Restaurant Highlight | Hart House's Edwyn Kumar

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Nestled in the heart of city is where you’ll find the historic home of Burnaby’s Hart House.

Fresh off their 30th Year anniversary, Hart House has been described as an idyllic, charming and inviting restaurant – and those characteristics don’t come without merit.

Hart House offers diners a nostalgic aura of fine dining without the air of pretentiousness. As the sole dining establishment in Metro Vancouver offering lakeside dining, Hart House is also one of the few award-winning restaurants that also doubles as a wedding venue.

Offering impeccable service and refined Pacific Northwest cuisine from the hands of Executive Chef Mike Genest, Hart House is the epitome of casual elegance in the current fine dining environment. And this is heavily from the influence of Operations Manager Edwyn Kumar.

In efforts to get to better familiarize ourselves with our users, we reached out to our clients to learn more about them, and highlight their industry knowledge. And the very first official visitor to our new office came in the form of Mr. Edwyn Kumar!

Dressed head to toe in his motorcycle riding gear and his motorcycle helmet in hand, Edwyn appeared to be the embodiment of the flexibility of the restaurant industry. The former General Manager and now the Operations Manager of Hart House, Edwyn has called Hart House home for almost a decade.

His calm, cool, and collected demeanor is reflected in his operational role at the restaurant and guest experience, often unknowingly. With each step into the dining room, from the dress code to the plates that touch tables to the cheque experience, Edwyn has placed thorough practices that his team happily executes throughout their shifts.

These attributes stem from his own experience. Starting his career in the restaurant industry at age 19, Edwyn has held management positions in award winning restaurants like Chambar, Cin Cin, and Lumière. As a veteran of Vancouver’s industry for the last 25 years, we sat down with Edwyn to discuss everything from restaurant management, guest experience and social media.

Can you tell us about your history in the industry and how you got started?

I’ve been in restaurants in Vancouver since about ‘93. I started out with hotels and then moved into independent restaurants in early 2000s. I got into the management and leadership side pretty quickly because I liked the coaching and developing side of it.All the operational things kind of came about as necessary, as you’re always going through transitions and things like that. I had a goal early on in my career to tap into what all the successful restaurateurs were doing around the city and see how each of them independently ran each of their businesses. I used this as my own form of university and all of them have a different approach to ultimately achieve the same goal.You take the parts [of different operations] that you like, leave the parts out that you don’t and figure out what focuses work for you. That how I’ve always kind of approached management.

I like to have my hands in lot of areas. Whether it’s wine development, logistics, operations, plus whatever else happens to be needed; I approach it from the perspective of ownership. That gives you a slightly more entrepreneurial mind even when it comes to an established place like Hart House.

We’ve noted that you had a long tenure at Hart House as their GM and then moved to Chambar and then back to Hart House. Can you tell us a little bit about why you made the transitions?

I had a great time at Hart House and Chambar was like the last check mark on my roster. I’d known the ownership for a number of years and when they had expanded to the new larger space they reached out and were looking to implement some systems and operational updates because they were running it like a small restaurant in a big space. So that was a big draw for me to go over there, to implement systems.I spent just shy of two years over there and then had a chance to go back to Hart House in a new operational position, which was great because I was able to run everything with a smaller team again.

Life at Chambar definitely turned into singular focus whereas I found more of a holistic approach to life at Hart House. Even though I have more encompassing responsibility now, the breadth is wider, and so is the authority. Whereas at Chambar it was about leading somewhat autonomous teams with very specific tasks. For example: you have your bar team, your somm[elier] team, etc.

At Hart House I have more of an “everyone wears multiple hats” kind of team. I still have my management team, my culinary team, my sales team, and that sort of thing but there’s a lot more crossover of roles.

Just touching on the point of working from a team…you have different heads of each department. So with working with a management team, how do you balance working with people who have different personalities or skill-sets?

There are various things, but number one is communicating visions and values for sure. If everyone understands what the underlying principles are behind what you’re trying to achieve then it’s simple and easy to manage.From that perspective, [communication] is a definite go to. Applying key strengths is a huge factor. So, giving and delegating tasks to those who are good at it generally creates productivity. They’re able to advance skill-sets.Ideally when they get to the point where they can teach what they’ve learned, they can start transferring that knowledge to other people who are looking to develop skills in their own repertoire.

