Jeff Benjamin on Lessons from the Hospitality Industry and Giving Back to the Community

As the junior and senior classes gathered in the Meeting House on February 9, Career Day Keynote Speaker Jeff Benjamin shared with the students that by their age he already had discovered what he wanted to pursue as a career — hospitality.

Having moved from Iowa to Long Island, NY when he was 15, Jeff decided to get a job as a busboy at a catering hall. He recalled that on his first day on the job, he was running food, wiping tables, restocking the bar, and watching the party attendees having fun because of the effort of the staff. It was a blast for Jeff. As he was cleaning up, his boss asked if he could stay for the night party because the other busboy called out sick. Jeff jumped at the opportunity to have some more fun, and he finished his second shift at 2 a.m. on cloud nine. As he was driving home afterwards, Jeff thought “This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life!”

“No two days would ever be the same, I attended parties every night, got paid, and, at the most basic level, I was going to be nice to people for a living,” said Jeff.

From this, Jeff offered his first rule for the students to consider when thinking about their future path. “Make sure you’re having fun. If you ever stop having fun, stop doing the job and find a new career.”

Jeff then recounted another early pivotal moment that shaped his mentality over the past 30 years. After a couple years, he was promoted to server and moved to an elite country club. Not only was Jeff now working in a lavish setting, but he was regularly expected to deliver a high-level experience for the same people day in and day out. He humorously shared how one guest, named Mrs. Schwartz, helped him set the standard by which he now measures the mindset of his current staff.

After every meal in the dining room, each table would receive a plate of cookies. After clearing dinner and returning to take the coffee and dessert order, Mrs. Schwartz said to Jeff, “You forgot the cookies.” So rather than explain that he hadn’t forgotten, he went to get the cookies. So all summer long, it became a game between Jeff and Mrs. Schwartz to see if he could deliver the cookies before she mentioned them. By the end of the summer, on his last night, Jeff’s manager let him clock out early but, while driving home, Jeff remembered he had forgotten Mrs. Schwartz’s cookies. He raced home to call the manager and tell them to remember her cookies.

“I pray that all members of my industry have that drive to please the guest,” said Jeff. “You could be a doctor, lawyer, salesperson, it doesn’t matter, but in your career, I want you to have a Mrs. Schwartz moment and ask yourselves ‘How can I deliver an experience to my customer that sets me apart from my peers?’”

Following graduation from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Hotel, Restaurant, and Travel Administration, Jeff landed in New York City with the food service company Aramark. He soon met and befriended chef Marc Vetri who enlisted Jeff to become the general manager of his new Philadelphia restaurant. After opening Vetri Ristorante to universal acclaim in 1998, Jeff and Marc became partners and rolled out eight lauded restaurants – Vetri, Osteria, Amis, Alla Spina, Lo Spiedo, and Pizzeria Vetri – over the next fifteen years. But there was a ninth restaurant and this is where Jeff’s second rule of learning from failure applies.

The ninth restaurant was opened at Moorestown Mall, but business dropped dramatically after initial success. None of the usual tactics worked and, after a year of doing everything possible, the restaurant was shut down. It was a blow to the ego and finances, but the failure forced Jeff to reimagine the business, which was running on autopilot. “The only way to overcome failure is to never stop learning. After admitting you can learn from anyone and anywhere, you will be able to face obstacles and challenges head on.”

Apart from the restaurant industry, Jeff imparted the notion that the definition of success extends beyond the business world. “It is essential that you be a part of the greater community and that you are a positive part of the community.” As Co-Founder of the Vetri Community Partnership, the organization began ten years ago to formally affirm his commitment to helping families lead healthy lives through good nutrition.

“Marc and I realized that we had a restaurant on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, and we were charging hundreds of dollars per couple and yet three blocks north is one of the country’s poorest congressional districts. With just $2.72 per day, we could feed the children nutritious meals. So we thought how could we solve that problem of hunger and also feel good about the professional efforts we’ve put forth in our industry? It is this work above all else that brings me the most satisfaction and of which I’m most proud.”

To his audience of students, Jeff expressed his hope that in whatever line of work they chose to pursue that they would have a positive impact and help the community around them.

In 2015, Jeff published his first book Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets. Next year he looks ahead to the opening of a first-of-its-kind lifestyle club called the Fitler Club in Philadelphia. Jeff will be managing the operations of the planned private membership club that will include social, business, and wellness offerings. Jeff and his wife, Melissa, are MFS parents to their two daughters Rebecca ’21 and Ali ’23.

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