How Coker Graham's teenage job as a waitress launched her career
Julie Coker Graham, the new leader of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, is an illustration of the importance of teen employment. Folks like labor economist Paul Harrington at Drexel University say that teen employment connects young people to the workforce and that early employment is an indicator of later financial success. That's just how it worked for Coker Graham.
Julie Coker Graham, the new leader of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, is an illustration of the importance of teen employment. Folks like labor economist Paul Harrington at Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy say that teen employment connects young people to the workforce and that early employment is an indicator of later financial success. That's just how it worked for Coker Graham.
As a teenager in the 11th grade, she got a job as a waitress, she said during the Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. And it was that job that led to a lifelong career that has been both satisfying and lucrative.
"Back then you called them waitresses, not servers. So I was a waitress. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I liked the fact that you had immediate satisfaction," she said. "So someone's leaving after you've given them great service and they're excited. You're also a part of special moments. Maybe a couple hasn't been out to dinner by themselves, because they have children, for years. So they're at your table and they're just excited to be out, or it's grandmom's birthday or dad turned 60. In the restaurant business you get to be a part of those memories. So that's really what I liked about it.
Question: What type of restaurant was it?
Answer: It was a steakhouse. It was called Mr. Steak. Back then, this tells you how long ago it was, you smoked in restaurants. So I had the smoking section. I didn't mind the smoking section because they drank more in the smoking section. So, therefore, my tips were higher in the smoking section.
Q: That's really funny. Were you good at being a waitress?
A: Absolutely. I really was. Early on I really enjoyed the art of service.
Q: How would you describe it?
A: Taking care of people and, again, being a part of their memories was big for me. I liked how I had the ability to make people feel, and vise versa. That was from the beginning.
Q: Did you expect that? What did you want to be when you grew up?
A: It was brand new to me. When I was a kid I wanted to be an attorney. My mom would probably say, `Of course you did, because you debated everything.' No one in my family was really in the service business. My mom was a social worker. My dad was a teacher in the Upper Merion School District.
Q: I remember when I was waitress, I really enjoyed the customers, but the cooks were a whole 'nuther story. You really had to butter them up.
A: Absolutely, because you could be perfect, you could be very hospitable and you could go over to the table and even if they were in a bad mood, you had techniques to make them laugh. Then you'd place their order and all of a sudden the steak that you ordered, even though it was clear on your ticket that it was to be medium well, it came out medium rare. That could single-handedly put you back. Actually, I was fortunate. We had a pretty good team and it wasn't a big restaurant. So we were all a big family.
Q: How did you make the path from waitress to hotel management?
A: At first I thought that I wanted to own my own restaurant. I was big on I want to go to school and I want to learn all the ins and outs of the restaurant business, because all I know right now is how to be a server or waitress. I want to learn the business side of it. What I learned at Johnson Wales is that hospitality was so much more. They were the ones who said, `You could work in a hotel and still do the restaurant piece. You don't have to own the restaurant. In a hotel you could be a food and beverage manager or you could be a restaurant manager. So don't limit yourself to just free standing restaurants.' I decided I wanted to go into hotels, because I just felt it was a broader career and I had choices.
Q: So you became entranced with hotels.
A: I loved every aspect of it. I really did. During my summers in college I worked in a Holiday Inn. I was a housekeeper.
Q: What did you learn from cleaning rooms?
A: Every job matters, every job matters. It's not just front desk. It's not just the general manager. Every job matters. I knew from the ladies that I worked with that what they did and taking pride in the work that they did is a part of a guest stay and guests come back for that reason. Also teamwork. If a housekeeper just wasn't having a good day and somebody fell behind and if we were all done cleaning our rooms, we went and helped her finish her two or three rooms up. We were a team. Those women knew everything about each other. They knew their grandkids. They knew their kids. They knew family stories. They knew birthdays. It was a team. So that's probably my early on memory of, `Oh, this is going to be a great profession. This is really cool.'
Q: What was the worst thing you had to encounter?
A: It was for sure New Year's Day, for sure.
Q: Every year?
A: Every year. Everyone's had a party. Almost all of the rooms you cleaned had a party. So there was just tons of beer bottles and wine bottles and just stuff. So those days were always tough. Then if you had groups where there was multiple occupancy. So if there were four people in a room or three people in a room, those are the rooms that were always tough.
Q: More towels.
A: More towels, sheets. The trashcans are overflowing. All of it, all of it. That was just the worst.
Q: Eventually you became a general manager of a hotel.
A: My first general manager property was in Chicago. So when I came to [Philadelphia to lead at the Hyatt along the Delaware], that was my third time being a general manager. I was fortunate enough to become a general manager at the age of 30, which was really young. I was eight years with Hyatt before I became a general manager.
Q: That was young. What were the challenges?
A: The first thing was I'm managing people that are, in most cases, significantly older than I am. So a lot of them probably instinctively questioned, `Who's this kid. What does she know?'
Q: How did you handle that?
A: Respect is earned. It's not demanded. I think your actions speak to why people want to follow you as a leader and why they respect you as a leader, so leading by example. I've never asked anyone to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself. Even as a general manager, if housekeeping was behind and they needed the managers to come up and help, I went up and helped. I stripped beds. I made beds. I cleaned toilets. I cooked in the kitchen. I bused tables in the restaurant. I stood outside and greeted people, even when it was freezing cold, because the doorman might have been backed up. I helped carry luggage in. I think when you do that, people realize that you're invested. People work with you. They don't work for you.
Q: In all your years working in a hotel, what was the weirdest thing you ever opened the door on?
A: There is always the couple having sex.
Q: That happened to you?
A: Absolutely. Even though you knock and knock and knock and knock.
Q: They are the ones doing the knocking. What do you say?
A: Excuse me. I'll come back.
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