Fresh out of college and struggling to pay his sky-high New York City rent, Joshua Allen applied for a job as a restaurant busboy to supplement his full-time income.
He not only landed the job, but also earned some powerful insight into the restaurant industry and developed new ideas for improving it.
“I found out that the most fascinating people work in the restaurant industry in New York, from lawyers to people with master’s degrees in poetry,” he said. “All of them are doing amazing things in life, and using restaurant work to supplement their income.”
But, Allen, a UConn alumnus who earned his master’s degree in human resources management in 2020, also recognized the shortcomings of the restaurant industry.
“The employee-employer relationships in the industry have been messed up for a long time. It is a business with long hours, demanding work, and sometimes very hot tempers,” he said. “Historically the restaurant and hospitality industry has ignored or undervalued hourly employee development, downplaying teaching, education, business strategy and planning, and instead valuing only deliverables and performance.”
Allen’s ultimate goal is to use his knowledge and passion to disrupt the industry, and develop it into a place where employees grow, thrive, and stay for the duration of their careers.
“I’m still very early in my career, but if I were asked for advice, I would say, ‘Think about what you do every day and what you love most in those tasks. And make your career about that passion,'” he said. “I love food, and I love to be served it, but it’s not really about the restaurant guest-experience for me. I don’t care about the minutia of restaurant operations. Instead, I enjoy watching people become masterful at their work.”
Inspiration: A Culture That Rewarded Expertise
Allen earned his bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with an acting major, from the University of Minnesota. But after graduating, he realized that acting wasn’t his long-term goal. He knew how to sew, and landed a job in a costume shop as an apprentice to a milliner. He fibbed on an application at the Hearth restaurant group, a Tuscan-American, fine-dining restaurant in the East Village, claiming busboy experience, which he didn’t have, and got the job.
His manager, Christine Wright, was inspiring. She taught classes for the employees on wine, food, locally harvested farming and hospitality standards. “They were really fun classes and I learned so much,” recalled Allen, 32. “She created a culture where everyone wanted to be ‘the person who knew the most’ about aspects of the industry.”
He worked there for seven years, earning promotions and eventually became the director of operations, overseeing four restaurants. “Restaurant work in New York is the land-of-opportunity if someone is smart, wants it and is willing to work really hard for it,” he said.
Allen realized the training aspect of the job both excited him and was desperately needed. But he wanted more formal skills, and that’s when he applied to UConn’s master’s degree program in Human Resources Management. Professor Kevin Thompson was among the most influential.
“Kevin Thompson’s class was one of my favorites because it was both intellectually challenging and incredibly creative,” he said. “We learned about a model Thompson created and we got to put it in practice using our businesses. That, coupled with his feedback, shaped many parts of the way I approach my work now.”
His next stop was Patina restaurant group, where he trained some 3,000 employees, primarily in New York State and Boston. Not only was he able to develop service training for front-line staff, but also to teach managers about business acumen, time management, and change management.
“For managers, the impact is less immediate, but extremely impactful on individual careers, and it was thrilling and satisfying for me,” he said. “For many in the industry, it may be their first job or their first-time managing people and projects, and many wanted to learn how to become that trusted business person.”
As his knowledge expanded, Allen developed stronger viewpoints on learning and development and what should be taught and why.
Luke’s Lobster Isn’t Just a Seafood Restaurant
Today, Allen has what he describes as his dream job at Luke’s Lobster, a B-Corp known for its high-quality lobster and crab meat. “I didn’t even think I liked lobster until I worked here,” he quipped.
As director of training and organizational development, he leads the educational and career-advancement initiatives for the organization and enacts programs to help employees achieve a better life.
For instance, the Saco, Maine-facility employs a large number of immigrants from Cambodia, the Congo, the Caribbean, and South America. “Because Luke’s has a responsibility to give back to our employees and open doors to opportunity, leadership wanted to identify why they didn’t have more supervisors and managers from these communities. Why wasn’t there a pathway out of production?,” Allen said.
He and his team identified the barrier as language and communication. Luke’s then hired a company to teach operational English to people in the food-production area to boost their opportunities for advancement.
Allen also created a leadership academy that meets once a month and is attended by all company managers and leaders. The 90-minute sessions address a current issue or opportunity, ranging from diversity to the newer-employee experience, from change management to the proper use of a meeting.
“The opportunity to ‘disrupt’ two industries, restaurant and food production, has been incredible,” he said. “The executives here are deeply committed to improving the lives of people who work for them. They would love to have people knocking down the door not only because we’re one of the most respected companies for seafood, but also one of the best and most creative leaders in the game.”
As a B-Corp, Luke’s is not solely focused on shareholder wealth but embraces an obligation to quality of life for its employees, its communities, and the environment.
“When I learned that, I said, ‘This is the place for me,'” Allen said. “In another life, I would probably have been a public-school teacher. I have found an incredibly niche job in a private organization, creating learning opportunities that drive toward processes and procedures that benefit the organization.”
“This is my dream job, and it fell into my lap,” Allen continued. “The leadership put a ton of faith in me, as someone who hadn’t partnered so closely with senior leadership before. From my viewpoint, they were morally and ethically the best company I could work for.”
Luke’s weathered the COVID crisis well, because in addition to its many restaurants and its seafood-production facilities in Maine and Canada, it is a top supplier and award-recipient from Whole Foods, and also operates an e-commerce business with other Maine food retailers.
Alumnus Honored As Promising Restaurant Leader
Although the pandemic created many hardships, Allen said it also offered a fresh perspective to businesses willing to change.
“During COVID, we all learned a lot about business, labor models, the function of jobs and what could and should be,” he said. “It brings with it re-learning, training, restructuring and coaching. I’ve never felt so needed nor so much creative freedom. At this juncture, who could ask for more? Pursuing ways to better experience and live our lives is deeply satisfying.”
Allen, who is planning to pursue a doctorate in edcuation, was recently honored as one of ’28 Young Restaurant Leaders to Watch’ by QSR Magazine, a business-to-business magazine for the casual dining industry.
“That was one of the most surprising and humbling experiences of my career. It felt good to be recognized by the industry for disruptive work,” he said. “I was moved and honored.”
“Learning and developing didn’t really exist in this industry. You can make a new career, if you put in the work, learn the skills and find the right people,” he said. “I’ve got my dream job now because of intentional decisions.”
UConn Program Gave Him Confidence to Sit at the Leadership Table
Allen said the UConn Human Resources Management program gave him the skills and confidence he needed to move to the next level.
“There are two very important things I took from the UConn HRM program. First, if you want to get things done in an organization, you need to be able to sit at the table and talk the talk with these executives, learn new vocabulary and understand what they’re talking about. You earn a seat at the leadership table with business acumen,” he said.
“I can speak with authority to the CEO, the COO, and the CFO. That used to scare me a lot,” Allen said. “Now its water off the duck’s back. It’s great. I used to try to ‘fake it til I make it,’ but after finishing UConn, there’s a lot less faking it!”
“My experience at UConn was even more than I thought it would be. The quality of the classes and the professionals who taught us and the high quality of the cohort was very transformative for me. I learned so much from very smart and experienced human resources people. I learned about projects, teams and made good friends to bounce ideas off of. The network and relationships and what I learned was worth every penny.”