Lee Schulman: How I Am Redefining Success Now
An Interview With Karen Mangia
Don’t compare yourself to others, set your own benchmarks for success.
Have you ever noticed how often we equate success with more? Whether that’s more products, more profits, more activities or more accomplishments, we buy into the belief that we have to do more to have more to be more. And that will sum up to success. And then along comes The Great Resignation. Where employees are signaling that the “more” that’s being offered — even more pay, more perks, and more PTO — isn’t summing up to success for them. We visited with leaders who are redefining what success means now. Their answers might surprise you.
Panacea Management Group (PMG) Consulting is the newest venture from Lee Schulman, owner of Old Vinings Inn, former owner of Saltyard and a restaurant operations veteran Lee Schulman began his career “at the ripe old age of 12” in summer camp canteens and kitchens, working his way up the ladder to manager, running food-service operations serving 300 to 400 meals a day. After graduating from Michigan State University with a degree in food systems, economics and management, he attended the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute before working in Pennsylvania, Florida and Atlanta with such respected restaurant companies as Morrison Restaurants, Inc. (L&N Seafood Grille, Silver Spoon Café), Buckhead Life Group (Atlanta Fish Market), Liberty House Restaurant Corporation (OK Café) Brookwood Grill, Stoney River and Here to Serve Restaurants (TomTom). with three decades of experience. PMG Consulting offers consultations in menu research and development, service auditing and training, and restaurant operations procedures and systems for new and existing restaurant owners as well as businesses looking to expand into food and beverage service.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
My great Uncle Jerry Shaw was a big influence and role model in my life. Uncle Jerry was the CEO of Sterling, Inc and he grew it from a few local jewelry stores in Ohio to a national chain of jewelry stores. Jerry was a great man with a big heart.
Oddly enough, another big influence in my life was my time at summer camp. When I was a teenager, I went to French Woods summer camp in upstate New York every summer from starting at age 12 first as a camper then as a summer job. During that time, I started working in the kitchen. And I loved it. Both my parents loved food and cooking so I was raised around good food. But at French Woods, I got to feed people and see the happiness it brought them.
We all have myths and misconceptions about success. What are some myths or misconceptions that you used to believe?
That the single definition of success was financial success; that the more money you had the more successful you were. Sure, money is nice but if you sacrifice time with your family, friends, miss out on life experiences in pursuit of financial success, what have you really achieved? You just missed your life.
How has your definition of success changed?
When I was younger, or just starting out in business, I think I defined success in terms of financial success: how much volume was the restaurant doing; what perks was I getting from my job…those things translate to money in the restaurant’s coffers and in my pocket. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken a more holistic approach to success and what it means. Success is finding satisfaction, happiness, and most importantly, balance in all areas of life. Work, health, family, free time. Being able to balance all of those things AND finding a measure of financial success; that’s true success! Too often people sacrifice one of those things over another. Ideally, you want to have balance.
Success in a restaurant should be measured in a similar holistic way. It’s not just the number of covers you do. Certainly that’s a measure of success but it’s not the only measure. It’s one part of the equation. It’s not just the quality of food. Again, that’s a part of the equation and a very important part of the equation but not the only measure. Imagine going to a restaurant where the food is great but the service is terrible and restaurant itself is dirty. You wouldn’t go back. To me, what I strive for at my restaurant, what I think makes a restaurant a success is giving your guests a memorable night. Bringing pleasure into their lives through great food, great service, and a great environment. A night they’ll talk about to their friends, they’ll want to come back, and each time have a great experience. That’s success.
The pandemic, in many ways, was a time of collective self-reflection. What changes do you believe we need to make as a society to access success post pandemic?
The pandemic forced us all to slow down. Spend time with our family. Find joy at home and in our surroundings. My wife and I love to go out to dinner. We love to travel. All that was off the table during the pandemic. But my wife immediately decided we were going to have date nights at home once a week where we got take out from local restaurants. She would get all dressed up, created an elaborate tablescape, and we had private dinners on the porch. On “date” nights, we would get our son a pizza and let him watch TV or play video games with his friend. Those were date nights. We also had family nights where we would cook dinner together and eat and share stories. When we couldn’t do much travel, we took some road trips. Mostly, we spent a lot of time together and we had fun. We worked together. And I think that’s the secret to success post-pandemic is that we all need to work together. Lately, that seems to be a tall order in our current society where there is so much division.
