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Veterans of the military and hospitality industry share their stories

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Nick Rotas of Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking served in the Army after high school and then began his career in the service industry after finishing college. Contributed by Kenny Braun

A few months ago, I was on the rooftop at the cocktail bar Backbeat. It was a hot, humid day, and I joked with my server, Gregory Lammers, about the oppressive heat that felt as if it had reached 120 degrees earlier in the summer. He asked if I had ever felt that kind of heat and then explained to me what it was actually like.

He had served in Afghanistan. An Austin summer was a cakewalk by comparison. He wasn’t saying it to brag, — more as a way to make conversation and commiserate. His history of service surprised me, and I don’t know why, exactly. I guess it was his tattoos and hip, rock vibe, but I didn’t expect that he’d be a veteran. But when I thought about it, it made sense: He was polite, exacting and professional.

The interaction made me acknowledge that service industry workers don’t all fit the same profile and that neither do our military veterans. After a few minutes of thought, the correlation between the two fields actually made good sense, and I thought back to the chef and military veteran with whom I worked at a barbecue restaurant in Washington ages ago.

That afternoon at Backbeat made me want to reach out to other veterans and ask them about their service in both the military and the hospitality industry. It seemed like the best way I could to acknowledge and thank our veterans (including my father, a veteran of the U.S. Army) on Veterans Day.

Buddy Fisher, general manager at Hopdoddy Burger Bar and veteran of the Marine Corps

How did you end up in the service industry after leaving the armed services?

Fisher: Kind of by default. While I was in the Marines I took a bartending course to help put me through school after serving. While I was working on getting a degree in business administration, I also ended up working my way through the ranks in the restaurant and hospitality industry.

What similarities do you see between military service and working in the service industry?

Both the military and the service industry require high energy and adrenaline to get through different scenarios in a stressful environment. Just like the Marines, the service industry is very strategic, but you must be able to react quickly because things are always changing.

How has your military service informed your work in the service industry?

Focusing on teamwork and discipline are two of the biggest ways that my experience in the Marines informs my management style at Hopdoddy. I also try to inspire my team to always be the best they can be, even if working in a restaurant isn’t the job they are going to have the rest of their lives. The military taught me to always do my best, and I try to instill that in my employees.

What do you think are the misconceptions about the military and the service industry?

A lot of people think just anyone can do either, but it takes a lot of perfection, discipline and dedication to be successful in both.

Jake Maddux, founder of the Brewer’s Table and veteran of the Marine Corps Reserves

Austin American-Statesman: How did you end up in the service industry after leaving the armed services?

Maddux: In 2002, I did a deployment to 13 different countries in South and Central America. The whole time I kept a journal, and a big chunk of that was what local beers I liked. When I got out, I looked back at it and realized I really loved beer, so I figured out how to get into the industry. First to a brewpub, then a winery, then several breweries and restaurants until now opening my own.

What similarities do you see between military service and working in the service industry?

A sense of service. A desire to take care of others.

How has your military service informed your work in the service industry?

I suppose overall in my work ethic. I don’t mind the long hours and sometimes not very fun conditions as long as at the end of the day we accomplish the mission. In this case, to feed the body and nourish the soul through good food and drink.

What do you think are the misconceptions about the military and the service industry?

Perhaps that some people might think that we aren’t there as a choice. Like, we only join the military because there are no better options and only join the service industry as a backup while we wait for something better. There are professional military folks, and there are professional service industry folks, and they make it their life’s work to improve both their work and the overall mission.

Do you come across other veterans often in the industry, and is there a camaraderie there?

Well it’s not like we go around with our dog tags on, so it can be tough to know who’s who. Most people that know me well are surprised when I tell them I’m a Marine. But whenever I learn that someone is a fellow veteran, I do make a special effort to talk about it, if even briefly, to make that connection and say thanks for your service and offer a cheers to those who we loved and lost along the way.

Nick Rotas, director of operations for Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Salt Traders Coastal Cooking and veteran of the Army

What similarities do you see between the service industry and military service?

Rotas: People with strong work ethic tend to succeed. There is definitely a chain of command, but all people make a difference

How has your military service informed your work in the service industry?

My military service got me ready by teaching and nurturing skills such as dedication, work ethic, leadership, decision-making and forward-thinking.

What do you think are the misconceptions about the military and the service industry?

Military: That you aren’t ready for a “real” job after getting out. But people are wrong. In most instances, I would hire a vet before anyone else. I know what I am getting: hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, leader, decision maker.

Keith Thornton, line cook at Boiler Nine and specialist in the Army Reserves drilling with the 277th Engineer Company in San Antonio

How did you end up in the service industry after leaving the armed services?

Thornton: After leaving basic and advanced individual training I had a stronger drive to accomplish my own personal goals. One of these goals included making a living in an occupation that would truly leave me satisfied at the end of every work day. After numerous other occupations, I had my first stage at Congress Austin. From that point on, I was infatuated.

What similarities do you see between the service industry and military service?

Teamwork, discipline, respect, selflessness and clear, driven hierarchy are all strong similarities between the two occupations.

How has your military service informed your work in the service industry?

My military background has strengthened my resolve and made coping with the high-stress environment of the kitchen much easier.