As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Jeffrey.
From the wine regions of California and Oregon to the vineyards of France and Germany, Nicole Jeffrey has traveled the globe learning about wines from the world’s top wine makers.
Nicole launched her career in fine dining in Vail, Colorado at The 10th, a 5-Star restaurant located in the heart of Vail Mountain Ski Resort. Under Nicole’s management, the restaurant soon became a hotspot for locals and tourists, elevating the “ski-out” dining experience to new levels. While running a top performing restaurant, Nicole was also dedicated to expanding her wine knowledge and received her Level II Sommelier Certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers.
With 10+ years of fine-dining experience under her cork, Nicole move to Miami Beach and joined the team at RED South Beach. In her dual role as Manager and Wine Director, Nicole succeeded in expanding the restaurant’s beverage program, developed and implement new process controls and increased profit margins and overall beverage sales. Nicole quickly advanced to the role of General Manager where she plays a key role in RED’s operational growth and team development. As the RED brand expands, Nicole is working closely with the ownership to develop future concepts and a build a strong leadership team.
Although known for her wine knowledge and management expertise, Nicole’s true passion lies in ensuring each and every guest is made to feel at home and receives the highest level of hospitality in every dining experience.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve worked in restaurants since high school and fell in love with hospitality instantly. Getting to meet and connect with so many people, from all over the world with so many cultures, all with their own unique things about them; I felt like I was traveling the world just being at work. In 2013, I moved to Vail, Colorado, and started my journey into Wine Education and Management. I have been so fortunate to work with some truly incredible mentors and teams that inspired me to move in the right direction. When the restaurant industry gets into your core, you can’t help but want to be a part of the growth and success of the business — it’s the only option.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
The very first bottle of wine I opened while working on a restaurant floor as a Sommelier was a sparkling. I was at 10,500 ft. elevation and I was nervous to a fault. When I opened the bottle, the cork was just about ready to make a flawless, silent exit, but things went south last minute. The cork gave a loud POP! and some of the wine exploded from the top of the bottle. I was stuck between fighting back both tears and laughter. Without realizing it, my voice let out, “well that was not how that was supposed to go.” and we all laughed together. You have to learn from your mistakes but be able to laugh at them a little first.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I had a Wine Director when I worked in Vail, Advanced Sommelier Joey Lopaka, who presented wine in the most fun, relaxed, exciting way. A hilarious human being, every encounter was a guaranteed bellyache of laughs. He was the first person that made me comfortable admitting that I didn’t know something. He taught me that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, let me find that out for you.” instead of trying to make something up and risk giving a guest misinformation. With him, imperfections were encouraged and trial and error were required. He made me want to be a professional wine person without giving up any part of myself.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When the pandemic hit, RED South Beach was thriving and poised for expansion. Everything came to a halt in March. As part of the executive team, we used this time as a unique opportunity to reevaluate our core values and brand mission, what you are calling vision and purpose. It was here that we started tossing around the idea of moving the restaurant and knew that when we re-opened, we had to really get it right, and right from the start. Not just for our customers but for our dedicated staff that are counting on us to have a safe workplace to come back to. RED South Beach was built on the core values of Hospitality First, Quality Always, and To Lead by Example. We formulated a plan to retrain the staff for reopening, educating our team with the new Covid-related rules and responsibilities. It has been a mentally challenging time for everyone. We wanted to make sure our team was ready and willing to maintain our level of service that we have been known for, and continue that into the post-COVID era.
As part of our unwavering support for the Miami community, RED South Beach has also worked in conjunction with Meals for Heroes Miami to deliver 800+ free meals per week to the healthcare workers and first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.
