Published January 20, 2004
Volume 12, Number 1

Mark Wooldridge Finds A Home in Hospitality

By Jay Hipps

The restaurant business is well known as one of the most difficult in which to succeed. Mark Wooldridge, owner of Bamboo Island and a 30-year veteran of the field, has a simple tip to offer anyone considering a career in the business.

“If you don’t have hospitality in your heart — if you don’t really enjoy service — it can be a very frustrating means of employment,” he says. “People that get into the service business and stay in it (have to) get into it for the right reasons.”

Mark WooldridgeWhile people have their own reasons for working in restaurants – he acknowledges that there’s a lot of “instant gratification” for people working as servers or bartenders because they bring home their tip money every night – his own reasons go beyond that.

“In the restaurant business, we have an opportunity to please a lot of guests,” he says. “I also enjoy the people that I work with, because many of them use this as a stepping stone. There are a lot of doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs who were once waiters and waitresses or bartenders, and it’s a very good experience, if properly applied, to learn the importance of how you deal with people on a day-to-day basis. Service, to a certain degree, is honoring people.”

Wooldridge didn’t know he was embarking on a career when he got his first restaurant job as a high school student in the early ‘70s. “It was a little place in Washington DC called The Psychedeli, with lots of black light posters and stuff,” he says. He continued in the field, working his way through Tulane University while serving a variety of roles at New Orleans bars and restaurants. His studies, however, focused on a career in medicine, and not until he took a semester off for skiing in Utah – and working in a restaurant on the slopes – did he decide to pursue a degree in business instead.

“I thought I had an aptitude for it,” he says. “In the restaurant business there’s a lot of opportunity to utilize that education and if you have a certain amount of entrepreneurial drive, you can do an awful lot with it.”

Wooldridge remained in New Orleans after completing his degree, eventually managing “upscale, white tablecloth” restaurants like Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s. In all, he spent nearly 15 years there before being recruited by a Seattle corporation, Restaurants Unlimited.

“I refer to them as the Harvard Business School of restauranting,” he explains. “Really sharp, great people. Great training, great influence – and they taught me an awful lot about how to run a restaurant successfully and that kind of cemented my resolve to be in the business and do well in the business.”

Despite the fact that Restaurants Unlimited operated a large number of restaurants, which normally necessitates strict guidelines for managers to follow, Wooldridge found a freedom there to make decisions about many aspects of how a restaurant operated.

“Restaurants Unlimited offered a broader range of (opportunity) — to understand how the business worked and to be involved in development, execution, conceptualization… everything from A to Z if you wanted,” he notes. “It gave me a much broader education from the standpoint of participating in decisions on how to grow and redefine the business.”

His time in Seattle also brought him into contact with a number of vendors and suppliers, one of whom made a big impression.

“There’s a guy I met years ago in Washington who has an ice cream company called Olympic Mountain Ice Creams. It’s fantastic stuff: 18 percent butterfat, all natural ingredients, Belgian chocolate… It’s the pinnacle of ice cream, but he only sold it to restaurants in and around Seattle. So I asked him why he wasn’t the next Ben & Jerry’s and he said, ‘I’m perfectly comfortable and I live by three rules: Do something that you like to do, rule number one; two, you better be good at it or you’re going to be frustrated; and three, do something that enriches other people’s lives because there’s always a market for it and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that.’ I think the restaurant business fits that niche (for me).”

That philosophy, combined with Restaurant Unlimited’s mantra of “every guest, every time,” helped further define Wooldridge’s approach to the business.

“Decisions with respect to the business are always made guest-first,” he explains. “A guest wants to sit in a particular place, you let them sit there. If they want to eat in a particular way, you do everything you can to take care of them. If I have guests coming in and they mention, ‘This is my favorite brand of liquor and you don’t carry it,’ the very next moment I’m going out, picking it up, and putting in on our shelf.”

After being transferred to the Bay Area in 1994 – Restaurants Unlimited operates a number of establishments in the area, including Skates on the Bay in Berkeley, Kincaid’s in Oakland and Burlingame, Horatio’s in San Leandro, and Palomino in San Francisco – Wooldridge eventually received an offer from E & O Trading Company restaurants in San Francisco that entailed management responsibilities as well as an equity position in the business, something that he had decided was necessary as the next step in his career. He first turned around the new and then floundering E & O restaurant in San Francisco and then opened up a second E & O location in San Jose.

“(The San Jose location) was a restaurant that I designed, conceptualized, built, opened, and operated very successfully, and there’s a lot of satisfaction in that, a lot of enjoyment.”

After he parted ways from E & O, he partnered with Darrell Scherbarth of Extreme Networks to begin Bamboo Island, where his fully-realized approach to restauranting is taking flight.

“It’s everything from where you put the kitchen and how you run the business to establishing a strong mission statement, which in our case is ‘We want to be everybody’s first choice,’” he says. “Whether it be a birthday, anniversary, just got off work, friend came to town, whatever it is, we want our guests to think about us first and go, ‘Hey, we want to go here because of the way we’re treated, because of what we have to offer, because of the quality they have, the value that we have to offer.’

“And that includes people working here – we want to be the first choice of people, we want them to say, ‘Hey, this is a fun place to work – if I’m going to be in the restaurant business, I want to work at Bamboo Island because it’s a cool place.’ So, it’s developing the mission statement, being the first choice, and backing it up with the values that feed that statement.”

Those values have also been developed through Wooldridge’s extensive experience in the field.

“We have three fundamental values here: hospitality, what I call team play (rather than teamwork), and expertise,” he explains. “Those are three fundamental values that we use to make a performance and that we use on a daily basis to try to encourage our crew to understand what we expect of them to deliver on a day-to-day basis. If you put those into play and you really work hard at it, you can do really well.”

Of course, even the best philosophy will amount to nothing if the food doesn’t measure up. Fortunately, Wooldridge’s plan for Bamboo Island recognized the importance of the cuisine from the start. In fact, the food, atmosphere, and overall concept are interrelated.

“What we wanted to do was create an entity that had upscale fare in a setting that was casual and comfortable and enjoyable, where people could come in wearing anything from jeans to full suits, and sit down and enjoy a great meal with a range of offerings,” he begins. “If you want a burger, we’ve got a tremendous burger and sandwich menu, but on the flip side if you want a pan-seared mahi mahi or ahi we have wonderful, high-quality fresh fish flown in from Hawaii every day. Some people call it Asian Fusion, I call it California Hawaiian – there’s a little bit of tropical influence, some interesting and wonderful tropical ingredients, and a lot of fresh fish.”

The tropical atmosphere has been drawing satisfied diners and business travelers, earning Bamboo Island a loyal following.

“We’ve had people say, ‘Gosh, I feel like I’m on vacation.’ That’s the whole idea – the idea is to create a space where people can walk in, shed the worries of the day, feel like they’re in Hawaii without having to stand in line at an airport somewhere, and enjoy a mai tai or a lava flow.”

Of course, it’s a lot of work making everyone feel as though they’re on vacation, but that’s a task that Wooldridge knows well – and relishes.


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