Joining the hospitality industry during a romantic date

EP’s Unusual Hospitality Stories

Marianna Alfa’s journey into hospitality is a story that begun on a date, using a white lie, a ‘Bartender for Dummies’ guide book, a desire to change lives and heaps of personality.

Marianna is Vice President Food & Beverage for YOTEL but her route to where she is today could have been very different had it not been for a chance encounter on a date in the American capital.

Marianna was always destined for adventure. She left her home country of Slovakia at 18 and worked as an Au-Pair whilst learning English. By 21 she was in Washington DC in USA taking night classes at the college whilst looking after children during the day.

Marianna doesn’t ever want to be stagnant and has moved around in her career to discover and influence numerous hospitality operations. She has managed the food and beverage at prestigious locations such as Mandarin Oriental, the historic Willard InterContinental, the five star The Inn at Little Washington and the St. Regis Washington D.C. where she held a GM role for a Michelin starred chef Alain Ducasse.

Its been some journey and looking back she questions how she ever managed to live on $120 per week as an Au-Pair and what gave her the drive and the persistence. “I ask myself, how did I manage so many things at the same time? Between school, taking care of kids and bartending I always loved good food, but it was tough to afford better restaurants because I had to work and study to get a permit to live and work in the US. All my earnings paid for my studies to secure my existence and despite of that it was such a joy ride.”

Marianna looks back at a night which changed her destiny. “I was on a date in a Mediterranean restaurant on K street. I absolutely loved the décor and kept thinking what it would be like to work there. I mentioned it to my date and when I returned to the table, I found him talking to the owner. He saw my enthusiasm and asked if I had worked on a bar before? I lied and told him I had, so he asked me to start the following Saturday night.”

Marianna spent the next few days frantically speaking to all of her friends working in bars and restaurants to learn what goes into a Cosmopolitan, how much vermouth does a Negroni need and just what makes a Mai Tai taste like a Mai Tai.

“It was an intense first night on the bar, but it went well and by the end of the night, my fellow colleague behind the bar said she could tell it was my first ever time, but she wouldn’t tell the owner because I had helped them double their usual tips. In one night, I had quickly discovered that one of the secrets to a great bar tender is heaps of personality.”

One purchase of ‘Bartender for Dummies’ book later, “its cover taped around with a black tape and hidden behind the bar so I could quickly find any chosen cocktail I didn’t know”, Marianna was flying and whilst she couldn’t remember all of the customer names, she remembered what each liked to drink the moment they stepped into her bar. “We were in the heart of Washington DC, where the regulars were in finance, design, law or they were mostly the lobbyists and senators. They came in because they knew they would get a great service and genuine smile and I put that down to behaviour and charm. The right amount of eye contact, posture and the correct approach making the customer feel he or she is the most important person in the entire place.”

“The owners gave me the green light and it was a bit of a shock for the company. I was an outsider, a woman, a ‘corporate girl’ in a mom and pops empire, calling the shots to build a needed change and to create systems so the company can grow.”

Meeting Marianna today she does have a combination of character which makes her a distinctively open person. Her temperament is one where you can never quite imagine her slamming a door on someone who disagrees with her. Something she alludes to, as her role moved from food and beverage, to operations and naturally merging even more elements of human resources and particularly leadership development.

Those first steps into the industry quickly led to experiences in some of the best restaurants and hotels. Marianna began working up the ladder and found herself invited to a top leadership training program organised by Starwood Hotels & Resorts where she recalls a particular experience which stands out in her memory.

“I was working at the St. Regis Washington and joined my fellow Food and Beverage leaders gathered from the entire USA for a series of training courses in San Francisco. We soon discovered it was the beginning of sudden Union strikes and we were all woken up at 4:30am and told to come downstairs at soon as possible. The hotel staff had not come in and decided to strike and so 50 of us had to run the hotel, which had its usual 400 bookings in the restaurant alone and I’ll fondly remember a VP looking after the pot wash all day long. We had no one to delegate to and we all wanted to make decisions when some of us had to step back and realise we have to become a team regardless of the titles we held and that dishwashing, setting up a buffet or folding napkins needed to be done too. It was a fine example of how our industry works and how when working together we can create extraordinary experiences for our guests.”

“The hotel staff had not come in and decided to strike and so 50 of us had to run the hotel, which had its usual 400 bookings in the restaurant alone and I’ll fondly remember a VP looking after the pot wash all day long”

Marianna has worked through many challenges. Such as a luxury countryside hotel in West Virginia where they struggled to find employees who could work at the property. She recalls driving her car into the ground travelling an hour and half each way to the hotel from her home. It was a frustrating time but also one of immense learning. “I had known from early on that personality was the key in this industry, but also that people need to be working in the right position which suits them and where they can work at their full potential. I had to build structures where we streamlined talent. This included recruiting young people straight out of High School working at nearby fast food places, recognising the right attitudes and personalities and quickly training them.”

Following this time Marianna was ready to move to New York for a new experience. “I went from being a queen in the Washington area where I felt I was a known industry person to almost starting from scratch.” Prior to leaving the city, with her desire to change lives and making a positive impact in her “home town” she helped nightclub owners to open a brand-new restaurant within just two months. “The owners would be up late and not show up at the office till 3pm so I found myself making all the critical decisions because I just didn’t have the luxury of time. I was selecting everything to the smallest of details, from the chop sticks in a Japanese and Peruvian concept restaurant to table linen and uniforms. I learned lots about how important it was to build the right culture during this time and the importance of finding time to talk to people and build strong teams.”

These learnings were essential as Marianna joined the SA Hospitality Group as Director of Operations in NYC. “This was an Italian business at heart and they had a number of brands serving New York City neighbourhoods. I was able to spend time in every unit and really listen and get to know what was really going on in each restaurant from line employees, not only from managers who sometimes told me only what I wanted to hear. I worked 24/7 due to the commitment I felt inside of me, finding opportunities for improvement and moving people around to make each location tick and work successfully. The owners gave me the green light and it was a bit of a shock for the company. I was an outsider, a woman, a ‘corporate girl’ in a mom and pops empire, calling the shots to build a needed change and to create systems so the company can grow.” Marianna believes the icing on the cake was receiving a text message from a member of staff, who she had never met, saying the work she had instilled on the business had changed her life. “This puts a smile on my face, knowing that my hard work had influenced others and made a difference not only for the company but in people’s lives.”

Marianna doesn’t believe in coincidences but has been fortunate that a romantic date became a stepping stone to the world of hospitality for her. Now based in London she finds time to paint and balances the peace and quiet of artwork with the busy sector. “Had it not been for that date I may have ended up being a dentist” she jokes when looking back at her time in the industry so far, she simply puts it, “I believe you just get what you want when you apply courage, passion and hard work.”