I do use some behavioural assessments also. I’ve got certification with Thomas International for DiSC assessments. It’s not a personality test. It’s basically [understanding] how people tend to be given certain inputs and applying that knowledge to ensure understanding within the team.

If you’re doing conflict resolution, you’re able to go “OK, you’re just looking at the same thing from different sides” or even [looking at] slightly different perspectives perhaps and applying those effectively.

[DiSC] is a bit more objective. I find that dealing with the soft skills part of people’s character is sometimes the most challenging from a managerial perspective. With DiSC you can objectify it. You can remove the person from the situation and go “OK well this is an archetype tendency in that situation.” You can help the team member override a bias in thinking with cognitive thought as opposed to old habits.

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How do you a create a well-oiled management team?

Put people in the place where they’re going to do their best and then challenge them a little bit.If anyone starts getting complacent or bored or apathetic, [you can] find creative ways to generate new projects for them to latch onto. My restaurant manager right now is working on getting his next level of wine development. My lunch manager is now doing a bunch of logistics when it comes to the sales admin. She’s doing all the back-end stuff that’s required, and excelling at it. Everything from confirmations, to menu layouts, to closing communication loops … the little things that get lost in busy days. And she loves that!

Whereas personally I hate maintaining the repetitive systems, I like creating them. If I have to do something repetitive, it drives me crazy.The tasks and projects can’t be too easy, because then it’ll be too boring and potentially develop apathy. And it can’t be too hard otherwise it creates frustration. It’s got to be at the right challenge point for the individual. Around 80 to 88 percent of someone’s skill set is normally where they work the best (most productive). Throwing them in that type of environment is great.

Do you ever have those days where it’s way too quiet and no one ever gets anything done? But if your work load is stacked too high, no one wants to do anything either because now they’re like “Ugh, too much.” With the right amount of challenge and tasks, they can pump it out and get it done. It’s tricky, and you’re always moving pieces around to ensure the work gets done and people feel challenged yet rewarded with their work.

What do you consider one of the most difficult aspects in managing a team?

In my experience from all the restaurants over the years, if it had to be one thing, it would be ego. Ego gets in the way. “Ego is the enemy”, as the book says. Trying to figure out how to get someone to grow past that is tough. It’s generally a defence mechanism I find, against turning a corner and growing.Ego can be a wall for people to understand and empathize with other perspectives. I’m still figuring out how to navigate oversized egos. Thankfully the culture at Hart House doesn’t have that at the top managers in the forefront, so it minimizes it across the board.

You’ve mentioned how your strategy sees it as a defence mechanism. Do you have an example of a time that that’s worked well for you?

I think you have to put it back on the person and ask them “what’s the challenge? “. It almost becomes therapy [laughs]. They have to make the break through. If they’re not ready, then it’s an uphill battle for sure.Either you remove them from that project or area of responsibility or they make a breakthrough where they’re like “Oh OK, I get it.” Because people come in with different backgrounds and outlooks and life philosophies.

For example: often times when you promote someone from a junior position to some sort of added authority, sometimes they may think they have to take on a different persona, to act different than they have been succeeding at naturally. You have to remove them from that and go “Hey, where did you learn that?” You don’t need to put on the lab coat all of a sudden - be yourself a little! Remove those preconceptions and biases that they have of what they think the role is.

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If you had to describe the characteristics every good GM has in three words, what would they be?

Communication definitely. Being able not only to share the vision but to receive information from everyone around. That ties in with the second one…

Clarity. The less obfuscated you can make your operations, the better. I know a lot of business leaders who like to withhold information and I’m not that person. I would rather everyone know exactly what was going on, all the time. Share information clearly.

Accountability is the third one. When you have accountability and you tie that in with responsibility and authority then you’ve got a good working team. If you’ve only got two out of three of any of those pillars (accountability, responsibility and authority), then you’ve got a major problem. Because someone with a lot of authority and a lot of responsibility and zero accountability is a disaster. That’s something that I talk about with my team all the time.

