Hazel Dell Skippers – Vancouver, Washington.
Sometimes people will ask me where I am from, and I will pause for a moment not really knowing how to answer that. I usually will think about it for a moment and than give them my typical answer of well;
Grants Pass, Oregon – an all American town in beautiful Southern Oregon. Or if I feel like having some fun with them, I will tell them one of the other several places I lived growing up in a military family.
My father is a retired Chief Petty Officer of the United States Navy and growing up a Navy brat we moved every 3 years or so. I was born on the Navy base in Great Lakes, Illinois – but I don’t really consider myself coming from there as we lived there only a short time, and I have no memories of there, and I have never been back. Grants Pass, on the other hand is I guess what I would call home. All my family lives in Grants Pass, And I spent 8 years there from 1992 -2000. Grants Pass is also the home of the very first Skipper’s restaurant I worked at! Store number 5201.
I had relocated to Grants Pass in 92 from Anaheim, California. At that time Grants Pass was a thriving mill town, with at least four mills in operation when I moved there. My father and brother both spent time working in the plywood mills. I was living with family and I was unemployed, I knew I had to rejoin the work force. Working in the mills was not for me, so I began looking for work in my comfort area – restaurants. One thing Grants Pass has is plenty of restaurants!
One restaurant that had caught my eye was called “Skippers Seafood and Chowder House” I had never heard of it before, but I was interested in the restaurant because from what I saw it did not come across as a fast food joint, on the other hand it was not a stiff full service restaurant either. It was later on that I learned it was considered a QSR or quick service restaurant, which in my opinion is just great. Skippers also did not serve breakfast(yay!) And the store hours of operation were a plus too! I did not know anything about Skippers, much less Fish and Chips, But, I was drawn to this place – I knew I wanted to work there.
And so the Magic began. On November 13th,1993 I was hired as an hourly employee at the Grants Pass Skippers for $3.35 per hr. Ron Haines was the manager that hired me, we both shared back ground history with Black Angus and we spent most of the interview talking about our time at Black Angus steakhouse. Ron was a certified training manager and ran a good store. In 1993 Skipper’s was in it’s prime, and we were a very busy fish house! On Friday and Saturday nights the line of guests would go outside the door and along side the building – I had never seen anything like that. Skipper’s had and still does have very loyal patrons.
For the first six months I was either confined to the back room, or I was in the dining room clearing and busing tables. I realized we were way more service oriented than any fast food, and I think this is what separates us from other restaurants. In 1993 the GP Skipper’s had no drive thru, heck, we even had a smoking section! It seemed as if the back room was my new home. I became a back room closer, and 90% of my time was spent in back. There was always prep to be done – if not prep, we were cleaning. In 93 Skipper’s was still cutting our own fish. There was always fish either being cut, or breaded, or panned and drained. Managing the fish alone was a full time responsibility! On a busy Friday night we would cut and dress over 1,000 pieces of fish. If time was not being spent on fish production, there was always lots of prep to be done. We were continuously making mini corn muffins, large batches of coleslaw, clam chowder, jello, washing bakers, and cutting salads.
It seems as if there was a code to achieving status to even work on the much heralded front line – this is where the action was! This is where the cashiers, drop cooks, and quarterbacks spent their shift. This was no place for a lowly back room guy! After six months I was given the opportunity to come up and prove myself and cook on the front line, there was no looking back, I had found where I wanted to be – I was a cook at Skippers – and I lived for the meal period rushes. That adrenaline rush! I found my passion that first year of my Skippers career, a fire was lit inside of me back than, and still burns strong today – that overall good feeling you get when you serve people, when you make them truly happy.
Skipper’s continued to flourish and the chain reached over 200 restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Working in a certified training store was to my benefit and I quickly fast tracked my way up the ranks. Before I knew it, I was closing the restaurant as an In Charge closer and I worked my way up to the Shift Leader position. The restaurant averaged twelve thousand on a weekly basis, and supported the training manager, two assistant managers and several first mates!
Skipper’s was sailing the high seas and we thought there was no stopping us.
We were wrong. I guess in the classic scenario of “if we knew then, what we know now” one statement I would’ve made was “Don’t fix it if it is not broken”. In the mid 1990′s we made changes that would impact the seafood chain forever. Changes that did not kill us off right away, but just bled us slowly – and over time our customer base lost faith and started to diminish. Due to increasing fish costs we made the decision to switch from the hand cut cod, to an inferior cookie cutter processed freezer to fryer product called Captains Cut. At the time the customers led a mutiny and abandoned ship in their outrage to the far inferior product.
Over the next five to six years we switched back and forth between processed fish and hand cut fish several times so much that we confused our core customer base.
We were never able to regain that lost ground.
I worked as a shift leader in Grants Pass for six years, and in 1999 I was selected to go to manager training with training manager Patti Copeland in Klammath Falls, Oregon. I learned a lot from Patti and the three weeks I spent in her store. One thing that I remember in particular about Klammath Falls is that at that time we were cutting and dressing fish, and we would get these Canadian tour buses on their way to Reno that would pull in and have lunch at Skippers! Boy, that will wake you up on a Sunday morning when you see three full size tour buses pull into your parking lot and over 100 hungry Canadians get in line! They would not know what to order either, so typically they would just order what the person in front of them ordered! One time the first Canadian in line ordered a Fish and caesar – I knew I was in trouble! I ended up grabbing two of the large stainless bowls normally used for coleslaw, and mixed up over 50 caesar salads! I learned then, that the cashier needed to steer the first guest towards a three piece fish and fries! Thank you Patti Copeland for everything, especially the “daily to do list.”
