Mark Verge received two angry phone calls. One guy called him “Mr. Perfect.” They wanted Verge to step off his pedestal and back into the trenches. They also happened to be fellow restaurateurs.
What could Verge have said to turn his desk into a complaints center? He told the truth. Verge, who owns multiple restaurants and hospitality venues in California, including Art’s Table, Cole’s, The Varnish, and Margo’s, laid it out for me recently. While Donald Trump’s presidency has brought flooding light to the issue of immigration in our country, this topic is old news in cities like Santa Monica and Los Angeles. It’s ancient. All this has done is bring it rushing to the surface.
At the tail end of November, Verge published a piece in Munchies with the pulsing headline “The Election of Donald Trump Makes My Restaurant Employees Fear for the Future.” Verge spoke about how, when Trump was elected, many of his employees literally broke out in tears.
“The neatest thing about [writing this article] was the non-Hispanic employees who were just floored that these people would really think they’re going to get deported,” Verge says. “As it hits them, it’s holy shit, they really think they’re going to get deported. It isn’t, maybe they’re going to get deported; they really believe they’re going to get deported. They were convinced.”
And here’s the other point. If you’ve ever spoken with Verge, you know he shoots from the hip and the heart. His reaction makes you want to polish the mirror. Across this industry, and undoubtedly in California, restaurants often deploy a “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy when it comes to illegal immigrants working in their venues. I’m not going to try to predict what Trump’s administration will do regarding this subject, but if hordes of people are suddenly forced to vacate the country, I can guarantee a massive swath will be leaving foodservice jobs behind.
“I just think at some point we need to realize we’re all using illegal immigrants and we’re trying to act like we’re not,” Verge says.
One thing that rubbed his contemporaries the wrong way was the fact that Verge is a man of action, which makes the procrastinator in all of us feel the spotlight. You don’t run hotels, restaurants, bars, resource centers, and more without a pro-active disposition.
When Verge’s employees expressed their fears—he says around 200 are Mexican and Central American—he quickly penned a letter, in Spanish and English, and sent it to everybody in the building. “They were really seriously worried about being deported. But my thought was more just trying to reassure them. That’s not happening. I will do whatever it takes to get you the path to citizenship,” Verge says. “As a business owner I should help. It was more like, instead of me protesting, let’s do something. We can’t just make up excuses.”
Verge grew up in California and in a household that embraced diversity. His Irish mother taught ESL for 15 years. His father is part Native American and Verge married his high school sweetheart, Lani, who is Asian.
“My beach was all Hispanic. Not 80 percent Hispanic, 100 percent Hispanic,” he says. “So I kind of grew up with these people, and they’re hard-working people. And they’re getting slaughtered on this thing.”
The 49-year-old has no idea what’s ahead, which is part of what’s troubling. I think, regardless of which party you identify with, that’s a fair description of the early weeks of Trump’s presidency. Will Verge be able to actually save his employees if that scenario unfolds? I don’t know. I’m sure he doesn’t, either. But the key here is that he’s addressing the problem instead of wrapping the white tablecloth over his eyes. We can use more people in this industry, especially at the top, with this sort of forward-pushing rhetoric. From overtime to minimum wage, far too many operators are flattening their hands as the world unfolds around them. Whether you’re for it or against it, having a plan in place—and a direction—is a service to your employees. Uncertainty breeds anxiety, which in this lot, can be the final straw in an already razor-thin loyalty relationship.
One way to keep your workers from jumping ship and crippling customer service is to show them you’re invested—that you’re paying attention to their lives and not just your checkbook. As Jon Taffer once told me, “There’s no such thing as a failing restaurant with a winning owner.”
Verge said the article he wrote, and the policy of helping employees achieve citizenship, has made him a rock star within his company’s four walls. It got me thinking. I think we’ve all had bosses we didn’t love, to state it lightly. Usually great managers are born out of this cauldron. When Verge interviews perspective staff, he tries to get to know them. He asks about their lives, loves when they ask about his company, and has team members learn about each other, and then get up and teach about it. The result: Verge has employees he can’t get to leave.
In March 2012, Verge wanted to save horse racing. He took a role leading the famed Santa Anita Park. In November he was fired.
During those brief months, he got NBA legend Kobe Bryant to buy a horse; acting icon Helen Mirren to present a trophy. He worked seven days a week, lost 17 pounds, garnered six national news stories, and even had the track’s logo clearly displayed on the hat of trainer Doug O’Neill when his horse, I’ll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
“I really thought I was about to get the biggest bonus ever. I got fired, I’m looking, oh my god, there’s no way I could have worked any harder,” Verge says. “I sat there for a week thinking, what could I have done differently? I couldn’t win in that situation. I was Tom Brady throwing a basketball.”
So what happened? “I got into a fight with a [trainer] named Bob Baffert, the biggest [expletive] in the world. You can print that.”
The lesson here was simple. The owner of the track, who Verge refers to warmly and says they’re still friends, didn’t appreciate what he was doing because he wasn’t aware of what he was doing. That’s preaching to the cubicle choir.
What this did, however, was imprint Verge with a what-not-to-do path for future leadership. “Now, the new thing was just become a great employer. I told my wife, ‘I will never, ever, not take care of my employees.’ It was really the best thing that ever happened to me.”
I’m sure many servers, managers, chefs, dishwashers, and so on, throughout Verge’s company, can agree.