Our Brand Mission is and always will be to deliver our passion for food and dedication to our customers into every dining experience, with a special focus on quality, from the kitchen to the table. We strive to be a place where our guests, our staff and our neighbors know how important they are to us, where they feel special, safe, and at home.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Navigating the COVID pandemic has of course been the most uncertain and difficult time for me and for the restaurant industry as a whole. Our award-winning restaurant, RED South Beach, is located in the trendy South of Fifth Community in Miami Beach. When the City of Miami initially re-opened restaurants on May 27th, we were all in uncharted waters. A lot of the rules and regulations were vague and contradictory. I wanted all of the details to be clear and consise for our team. I needed them to understand their responsibility in and out of the workplace, my responsibility to keep them safe, and the responsibility to the guests. I read the released documents provided by the city countless times. We had intensive trainings and enforced very strict protocols. My first rule of thumb is to always lead by example, so I was very conscious of my actions during this time. I knew I had to be someone that they could look up to and trust to do the right thing. And I started to see this sense of ownership and responsibility throughout the people I was leading. We were talking more, bouncing ideas off of each other, discussing what was working for them, thoughts on how to make the restaurant more efficient. Everyone was investing more and more of themselves every day. The teamwork aspect had elevated and thrived during this time. There was a family dynamic in our team that reached new heights. We were cognizant of the fact that we were all fighting for the same thing: our livelihood.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I couldn’t say that I’ve ever wanted to give up, but I have definitely felt defeated. Throughout COVID, I felt like we just could not catch a break. As we started to see the rising cases and the reality of a second closure of all restaurants loomed, it was a big blow to morale because we really did it right, you know. We worked hard, followed all of the guidelines and took more than necessary precautions. It felt like we were fighting a battle we just could not win. The support of my coworkers was a constant inspiration though, and shortly after we were forced by the city to close a second time, we decided to make the move to facilitate outdoor seating. It was like everything was against us but we banded together, and then there was nothing that could stop us.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be present, be available, be mindful, and have confidence in your decisions. Every choice I make, every outcome I arrive at, was done so by paying special attention to detail, taking all aspects into consideration, and recognizing who and how that outcome will affect my team and our customers once it’s put into place. No one has all of the answers, but it’s important to know you’ve exhausted all avenues trying to find the best one.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I stay in constant contact with my team during the recent shutdowns. I am used to seeing everyone five or six days a week, and I genuinely missed them. I want them to know I’m thinking of them, that their well being is important to me, and that if they need anything at all, their RED South Beach family is there for them. I’m constantly updating them on the progress of the reopening and funneling information to them so that they are involved every step of the way. It’s not their future or my future, it’s our future and we treat it as such.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I am a firm believer in delivering hard truths face to face in the workplace. I want to have the opportunity to look someone in the eyes; I want them to see mine and know there’s honesty behind them. For customers, I have reached out to some our regular guests to share updates. They too are a part of our RED South Beach family. I also take all of the calls to the restaurant so that I can connect to as much of our clientele as possible.
Our guests have been undeniably supportive during these trying times. When we were forced to close the first time back in March, we quickly pivoted to offering takeout and free delivery. Our dedicated customers were still able to have the RED South Beach experience in their own homes. Those who lived in the neighborhood would often walk by the restaurant with their dogs (there is always a fresh bowl of water in front of our door for our four-legged friends) and they would tap on the window to say hello. When we had to close for the 2nd time, myself and the owners personally called many of our guests to share the news but assured them we will be back in just a few short months at an even better location.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Find comfort in knowing that any and everything can change no matter how much you plan. I am constantly trying to think of any curveball that could be thrown our way. Ideally, I’d have a plan for every letter of the alphabet. The reality is that with how quickly things are changing, it is better to be over prepared than under. I consult with people I trust, those that know our industry well and how I operate within it, that have had their own experience throughout hospitality and can contribute another point of view.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Listen to your environment. What is your industry asking of you, demanding of you? If you’re getting pushed into an unfamiliar direction, take the necessary steps to educate yourself on this new terrain. Do your homework, do the research and make informed, responsible decisions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
One common mistake I’ve experienced is putting the wrong people in certain roles. As a leader, it’s imperative to have the right people in the right places to get the best possible outcome. Being able to recognize an employees’ strengths and weaknesses is enormously important in this instance. A second mistake, during financial crises, especially like the one we are currently in, businesses tend to make poor qualitative decisions. You should never compromise the integrity of your product. And the biggest mistake I have seen is business leaders not reaching out to their industry peers for support. You are not alone. We are all struggling but we are truly all in this together.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We have definitely been more active in our community. Social media has been a useful tool and our Head of Marketing and Communications, Rosemary Staltare, has done such an incredible job keeping us connected to our base. We have also launched virtual team building classes and the upcoming RED Butcher Shop, an online portal offering our signature quality steaks and sustainable seafood nationwide. We have dedicated so much of our time and focus on expanding the brand and how to further spread the RED South Beach culture.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Evaluate constantly. With things being so volatile, it’s important to look at things that worked yesterday and make sure they still work for today.
- Trust your gut. You might not have all of the answers, but your intuition will tell you when to go full speed ahead and when to take a second and re-think.
- Educate yourself! There is so much knowledge in the world, it would be irresponsible for us not to acknowledge that we all have something to learn.
- Listen to your peers. I have asked friends in my industry all over the world for their feedback. What are they doing? Where are they having success? What challenges have they faced? The exchange of experiences and information is priceless.
- Show appreciation. Whether it’s the staff that you manage or the companies you work with, make sure to say ‘Thank you’ when you can. It goes a long way.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Change your thinking from ‘why is this happening to me?’ to ‘what am I supposed to learn from this?’” There is a lesson in everything, and it’s healthy to look at your experiences, good and bad, and find the light in them. The challenges, the setbacks, the hardships, they all contribute to our character and we’d be wise to embrace them and learn something through the process.
How can our readers further follow you?