Running a restaurant may seem vastly different from soccer, but they rely on much the same principles.
You need to master the basics and practice them consistently. You need to strive for the top and put the hours in to get there. Competition and striving for excellence are rewarded.
Just ask SUNY Broome alumnus Michael Santacrose, currently director of operations for Cook Out Restaurants. The Endicott native still remembers what Professor Rey Wojdat, the chair of SUNY Broome’s Hospitality Programs, said on the first day of class.
“‘If you don’t love the hospitality industry, you won’t be successful in it,’” he recounted. “I took it and ran with it.”
From soccer to chef
At Union-Endicott High School, Santacrose was big into soccer and aiming for an eventual scholarship. When a back injury in his junior year put that goal out of reach, he found a new focus in culinary arts.
“From 16 on, I realized how much I like cooking,” he reflected. “I realized that hospitality is just like a sport. I like cooking and I’m really competitive.”
Back in the game, he initially headed to Herkimer Community College, where he captained the men’s 2005 National Championship soccer team and earned an associate’s degree in human resources management. But the prospect of a desk job didn’t appeal to him and he came to SUNY Broome for the next chapter in his education: a degree in Restaurant Management.
He had already trained in French and Italian classical cuisine, working as a line cook and a banquet chef in the field. The curriculum in Restaurant Management met his needs, as did his local community college.
“The education is the same. People have a nonsensical notion that the more expensive, out-of-state schools get you the best opportunities,” he said. “I don’t feel like paying 40 grand a year for a culinary degree; it isn’t the key for what you want to do. In this industry, you need to learn in the field.”
Professor Wojdat played an integral role in Santacrose’s success, teaching the skills he needed to run a restaurant fresh out of school. Santacrose learned how to become a better communicator and delegator in the kitchen, as well as essentials such as business law, accounting and, above all, food and beverage cost control.
That last factor can make or break a restaurant, Santacrose pointed out.
“Restaurants are a math equation. If you know what you’re doing, it shouldn’t fail,” he said, recounting one of Professor Wojdat’s lessons. “Restaurants have a high failure rate because of ignorance or lack of competence. The person in charge is the reason the restaurant doesn’t run right. I don’t want people with excuses.”
Fine dining to fast service
After graduation, Santacrose plied his skills in fine dining, including positions at the Vestal Hills Country Club and Russell Steak and Seafood. After meeting his wife, he relocated to North Carolina, where he worked as a chef and sous chef in the Asheville area before making the transition to Cook Out.
As with all successful restaurant ventures, the decision came down to math.
“In fine dining, I made $30,000 to $40,000 a year. As a Cook Out general manager, I could make $100,000 a year,” Santacroce explained. “We made the joke that we could cook lobster and eat burgers, or cook burgers and eat lobster.”
Success in the hospitality business means long hours and plenty of hard work — all of which paid off. Over the past eight years, Santacrose climbed the career ladder at Cook Out, moving from general manager to district and then regional manager, and then making the hop into operations.
Currently, he runs all the Cook Out establishments in four states, overseeing all aspects of the business, from hiring to landscaping. The pace can be hectic, with several thousand employees providing customers with burgers and sandwiches to order. A focus on quality — for both the product and the employees who provide it — is a must.
Some of Santacrose’s principles of success: “Strive for perfection in everything you do. Your crew becomes your clientele,” he advised. “The culture you build in a restaurant will be what makes it successful or not.”
He also enjoys the opportunity to mentor young people, and prepare them for a career in which hard work pays off — both in terms of career advancement and character. Once you find a job you love and a good employer, stick with it to see results, he said.
If you’re considering a career in hospitality, you may find the ingredients you need at SUNY Broome rather than a larger culinary school.
“Most of the best chefs I’ve known went to a smaller school or were trained in the field. The level of professionalism in fine dining has to be there,” Santacrose said. “Once you have the basic foundation – how to use a knife, make the mother sauces and build recipes from the ground up – you don’t need to spend a lot of money to do so.”
“It’s like sports,” he concluded. “If you don’t know the basics and practice them, you can’t perform well.”
SUNY Broome is looking for the next generation of restaurant leaders! Become part of the first Culinary Arts class this fall at our new Culinary and Event Center in downtown Binghamton. Learn more at www.sunybroome.edu/culinary.