In a role of a manager, do you think soft skills are more important or technical skills? How do you place value on them?

Soft skills have to be there. As far as their underlying soft skills, you have to vet for that pretty hard during recruiting. You have to communicate that as much as possible daily. I actually have a list up on our staff board about the soft skills that we value at the restaurant because people can work on that themselves.For soft skills, you need to have enough on the scale. Perhaps 70% or 80% of the values you want from a person must already be there.

There has to be the hope of those values being there.Hard skills can be taught. I’d rather have someone who is super green yet driven, has an initiative based attitude, and has some willpower and willingness to grow with humble qualities about the way they go about doing it versus someone who’s like “I know everything. Hire me!

If you could describe Hart House in one word, what would it be?

I read this question and I was like, this is such a hard question! It’s a really hard question because one word can send the entire message. From a guest’s perspective I’d say welcoming, which is probably the biggest one. I think that if people feel welcomed, that addresses 80% of hospitality.

Then, take care of your details of the business so the guest doesn’t have to worry about it.

We’re the only lakeside dining in the city and it feels like you’ve really gone away while being in the heart of the city. I try to take the idea of being stuffy away. That whole fine dining thing kind of washed out late 2007/2008.

We make adjustments on how our service procedures are operating and remove some of the unnecessary layers – like crumbing the table for example. We use tablecloths but I hate crumbing the table because it sends the wrong message. Technically it’s a service step but the second someone pulls out a crumber, you’re like “This is not relaxed!” So I decided no more crumbers! It’s a small example of removing or adapting a service step (one of many) that has a big impact on the theme we’re trying to communicate.

hart house

Were these changes just by observing the guest behaviour and making those judgement calls?

Yeah… for example there was a period of time where a lot of guests were calling about a dress code. The second people have to start asking about a dress code, there’s a problem.It means there’s uncertainty. If people are accustomed to showing up dressed to the nines, they wouldn’t ask about the dress code. Sending that as your message in the restaurant is fine if that’s easily understood.

But the second people start to ask, we say “OK, let’s just remove the dress code.” People still call once in a while, so you know what, as long as you’re dressed [laughs].In the summertime, for those wanting to sit on the patio, it’s fine to come in with shorts and flip flops and have a glass of rose and a charcuterie board – knock yourself out! That sounds great to me.I’ve been in fine dining my whole life and I hate going to a strictly enforced dress code restaurant. I hate it – it’s stupid. I was in New York with my eldest son and I didn’t have a jacket. I was like “Oh I can’t go here.” It’s dumb – I wasn’t going to fly back home or buy a jacket, it wasn’t going to happen [laughs].

How do you ensure that new and returning guests receive quality service and consistent food?

You have to get honest internal reporting. The managers have to be in tune with what’s going on with the tables and servers have to communicate to the managers. If there’s anything wrong at a table, the server has to tell the manager.The server shouldn’t feel like they’re going to get reprimanded either. Don’t shoot the messenger. That’s another cultural thing. Even if they made the mistake, I don’t want to be blindsided. If we get a negative review, I want to know that is was table x on this particular night. There should be no question. The second you get a blindside, that’s not good.

Thank the server for keeping you in the loop. Thank the managers for good internal reporting and informative shift logs, even if mistakes were made.Internal communication has to be tight. If guests are aloof and dismissive, the server has to go to the manager and explain “Hey, I did a quality check and this is what I got.” The managers can then help clear the table or they can swing by and top up a glass of wine and try to politely dig for more. Because the guest may tell the manager [if there’s anything wrong] and not the server. Guests have to live with the server for two hours whereas the manager may feel safer to talk to.90% of the time where I get negative feedback, I’m like “OK, I’m familiar with this. This is what happened.”

Even when I’m not there, our shift logs are very clear. We know exactly what’s going on. And that same culture in the kitchen has to be present too. If there’s a specific dish in the kitchen that’s being under attack or getting consistent critical feedback– change it. There’s no point in providing something to a guest that they don’t want.

Hart House is one of the few dining establishments in Greater Vancouver area that doubles as wedding venues. On top of our minds, we only came up with Hart House and Brix and Mortar. If one of your peers in the restaurant industry decides to venture into the wedding/restaurant business, what are are some things they should consider?

