, but we're so used to just kind of being in this whole I have to touch it, I have to see it, and I have to taste it kind of world. There's a lot of other stuff that kind of comes into play here too. At the end of the day, when our students are leaving, all of our students do have to do an externship in a professional kitchen. That's their opportunity to implement their technique and their vocabulary and hopefully become part of somebody else's family. They will leave the Escoffier family and they will go into your kitchen family and we know that they can do it.

I want to give you one last chance. I happen to be on the site over here looking at it. If they land on the home page, are there specific things to dive right into? Directions or their downloads for sure. What do you got?

One of the things that I think is kind of fun about our school website is if you're going to be on there for more than two minutes, a little thing pops up in the bottom right-hand corner. It's almost like a little AI type of person that's like, “What can I help you with?” If nothing else, ask the little AI character about, say, “This is what I'm looking for.” You can kind of jump around, especially if you're not in Boulder or Austin, you'll want to jump into the online programs and you can request information. You can request contact from our admissions department.

Interview Tips For Younger Applicants

Just kind of poke around. There may or may not be a wonderful set of podcasts as well that may or may not include one by myself, just saying. If you want to look at the ultimate dish, the Escoffier podcast, shame is a plug, but there's a great episode. I was very fortunate to do one of the episodes with our in-house sort of podcast talking about that kind of personal experience, what kind of brought me to the kitchen world. Ultimately, something that is my point of view that I share with my students all the time, which is to be unapologetically you. Know what you have to offer and bring to the table, because once you own who you are, that is going to sort of make you that much more valuable.

Maybe there's my last piece of advice for anyone who is being interviewed. Be unapologetically you. Be open to critique and betterment at all times. You are not perfect. No one is perfect. Perfection doesn't exist, by the way. Own who you are and what you can bring to the table. Then as the back of the house, own the kitchen identity. This is our team. This is what we are trying to achieve. We want you to become a part of that as well. When someone feels wanted, they're going to put their best foot forward.

Really good stuff today. Appreciate it, Chef. Folks, that's been Chef Steve Konopelski of Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. You can find them at That's Escoffier, and you may need to use spell check in Google to get there. For more great restaurant marketing and service, people, tech tips, and more stay tuned to us here at We'll see you soon. Thanks, Chef.

Thank you for having me.


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