I returned to Grants Pass after passing certification, and worked until 2000.
In the year 2000 I was promoted to RGM and left Grants Pass, and moved to Springfield, Oregon. Scott Schroeder was area coach at the time, and he was responsible for bringing me up from Grants Pass, and putting me in Springfield.
I was a very green store manager, Scott spent a lot of time working with me, he was a great coach – always such a positive attitude. Soon, I was one of the top performers in his area. These were good times, and in my first six months in Springfield I bonused five out of six months. My store was consistently 25% over the previous year. That year Scott sent me to SICL – Skipper’s Intermediate College of Leadership, it was a week long training and mentor session at the corporate office in Edmonds, Washington. I thoroughly enjoyed this program, and I was exposed to the corporate side of Skipper’s. I was awarded by my peers “Most Positive Contributor” with all of the success of the restaurant in Springfield, and my SICL contributions I had caught the attention of upper Skipper’s management. Even though we were experiencing success in the Southern Oregon Market, the Seattle Market – the core market was in shambles.
I would only be in Springfield Oregon as RGM for one year which I enjoyed very much. There was new management at the helm of Skipper’s in 2001 and they were determined to make some swift changes in the Seattle market. One of those changes involved me relocating to the Seattle area to try and help right the sinking mother ship. I realize now how monumental of a move this was. I was so naive.>
Originally the intention was for me to relocate to the Seattle market to take over one of the stores such as Ballard, Issaquah, or Auburn. Become a training store and help rebuild the market. Due to an odd twist of fate, the Seattle market area coach must have read the writing on the wall, and felt the pressure on him – he gave his two weeks notice. This happened to be great timing for me! Now I was not interviewing for a manager job in the Seattle Market, but as the area coach!
Now that would be worth moving for! Within 2 weeks and many interviews and meetings Brad Barnett (CEO at the time) offered me (small town Oregon boy) area coach of the North Puget Sound, over 8 stores! Too me this was the promotion of a lifetime. I moved from Springfield, Oregon to Everett, Washington in 2001.
Everett was central to my area, and I enjoyed my time there. I got myself an apartment over looking the bay, I knew I need a relaxing place to live as I was going to be working my you know what off. At first my stores included: Everett, Marysville, Lynwood, Mt. Vernon, Bellingham, Monroe, Lake Forest Park, and Wenatchee. I later assumed responsibility for Moses Lake, and Edmonds.
I had 10 stores, a lap top, company cell phone, and company car with expense account – this was a Brave New World let me tell you – I have great memories and many success stories of this time in my life. The area was so broken that with a lot of work and management changes we were able to change things around that first year. I learned a lot from Brad that year about people, about managing people – if you know and remember Brad he had a way getting in your face to bring out the response he was looking for. I look back at some of the days where I would have to spend the day with him visiting my stores, and let me tell you there was more than once when I wanted to leave him at the side of the road between Mt Vernon and Bellingham! All in all I learned a great deal from him, and I experienced success my first year as an area coach. Unfortunately, my second year was not as kind. Some would call it a sophomore slump, it was just a bad year. I had to go up against my prior years numbers where we fixed most problems, my team was not able to surpass the prior years numbers and the heat was on. One thing about numbers, they never lie. Always trust the numbers.
I was an area coach from 2001 to 2003 and not only did I enjoy it, but I grew immensely from it.
I believe Scott Way came to Skipper’s in 2002. I spent my last year as an area coach reporting to Scott , and yes Scott and I also had some of those ride along days where I wanted to leave him at the side of the road! To this day I wonder if that ever happened to him as eventually he started riding his motorcycle and meeting me there! I remember a conversation Scott and I had in 2003 where he explained to me that your “career is a marathon – not a single sprint” there will be good stretches and bad ones – so pace your self for the marathon. In 2003 I was demoted from an area coach back to a single unit RGM in Renton, Washington.
Most people would have quit at this time. I do not know why but I continued to press on, as I knew I was not done with Skippers yet. Remember – your career is a marathon. While in Renton as RGM under Robyn Jackson I achieved my Certified Training Manager status. I built a strong crew, and in short time was putting up record numbers! In 2005 on a Friday in Lent we did over $4600 in sales and finished that week over $15,600 in sales. In 2005 Chris Orchekowsky and myself won Out of this World monster performance awards for RGM’s of the year! Scott Way, Kristy Thompson, John Jewell, and Eric Li all of the home office team cooked Chris O and I a breakfast bonanza at our full service restaurant Seattle Crab Co in Northgate Washington. This was quite an honor for me, a mile post in the marathon. I continued to successfully manage the Renton Skippers until my last day in March of 2008. I want to thank Scott for letting me share this with all of you, and if any thing I hope it made you smile and reflect on your marathon.
Thanks Scott for the discussions we have had over the last decade, all your input, feedback, and wisdom that you have shared with me.
The Marathon continues – On April 16th 2008 The newly formed Marsh Restaurant Group, LLC reopened the neighborhood favorite Hazel Dell Skipper’s Seafood and Chowder House by Starway…. and that my friends is another story.
Remember we’re only as great as the last meal we put out! It has our name on it.
This is what we do. There is a need for a Skipper’s in every neighborhood, I truly believe this – and together – we can get there from here.
Owner/Operator Hazel Dell Skippers