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When the new boss is learning on the job
"It was the most humbling experience I have ever had: I was supposed to be the new leader, but all I could do was follow along."
-- Peggy Dunnette

by Peggy Dunnette


I was saddled with the task of reinventing myself from the ground up in 2005. I was bilingual, a college graduate, with dual citizenship in France and the United States, but out of work.

I thought to myself: 'Surely, I can find some rental property to manage,' but it was not to be had in that era of sky-high real estate prices. I found myself touring all manner of bowling alleys, bed-and-breakfasts, even whole resorts, but nothing made sense on paper. I had twin daughters to raise and I couldn't fail them. Whatever business venture I found had to work!

I did what they tell you never to do: I bought a bar/restaurant.

I had just sold a 5,500-square-foot commercial building at Lake Street and Lyndale Avenue in Minneapolis and didn't have a clue about what to do next. As for any prior restaurant work, I had been a server decades earlier, in high school and college.

My husband had worked in restaurants for many years as a cook and a kitchen manager. He thought it was a crazy idea. He saw my determination, but he wanted no further part of any cooking career. He made me promise that he would never again be asked to look out through the window of a hot, busy kitchen.

Two weeks later, the staff of Spring Street Tavern was summoned in the early morning to an emergency meeting in the basement. I was the new owner. The staff stared sleepily at this strange woman and I stared back. What had I gotten myself into?

It was the most humbling experience I have ever had: I was supposed to be the new leader, but all I could do was follow along. I knew perfectly well I had no business telling any of them how to do their jobs. So all I did for the first many months was watch and help, and only where I knew I could.

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I started in the kitchen doing dishes. I bused tables. I cleared plugged toilets. I asked each staff member what they needed to make their job easier. I started a revolving art exhibit in the dining room. I helped in the office, which is where I finally ended up spending most of my time, and learned to deal with the cascading web of vendors, bills and the delicate management of our cash flow.

Is there any advice to offer in all of this?

I would say it's wise to go slowly and not change things until it's perfectly obvious. Treat customers and staff with respect. Listen to (and sift) what they tell you. Keep the paychecks flowing, but be ready to work without pay for yourself the first two years. (I know, I did.)

Peggy Dunnette is the owner of northeast Minneapolis' Spring Street Tavern. She describes it as a mix of older neighborhood regulars, tattooed musicians, and patrons of all colors, persuasions and ages whose main common denominator is a warm heart. www.springstreettavern.com

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