What do you see as the unexpected positives in the pandemic? We would love to hear a few of your stories or examples.
The pandemic hit everyone hard but it hit the restaurant business particularly hard. In March 2020, I saw the writing on the wall. I knew we would get shutdown at some point. And I was scared. I didn’t know if my restaurant, the Old Vinings Inn, would make it. I also knew that I wanted to protect my staff as much as I could. I didn’t want to lose them because I have a great team, and I also felt an obligation to keep some money in their pockets too. Right at that time, I had been planning on opening for lunch, something Old Vinings Inn hadn’t done before. Instead of opening for lunch, we started offering to-go lunch and dinner. We immediately pivoted to a delivery service. I offered free delivery if you lived within a certain radius. That way I was able to keep my kitchen staff working and I had my servers, sometimes even my managers, deliver food. So, during that time we were shut down, we worked on our lunch menu and on our to go menu. When we re-opened, we started serving lunch Monday through Friday, in addition to brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and we maintained our to-go business. So we really hit the ground running when things started to open up. I’m really proud of my team. We stuck together and we stuck it out.
We’re all looking for answers about how to be successful now. Could you please share “5 Ways To Redefine Success Now?”
- Take a realistic inventory of your life.
- Create success benchmarks that are not financial in nature.
- Judge less, empathize more.
- Set micro goals and macro goals. It’s great to have long-term goals, big goals, but sometimes they can seem far away and unattainable. I try to set micro goals. Those are daily, weekly, and monthly goals. They may be completely personal in nature or they business-oriented, but if I’m hitting those goals then I feel I’m working towards something.
- Don’t compare yourself to others, set your own benchmarks for success.
How would our lives improve if we changed our definition of success?
If we stop chasing money, and start focusing on happiness and overall wellness, everything will improve. Our physical health, mental health, our relationships, our families. We visited Stockholm in 2019. In Sweden, during summer time, the sun sets at 11:00 pm, and never really gets dark. It’s a beautiful time of year and all the Swedes get outside to enjoy the daylight. You would think that the restaurants consider that to be their big season. But instead, a lot of restaurants shut down so the owners can go vacation and enjoy the summer too. It’s counter-intuitive. Our last night in Stockholm, we went to a restaurant that had a lot of buzz. It was considered the best restaurant in the city. They didn’t take reservations and it was tiny. We waited over an hour, maybe even 2 hours. The manager wasn’t going to turn anyone away. If you didn’t mind waiting, he was going to make sure you got seated. I think we finally got seated after 10:00 pm. The restaurant stayed open late to accommodate everyone. Everyone there was passionate about what they were doing. About the food and the experience. And damn, it was good. It worth the 2hour plus wait time. It was their last night of service. They were closing for 2 months the next day. That restaurant was killing it and they were going to close for 2 months in the middle of summer. In the US, no one would ever do that. I would never do that. I was thinking about all the money they were leaving on the table by closing. But that owner decided it was worth it. I do close my restaurant for a week in July every year so that my staff and my family can go on vacation — and I’m not on the phone the whole time. And that I’m able to do that; close the restaurant for a week, to me that’s part of my success and it’s improved my life.
What’s the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of our redefined success? And what advice would you offer about overcoming those obstacles?
We are our own biggest obstacle. Always rushing and moving to the next thing instead of stopping and appreciating what we have right now. Because right now is the only thing that matters. Another pet peeve of mine in the restaurant business is too many restauranteurs think they know more than their guest. No, that’s all wrong. Listen to your guests. Don’t try to teach them about your food or your beverage program. They just want to have a good time. They are not there to be lectured.
Where do you go to look for information and information about how to redefine success?
Peers, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she or they might just see this if we tag them.
Eric Ripert — he seems like a guy with a warm heart and deep knowledge of food and service.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.