by Len Lear
Up until a few years ago, I was a restaurant snob who had never been to a mid-level restaurant chain such as Olive Garden, Outback, Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Bonefish Grill, Ruby Tuesday, etc. No more. We are now regular, very satisfied customers at most of them since they generally offer very good value for the dollar and have very well trained servers and managers.
A perfect case in point is Rick Lecorps, 37, culinary manager at Olive Garden, 1200 Bethlehem Pike in North Wales (at the end of the Route 309 Expressway, about 15 minutes from Chestnut Hill) which we visit often. I don’t think you will ever find a friendlier, smiling-er, more relentlessly cheerful and customer-oriented restaurant employee than Rick (full name Frantz Ricardo Lecorps), a gentle bear of a man who is as passionate and emotional about his journey in the restaurant industry as any artist or poet is in his.
A self-confessed social butterfly, Rick admits he “talks to guests all day long.” (He disdains the word “customer” and insists that patrons always be referred to as “guests.”) He remember the names of guests, and you might hear him say, “Hey, John, I haven’t seen you in two weeks” (especially if the guest’s name is John). The hardest part of the job for Rick is the administrative paperwork, but when it comes to guests and co-workers, he works the crowd like a cruise ship entertainer.
“There is so much competition in this business” he said, “that we have to stay on top of our game at all times. For example, we will give a server $5 whenever she tells us that a guest at a table is having a birthday. I come out and say, ‘You know what we will do for your birthday? We will give you a little birthday present, a dolcini (dessert).’ That will be part of the guest’s memory. And you thank people for coming here. They did not have to come here. And I am responsible for everyone in the kitchen. Just asking a worker how his day is going goes a long way.”
(This sentiment was echoed by Kim Greene, a service professional at the restaurant who praised Rick. She said succinctly, “He is the bomb.com”)
Eventually every restaurant manager is going to have to deal with a guest who may be dissatisfied, unruly, drunk, etc. Then the manager may have to employ some common-sense psychology skills. For example, “I noticed that a guy at the bar drank two martinis in three minutes,” Rick said. “He threw them right down. You could tell he was very upset. You have to use tact, though. I went over and asked him, ‘How’s your day going?’ He said, ‘I came here because I just went home and found my wife cheating with a guy.’ I sat with him for a half-hour, and he had no more drinks. His mood changed. Every guest is like family.”
For years my image of Olive Garden (before actually visiting one) was formed by late-night comedians like Jay Leno, who would occasionally make jokes about Olive Garden allegedly serving sub-standard Italian food. How does Rick feel about those jokes? “Before I worked for Olive Garden, I would have made the same jokes,” he replied, “but now I know better. I see the fresh ingredients in the kitchen for everything, the freshly made sauces, the sauteed seafood. It takes a hard-working team to pull it all together. The message is good food at an affordable price and consistency. That is what keeps guests coming through the door.”
The first Olive Garden opened in Orlando in 1982. It is now the number one full-service Italian restaurant chain in the U.S. Darden Restaurants, Inc., named for founder Bill Darden (1919-1994), became a publicly traded company in 1995. There are now over 800 Olive Garden restaurants globally which did over $3 billion in sales annually. That’s a lot of lasagne.
“We do not believe in firing people,” said Rick. “We coach them. If I was told to clean the drains, I’d do it. You can’t be a leader if you are not willing and able to do every job that your workers do. This company is great. That is why so many employees in the kitchen have stayed here for 12 years or more. That is highly unusual in this business. You’re not even allowed to take work home with you. They are very family-oriented. We have health care and a vacation package.”
Rick admits, though, that the restaurant business in general is a killer for relationships since restaurant workers work nights, weekends and holidays and are thus unable to spend much time with their families. “I was with a woman for nine years,” he said, “but she left because I was never home.”
Rick has three children who live their mothers, two former companions of Rick. He was born in Haiti and spent most of his childhood there until age 8, when he was brought to Queens, New York. At the time he had a heavy accent (it is gone now) and spoke Creole. Interestingly, 80 percent of the kitchen staff at the North Wales restaurant are Haitians, according to Lecorps.
Rick went to a junior college in the State University of New York system for culinary arts. He then became a sous chef and then executive chef at a Long Island restaurant called Cornbread & Caviar for almost four years. He was then recruited by the very upscale Blakeslee Inn in the Poconos in 2002 as a sous chef. Cornbread & Caviar (which is now defunct; maybe they ran out of caviar) was not far from Nassau Coliseum.
Rap singer Snoop Dog, who was performing there in the early 2000s with Eminem, came into the restaurant and asked for curried turkey wings and baked mac and cheese. “I made it for him,” said Rick, “and he stayed in the tour bus and ate it. He came out of the bus and said he loved the food and offered me a job cooking for him for the remaining six months of his tour. I said no because my first child was about to be born.”
In another brush with fame, Rick met heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, who was at Cornbread & Caviar for a wake. “He was drunk,” said Rick. “He rented the whole restaurant for four hours. I built up the nerve to go out of the kitchen, and I told him I was a fan. He said, ‘I see you f—ing dressed like that, go into the kitchen, cut up some f—ing pineapples and make me some f—ing pineapple juice!” I did it. A half-hour later he gave me $100, remembered my name and thanked me, but he never apologized. He had his shirt off during the wake. He had a tattoo on his chest as big as my head.”
Rick was at Split Rock Lodge in the Poconos from 2009 to 2012, but he split from Split Rock Lodge and sought more security with Darden. He worked at Olive Garden in Allentown for two years, leaving to come to North Wales last November. A sign in the kitchen says, “It always matters what you do.” According to Rick, “When a server comes to me and says, ‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ I say, ‘It is no bother. I am honored to have the opportunity to help.’ The day I received an email that I got this job, I was overwhelmed. I had been evicted twice from apartments. (Rick’s eyes teared up.) It took a lot to get me here. I got a lot of help from my mom, my fiancee, people at Olive Garden and others.”
For more information, call 215-646-4384 or visit www.olivegarden.com.