Amanda Wilgus Manns' promotion came just a week ago.
While restaurants continue to struggle in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Amanda Wilgus Manns is thrilled that she is able to celebrate some good career news.
A week ago, she was promoted to general manager of Akar (7641 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton; 314-553-9914)
, the Clayton restaurant owned by chef and restaurateur Bernie Lee — and she feels that she owes her good fortune to the way the small restaurant has been able to weather the outbreak.
"When Bernie first opened this space, the size was off-putting to people, and I think many would have looked at that as a negative," Wilgus Manns explains. "He saw it as an opportunity to execute everything perfectly and touch every dish. Now, going into the pandemic, I think it's given us an advantage. That size helps us not have the overhead of larger restaurants. We only had five tables on the inside, and now we have a patio that's extended into the salon patio next door and a parklet that's allowed us to expand into the street. Plus, we have a lot of regulars who have gone out of their way to support us because they want to make sure we stay."
After more than a decade of working in the restaurant business, Wilgus Manns knows a thing or two about the keys to a restaurant's success. It's something she's learned in larger restaurants, dating back to her first gig at Drunken Fish in the Central West End. Though she started that job as a way to make money while she was in graduate school for social work, she quickly realized that she had a knack for the business and that she'd be better suited for a career in restaurants.
That realization made her get serious about the industry, and she decided to hone her bartending chops at the acclaimed restaurant Savor. After Savor closed, she moved on to Herbie's, working her way up from server to bartender and ultimately to manager. There, she soaked up all the she could from chef and owner Aaron Teitelbaum, learning such aspects of the job as ordering, scheduling, mixology and general administration duties.
When Herbie's moved from its original home in the Central West End to Clayton in 2016, Wilgus Manns made the move with it. Business exploded, and though she loved the restaurant and the energy, she felt that she needed to step down from management to a server position to have a better work-life balance. Around that time, Lee, her longtime friend, had opened Akar, and she picked up hours there to support him and work alongside her husband, who was also a server there.
"I didn't know if it was going to be a good fit, because it was different than anything I'd done," Wilgus Manns says. "It's a small, intimate place, and I wasn't sure if I'd like the speed because I am used to higher volume. But I'm older now, and I realized it was a good fit because I'm working for someone who is a good friend. It's better-suited to where I am in life."
Though Wilgus Manns, like many of her industry colleagues, was furloughed this spring when COVID-19 hit St. Louis, she and Lee remained in contact. He was committed to bringing her back while also evaluating how he could free himself from some of the front-of-house responsibilities of running a restaurant to focus more on cooking. Their discussion led to him offering her the position of general manager earlier this month.
As she settles into her new role at Akar, Wilgus Manns feels grateful, not only to be back in the restaurant but to be providing hospitality again. Though she's always loved the industry, the pandemic has made her realize just how much she cherishes being in the position to make people happy — especially at a time when those moments are harder to find.
"A few days ago, a couple came in, and when I went to check on them, they were overwhelmed and so happy," Wilgus Manns says. "The woman said to me, 'I'm so happy right now because this feels so normal. I want to cry.' The woman is a teacher, and because she's going back to school soon, this was her last hurrah. It made me realize that all these things that we took for granted before are so much more precious, and it brings everything in perspective. In all of this, I am taking any win I can get, and feel so blessed that we are able to give people those rare moments of joy that people aren't able to have every day."
Wilgus Manns took some time away from her new role to share her thoughts on the state of the restaurant industry, how she's maintaining a sense of normalcy and what gives her hope in these challenging times.
As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
The hospitality industry is struggling. Profit margins are slim in normal times, so the pandemic is just crushing small businesses. I am so scared for our community — it will be forever changed by this event. However, restaurant people are resilient, innovative and loyal. We will all support each other, even more than before, after this.
What did you miss most about your job?
While I was unemployed for ten weeks, I missed interacting with other people. I got into this industry because I love meeting new people and taking care of others.
What did you miss least?
My feet aching at the end of the night. I am way older than I was when I got into this!
What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
Keeping in touch with friends and family. It kept me sane. Long live the Zoom happy hour!
What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
Vodka and ramen.
What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Vodka, tonic and limes (see a theme?).
You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick?
The people I was actually quarantined with: my husband and Akar coworkers.
Once you feel comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
Going out to eat. Hugging friends.
What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people can safely return to normal activity levels?
Masks and cleanliness. While cleanliness has always been a priority in our restaurant, we are obviously upping the game on sanitizing everything. And masks in general I don't think are going anywhere anytime soon.
What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
People coming together. As much craziness as there is, the humanity I see not only on the news but in person gives me hope. It makes me want to be a better person for my friends, family and coworkers.
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