You may have had initial contact two years out with that guest who wants to get married, so you have to ensure that you are going to deliver on a promise you made two years back.Oh, and get an exceptional Sales Manager [laughs] because the relationship you build with someone in a wedding is over an extended period of time. And you have to pay them well – a sales manager is key. Don’t go cheap. I’ve witnessed so many restaurants go super cheap on the salary or pay structure of a sales manager – worst idea, don’t do that. That’s a huge one. Sonja’s been with us for a very long time [laughs].You can’t be switching from person A to person B to person C and so forth. [Clients] aren’t going to want to do that.

Understanding what you can and what you can’t do is also really important.

There are some things that you just can’t do and there are a bunch of things that you can do, and then stuff you can do with perfection. Ensure that you’re offering the product that you’re promising. Don’t fluff it up. Put up real pictures of real weddings that happen at your real place. I see a lot of online marketing where it’s like “that’s not even there!”

Be realistic with the adaptations that you have to make with your food program. Because you can’t have twelve step plates for a 200 person wedding. Many places will do that because they’ll cook a manageable amount of plates at one time in the dining room. And then suddenly you book a wedding, and how do you do that plate for so many guests? If each plate is taking you a minute and forty-five seconds to plate, do you really want to do 200 of those?

If you figure out the math, it’s either going to work or not. You should have the operations logistics really dialed. The number of seconds – you’ve got to stop-watch that. If a plate is 20 seconds over par, it’s not going to work.

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You’ve recently celebrated Hart House’s 30th year of opening this year. Can you tell us a bit 1-3 things about how you guys are so successful considering 1. you’re not in Vancouver, 2. you’re by a lake and 3. you guys double as a wedding venue …  what’s the secret to success?

Relationships. Relationships with our suppliers, relationships with our regular clientele, relationships with third party businesses (like your team at Push!). Figuring out who the people are behind the logos is important.Evolving but staying true to your brand is vital. The demographics are shifting for us. We’ve got a lot of younger diners moving to Burnaby and New Westminster. There are way more condos; a whole series of condos and townhouses opened up both by Metrotown and Brentwood; and New Westminster waterfront has blown up with development and it’s only 7 km away.

Understanding what’s going on from that perspective is big factor.Another example is when there is a shift, like what had happened before the recession fully hit in 2009 where all the head offices were moving back east . . . everyone was either going to Alberta or back to Ontario and local offices were downsizing. But many maintained the smaller remote offices, so adapting with menus and business budget needs is important. While doing all that, don’t lose sight of what your strength is and what makes your brand; as the verbiage use to communicate about your business can have a huge impact on the way people perceive it.

Just based on our conversation it seems like you seem to have your operations down pat. You manage your team and you have all these things in place and you set them up for success. But what are some challenges that you run into in your day to day operations?

Wild cards and the unexpected. Perhaps you’ll have someone who punches in an order correctly on large events, transfers, deposits, and all that stuff correctly ten or twenty times and then one time they just don’t. It’s a blip, but you just kind of roll with it!Recruiting has been an ongoing issue with hospitality for a while. Costs are going up, wages are going up, scaling is going up …so trying to figure out how to make all that work is challenging.Having a really strong onboarding system is also really important.

Don’t qualify someone for a job.

If you sit down with a candidate, just assume you’re not hiring them. If you decide you want to hire them before the interview even starts, then you’ll overlook so many things because you’re desperate, or you’re like” Oh yeah they were really great this way” and you’ll overlook some important flags.

It’s the candidate’s goal to qualify themselves for the position – not yours. You know what the position requires and the qualifications have to be proven to you. If you’re relaxed in an interview that's best, as you’re not trying to make them win the position. Once they’re your employee, then you can make them win, and that’s one the primary goals once they hired.

But before that point? Oh, you have typos in your resume? You’re not hired [laughs].

Onboarding is important because you’ve got to protect the team that you’ve already worked hard for. The second you start making compromises, the existing team won’t believe in you, or have the trust and the faith in what’s going on with your operation. It plants the unwanted idea of “I’m working hard but you’re hiring a bunch of people who are not holding up their end of the bargain.” So again, it comes back to people. Protect your team and bring in people who add value, not detract from it.

