Operations directors are vital to any restaurant chain business, but the pathway to getting to the position tends to be a varied one.
At this year’s Lunch! show in London, leaders from four well-known high street grab-and-go chains outlined the different routes they have taken to get to the top of the tree in operations.
Matt Chapman, ops director for 40-strong Mexican chain Tortilla, admits that it was his time as a bartender at university that paved the way for a career in hospitality, and eventually operations management. “I enjoyed bartending a lot and probably spent more time doing that than I did studying! When I graduated I was offered management and it seemed the logical step to take.”
From there he went onto work for a full-service restaurant brand before taking in spells at Krispy Kreme and Patisserie Valerie en route to Tortilla.
His counterpart at Leon, Shereen Ritchie, first got her taste of the industry cleaning tables at TGI Fridays to earn money during drama school. “I was there for 10 years in the end, became general manager and started to go into operations,” she explains.
After a spell outside of the industry, with TfL, when she also gained her NEBOSH health and safety certification, she returned to the industry with Las Iguanas, serving as an operations manager until the business was acquired by CDG.
“I felt then that I was at a crossroads of whether to go back into health and safety or stay with restaurants. Restaurants is my true passion — anyone who knows me will tell you that. And the only place I actually applied to was Leon and John Vincent!”
Chilango’s Richard Franks tells a similar story. His initial interest in what the industry could offer stemmed from doing a waiting job when he was 14 and when the time came for full-time employment he got a job with a sushi brand.
A decade with EAT was to follow, during which he made his way up the ladder from general manager to group manager and eventually ops manager. After three years as head of operations for London, he couldn’t resist the lure of Chilango. “It just seemed like a natural fit. I got on very well with the founders and the rest is history. Four years later, I’m still in the driving seat.”
Last but not least, Cape Town-born Natasha Willmans studied hospitality management at university before gaining experience in hotels and kitchens. A move to London saw her get her big break with Nando’s, where she spent eight-and-a half years. “That was an incredible time and I learnt so much in that business,” she says.
After taking some time out to travel — including a prolonged stop in Egypt where she opened her own ice cream shop with a friend — she secured a role with Tortilla, which at the time had eight sites. It had reached 30 by the time she left for Byron, but after two years she began missing the fast-causal, counter service environment.
“I took some time off to really research brands and where I wanted to be, to make sure that my next move was a long term one. And Ole & Steen was absolutely at the top of my list. Somehow the stars aligned and I ended up being in the right place at the right time.”