Restaurant workers covet front-of-house staff positions at Kimball House, the chic raw bar and brasserie-inspired restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. Renowned in the South and beyond, Kimball House has netted a James Beard Foundation semifinalist or finalist nod every year since it opened in 2013. But to earn a spot behind the bar or on the floor, applicants must first go through Jesse Smith.
One of the “four passionate knuckleheads” who founded Kimball House, Smith managed nearly all of Kimball House’s hiring and firing in its first five years, and now does so at Watchman’s Seafood and Spirits, the team’s second restaurant. Along the way, he’s honed his interview format — and his hiring spidey senses.
To avoid giving newcomers an unfair edge, Smith is coy about sharing his job interview cheat codes, but he did talk to Eater about how he structures job interviews, what he prioritizes over illustrious resumes, and why every prospective Kimball House employee has to stage (and explain whether they prefer RoboCop or Terminator). For new managers and timeworn pros alike, his take is to look for attitude and potential over work history… and to not be afraid to bet on people with unconventional backgrounds. “Our GM, Kiran Patel, had little to no serving experience, and he worked at a Fresh to Order,” says Smith. “But it felt like he was going to grow with us and that he was committing himself to this project.” Now, in addition to interviewing job candidates, Patel manages Kimball House — ”and probably does a better job than any of the partners ever did.”
Eater: What happens when someone comes in for an interview?
Jesse Smith: We’ll sit down with the person and I’ll warn them that I’m going to tell them the story of how we opened the restaurant. I’ll go through the history of the four partners and where we came from, how we fell in love with the industry, the road to wanting our own restaurant, the amount of energy we put into opening the restaurant, and eventually, how we achieved it. I go into that to let them know what they’re walking into and also what our expectations are.
What’s the purpose of this part?
You can potentially get a read on them and how interested they are in the story. There are some personality traits that come out. There was a guy who was clearly not interested in listening to me talk, and he didn’t get a stage. If you look like you don’t give a shit, you’re probably not going to give a shit.
What happens next?
I ask them how they got their start in the service industry. Sometimes people are relatively new, or some people have a lot to talk about, or they might just be able to tell me why they’re interested in getting into it.
What kind of stories are you hoping to hear?
We don’t necessarily look for pro servers or pro bartenders. We want people who, mainly, are excited. Someone can be more than equipped to wait tables, but if they don’t care, or if they’re jaded, they’re not necessarily going to put in the same effort as someone who’s young and green and excited about it. You usually get more rewards from that than with someone who might look like a sure thing. A lot of times what happens is, you’ll pick someone who’s relatively new to the industry or doesn’t really have any fine service background. But if people are genuine and interested in what we consider true hospitality, then we can teach you how to fire courses and stuff like that.
Do you ever throw curveballs in interviews?
The curveball might just be that I’m a nutjob. But on the flipside of that, I’m a pretty good judge of character.
Are y’all typically inundated with resumes?
The application on our websites trims some of the fat, because it’s more than a lot of people would like to fill out. It’s sort of a first line of defense. If they have good cocktail knowledge, that’s something I skip to, to see what their favorite cocktails are. If they say margarita, martini, Manhattan, then I’ll interview [them]. But if they say, like, lemon drop or cosmo, I’ll say, okay, you’re not really into this. There are dumb things like, are you a dog or a cat person? Or whether you like RoboCop or Predator better. Like, “Why the fuck do they want to know whether I like Robocop or Predator?”
So… why do you?
It lets people know that there might be some wildcard elements to what we do, and that we’re not 100 percent serious, even though we expect professional behavior.
Who developed those questions?
It was a group effort. We spent a lot of time in the pre-opening days pretending like we didn’t know anything about restaurants, and brainstorming what our service was going to be like. Through that process, we came up with the application. I don’t know if RoboCop versus Predator really does anything for us other than letting them know that they’re going to work for idiots… or to expect the unexpected.
What’s the biggest challenge in identifying a good fit?
Someone might seem very inspired during an interview, but one thing you cannot tell is whether or not they move fast, and what their body language is like. So we’ll stage people, where they’ll come in and follow a server, and we can see them on the floor. Body language means so much; if they’re slumping, or leaning on things while on the floor, that’s not a good look. Also, how fast they move their feet. We don’t expect people to run, we want them to look graceful, but we are a high-volume restaurant. So we expect people to hustle and move and do a lot in a short amount of time. In an interview, they can be like, “my passion is fermentation and I’m a mycologist in my spare time,” but if they’re slow as hell, it’s not going to do a lot of good.
After five years of interviewing, any big tells or things you know to look for?
One thing I’ve learned in this industry is that you can’t count on anything to go the way you planned it. Early on, there was an interview we had where the gentleman was so enchanting that, eventually, my three other partners joined the interview to listen to him talk. We were just like, wow, this guy is great. And then I had to fire him over the phone probably a few months in. So I always expect the unexpected. That way, I’m ready.
Gray Chapman is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.