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What is the most important metric you follow in running a successful restaurant concept? (labour/sales reports, labour costs, inventory metrics, etc) and why?

I look at two primary things, as far as whether we’re doing well or not. One is contribution of sales; so how much of each category is contributing to every dollar spent.My events department, including weddings, will have different metrics than the dining room. A big wedding will tend to have higher alcohol sales for example. If my margins are correct, then I can try to push specific areas through added training and focus.

For example: food has high labor because you have to have cooks and chefs and all that other stuff to deliver that product, and then you have waste and spoilage etc. Watch those numbers tightly.If I know where to shift things around properly through good sales mix assessment, then I’m good.

In terms of managing a successful business, do you have any advice for aspiring hospitality professionals? What are some key traits they should have?

It sounds cliché but you have to have a good balance in your group. Not everyone can be the innovator, not everyone can be the maintainer, not everyone can be the person who adds stability.

Trying to be all things at the same time is a recipe for disaster

Find the right people to do various things so your team is balanced. That’s a key component of generating a solid team, because then everyone is able to contribute without a lot of internal tension. It’s important to allow someone to exercise the thing they’re good at and not create unwanted competition within the team.

I would say creating team balance and dynamics is huge and again it comes from understanding what they’re good at.

What’s the most rewarding part of the hospitality business?

I think it comes down to what an individual’s personal interests are and what they value about the business.Find out if people are interested in wine service, or if they really interested in the relationships that are developed with our regulars.

For example, one of our longstanding servers knows all of the regulars by name. It’s incredible, he’s like an encyclopedic trap and he’s always a great go to. Meanwhile another server is in his final stages of the WSET wine diploma. Find your sub passion within the job.

The industry is dynamic. It’s never stagnant.

We’re not in a high margin business where you can be frivolous. You’re always figuring it out and tweaking and understanding how to find the best solution in those situations. Restaurants are a luxury.Being able to be in an industry that touches a lot of people’s lives is very fulfilling. Both as an employee and an employer. You might come across someone who you served back in 1998 and they remember you because of something that you did and you have an immediate connection. And maybe you’ll see them at a different location 20 years from now … for me that’s definitely rewarding.

You have mentioned that you’ve been in the industry for 25 years. What major differences have you noticed in the industry from when you first started, to now? Has anything changed or have things remained the same?

Things have changed a lot. Internally, the kitchen is no longer a massively hostile environment. It’s a bit more collaborative and there’s more camaraderie in there. It’s almost attracted more outdoorsy type people in their approach…cooks who like hiking or surfing but they’re working kitchens. It’s no longer military brigade style. That’s a big change. There’s a lot of laughter in our kitchen, something unheard of in kitchens of old.I remember when I first started serving, I dropped a porcelain spoon and it broke. I was younger. The Chef walked over to me and glared at me, pointed at my face and said, “Don’t break my f*cking spoons” and it’s like, woah, intense … [laughs].

There was a lot of fear based leadership in the old days and that’s out the window now which is good.

Front of house managers are also way more in tune with their staff and what’s going on. That heavy authoritative hand is no longer there. You’re just not going to keep anyone with that style of management.

From the clientele perspective, you’re getting immediate feedback. You’ve got to be really consistent with what you’re putting out. You can have a Google review within thirty seconds of giving a guest a cheque. That just never happened before – it was always about the printed reviews. Now there’s a million different people who all technically have complete input and influence that can affect your business immediately. Not sure how I feel about that [laughs].

I’ll give you an funny example: there’s a blog out there that’s been out for four years. It falsely says we do buck-a-shuck oysters. We don’t do buck-a-shuck oysters. But I still get calls every week. If you’re reading this, please don’t call me to ask if we do buck-a-shuck oysters! We just don’t. That blog will live there forever. Oh dear. If you don’t see it on our website, then it’s probably not true [laughs]

Social media, online reviews and a more informed diner are all part of the restaurant landscape, and majority of it is positive. It keeps us all on our toes at the very least.

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Table of content

December 2020


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