November 20, 2019

The World’s Most Important Job

OK, we might be exaggerating just a little. But Food and Beverage Manager are surely in the top 10 – just ask Niall Bruyns, F&B Manager at The Westin Cape Town Hotel.

Please tell us about your career path. How did you become a Food and Beverage Manager?

Unlike many people, I can trace my career back to one defining moment which sparked my passion for cooking.  My father belonged to the Western Province Mountain Club, and when I was about six, we ended up at one of their member’s houses for an impromptu dinner.  He whipped up a meal of basically whatever he could find in his kitchen on a big skottelbraai.  Enthralled I stood at his elbow as he explained the fictitious recipe for the dish he dubbed “Chicken Ali Wawa.”  A week or two later, I dragged my mother around the grocery store buying the “required” ingredients for the master recipe.

From that point on, I began experimenting with tastes and flavours, developing a palate that has served me well in the past years.  My penchant for entertaining, and desire to interact with new people every day, pulled me out of the kitchen and into the front of the house. 

I paid for my own studies by working in bars and restaurants in the evenings and on weekends, and by the time I had reached the end of my studies I had already taken my first junior management role.  For my final experiential, I was placed within the City Lodge Group.  I spent about two years with them, in two properties, learning the basics in an exceptionally well-run business.  I then took a sidestep into cost control at the V&A Hotel for 18 months, before moving back into the front of the house for another 18.  My first full F&B Management position was at Cape Milner in 2009.  I stayed there for three years and left as Deputy GM.  My last stop before joining the Westin in 2016 was the Winchester Mansions, where I served as F&B Manager for four and a half years.

What did you study?

A National Diploma in Hospitality Management at Cape Technikon, now CPUT.

Are there courses available to further your knowledge?

In any industry, there are always opportunities to learn more, and hospitality no less than any other.  I have grabbed the opportunity to do many more short courses and certificate qualifications since graduating and hope to continue.  I have completed courses in everything from Financial Management to Industrial Relations to an NQ Assessors Qualification.

What are the essential skills that every good F&B Manager should have?

Attention to detail, passion, willingness to learn, confidence and compassion.

You need to know your client and your business better than anyone else. This can only come from being prepared and paying attention to the information you have at hand.  You need to love what you do because it’s really not a forgiving career path.  You need to be ready to learn from others and put your ego aside, yet be confident enough in your abilities and knowledge to make a stand or take a risk when you need to.  Finally, you need to be able to motivate and inspire your team (which will usually make up close to 50% of the staff complement in any hotel) and you can only do this by getting to know them and their own desires.

How do you build relationships with suppliers and service providers?

Be open and honest.  Act with integrity. I believe in being open about my needs from the outset and weighing them honestly against what the other party stands to gain.  If it doesn’t work for either side, the relationship needs to be adult enough to say so without recourse, and move on without closing lines of communication for future possibilities. Once an agreement is struck, honour the deal and tow your end of the line.

How do you accurately forecast which products to order and in what amounts?

It’s a lot less magical than it really sounds.  I’d love to tell you that I have a pixie in my pocket that gives me a line on the odds, but in reality, it’s just about knowing the business.  Spending almost two years in cost control taught me to read daily sales and look for patterns, ask questions and consider the findings. You’ll make a few mistakes in the beginning, everyone does (that’s why we all have a bottle of Advocat somewhere!) but as long as you learn from them it eventually becomes second nature.

What does your day-to-day routine look like?

Routine? What routine? Certain parts of your day afford routine, but in general, the best (and worst) part of the industry is that each day brings a new variety of challenges. 

In general, I’m at work no later than 7 am.  I do my rounds on the floors and in the kitchens on my way to the office, checking in with the management teams and greeting staff and guests.  Often it’s more than an hour before I actually make it to my office.  I check mails before morning meeting and that’s when the reliable part of my day ends.  Most mornings are filled with a combination of meetings and service, and the next time I get to any real admin is after lunch.  I seldom leave before 6 pm, but rarely stay later than 7 pm unless there is a function.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

I suppose that the most obvious is that for most of your life, you are at work when everyone else is off, and are off when everyone else is working.  But the one that raises my blood the most is that everyone is an “expert” when it comes to food and beverage.  I’ve literally had a guest tell me that my Sauce Diane was not actually Sauce Diane because they watch BBC Food all the time, and that’s not how it’s made…

What is the most rewarding part?

In some ways, it stems from the most challenging.  Whether they recognize it or not, the food and beverage industry is behind most major celebrations in an average person’s life.  We are the ones who made that dream wedding possible.  The matric dance. Christmas. Birthdays.  Being a part of a memory that will live in someone’s heart forever (even if they don’t remember you) is incredibly rewarding.

How has your role changed over the years? What have you learned to do differently?

I got into the industry because I love people, food and wine.  As I progressed through my career, I perfected these skills in many ways.  I love hosting special events, particularly pairing dinners such as those I did at Winchester and lately at The Westin.  I am able to convey facts and details about the pairings and the dishes while offering what I have begun to call experience in “Epicurean Edutainment”.  But as properties became larger, I had to make the choice to stop trying to do everything myself. My mentoring and development skills become more important, and I had to learn to groom others and guide them in the right direction in order to achieve more at one time. 

Don’t miss out: Chat with us on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram!