A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, Jennifer Meltzer discovered her passion for the hospitality industry while studying anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Virginia. Meltzer worked in a sandwich shop and found that her cultural studies applied daily to guest interactions in the restaurant and enjoyed making people happy with a simple sandwich and a smile. Following graduation, Meltzer continued her Middle Eastern studies, earning a master’s degree from Georgetown University in 2006, but something kept pulling her back to hospitality.
Since graduating, Jennifer Meltzer has worked in a number of well-known restaurants in Washington, D.C. including BLT Steak, The Capital Grille, Founding Farmers, and Del Frisco’s Grille. She is now managing partner of All Set Restaurant & Bar in Silver Spring, Maryland. In addition to her professional experience, Meltzer has a certificate in food service management from Cornell University and has earned her CWP (Certified Wine Professional) from the Culinary Institute of America and, most recently, achieved the second level in the Court of Master Sommeliers.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
Like many people, I was waiting tables while finishing grad school and looking for my “real” job. The search wasn’t going well but luckily, I was becoming more and more interested in the restaurant industry and the language of food and high-level hospitality. One evening I was serving a pair of sisters who you could tell were excited and engaged in the meal, food and service…this was 10 years ago. At the end of their meal I decided to send them over one of our most popular desserts in addition to their selection. When I presented the check, I let them know the dessert was on the house. One of the women started crying—unbeknownst to me it was her birthday and she hadn’t been able to spend it with her sister in several years and this gesture made an already emotional meal truly memorable. The fact that I was able to play such an instrumental role in their evening, just by being intuitive, compassionate and caring still makes me smile today. That was the trigger that made me realize how valuable of a role people in the hospitality industry can have on the lives of complete strangers.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
For one thing, it’s a constant challenge. Even the most mundane tasks can be made more efficient and less frustrating with a creative approach and working in a restaurant means there are always opportunities to invent and test out a different way of doing something. When I started, I quickly discovered that my educational background prepared me to be a natural hospitalitarian—I understand people’s needs and desires and how to best meet them.
Above all, I truly appreciate the fact that we can actually affect the lives of strangers by providing the gift of hospitality. We go out to dinner to share special moments—what we on the service side are doing is more than just a job; it makes an impact on the milestone moments in people’s lives.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I began my education and training in hospitality without even knowing while I was studying anthropology at the University of Virginia. This background gave me the tools to be able to anticipate people’s needs and wants—as well as the desire to do so.
Once I committed to making this my career, I invested the same amount of effort into my education in the food service and hospitality industry as I did with my graduate program in Arab Studies at Georgetown. That included an online program in Food Service Management from Cornell, a six-week wine boot camp at the CIA in Napa, and sitting for the Court of Sommelier Level 1 and 2 Exams, not to mention every service, food and wine book I can get my hands on and watching every episode of Chopped!
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
It was more confusion than anything else. The important people in my life didn’t understand why I would study and work so hard for so many years only to work in a restaurant. Many had never worked in a restaurant before and therefore didn’t understand the enriching challenges it can present if you are serious about it. The only person who did understand that was my dad, but because he had owned a restaurant he actually gave me warnings: the long hours, how physically and emotionally demanding it is…but now, I honestly don’t think anyone can picture me doing anything else.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
Yes and no. Doubts are a part of life and everyone doubts their choices at some point. For anyone who works in hospitality, holidays spent in a restaurant while serving people who are celebrating with their families while you can’t always leaves room for doubt. Until I opened my own restaurant, there was always that thought in the back of my mind that I could completely switch paths, get a 9-5 desk job, and assimilate into mainstream society (and the lives of friends and family).
When did your career reach a tipping point?
After much success and promotions with fantastic restaurant groups, I took a job with a small but growing restaurant group and was excited to make an impact. It turned out to be a terrible fit and I was fired! I couldn’t believe it but it was the stimulus needed to make a decision – do I leave the restaurant world, be content with serving or do it for myself? Although that experience was totally traumatic and still stings, I’m happy to say that All Set will be celebrating our 2nd anniversary in April and I wouldn’t be here unless that had happened.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
As soon as I decided to commit myself to the industry I had to accept that to succeed I would have to put my personal life on hold. It was hard at the beginning to continuously turn down invitations from friends and family, and even harder to see those invitations dry up as I repeated myself over and over: “I can’t, I’m working.” I lost touch with a lot of people I was close to who didn’t work in restaurants, and I felt like I was letting down my family by not being around. Creating and maintaining balance mentally, emotionally, and physically as a restaurant manager and now as an owner is a challenge every single day.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Smiling and seeming calm and collected when you have 500 covers on the books and you just found out about one of the various restaurant crises that pop up in the space of a long career: a bathroom disaster with no one to clean but you, a fire in the kitchen with a full window of tickets, half your staff not showing up for a holiday brunch…etc.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
When I get to witness development within my team—when it’s not just waitressing anymore, but it becomes their life because of the inspiration and education I have been able to give them. Having that direct effect on someone who just months before was a complete stranger is supremely rewarding.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Education is key—there are so many books and movies to inspire, teach and motivate you. Thirst for knowledge is so important. A lot of the tasks we do might seem monotonous but every day is an opportunity to do something different.
Get a comfortable pair of shoes. Don’t let a bad review ruin your day. Make sure you understand the difference between yourself and the restaurant. Have strong self-esteem and a personality. Make sure you like to drink and eat; that’s pretty important. And whatever you do, don’t expect it to be glamorous!