A native of Bethesda, Maryland, Molly Horn got her start in the restaurant industry at the ripe age of 14 when she began working at the Bethesda-based Gifford’s Ice Cream and later a global pizza franchise. While studying philosophy and public relations at Pennsylvania State University, Horn worked at a local deli in State College, Pennsylvania. She spent her summers in New York City waiting tables, which is when Horn realized she wanted to pursue a career in restaurants.
Upon graduation in 2010, Horn returned to her hometown of Washington, D.C. and began working as a waitress at Founding Farmers. It was during this time where she met Jennifer Meltzer. Over the next five years, Horn would learn all aspects of the restaurant, from server to trainer to bartender and finally head bartender. She was educated in branding, company policy, cost efficiency, and managing a bustling, large-scale restaurant. Most recently, Horn was instrumental in managing the beverage program at Farmers, Fishers Bakers before re-joining Jennifer Meltzer in February 2015 to develop the beverage program at All Set Restaurant & Bar. For the next two years, Horn served as assistant general manager where she was responsible for the creative development of the cocktail program to the back-of-house financials. Then, in August 2017, Horn returned to the Farmers Restaurant Group in the hopes of getting some additional experience in the consulting side of the industry. For the next year she would assist with the opening Silver in Bethesda, Maryland. After growing as a manager and professional, Horn made the decision to return to All Set Restaurant & Bar in July 2018 to bring the popular New England dining concept to greater heights.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
I started working as a server when I was 19 just as a way to make money, so for a while I didn’t even consider it as a viable career choice. Even after I recognized that I was truly enjoying working in the restaurant industry, it was almost like a lament: “oh, man, if only I could do this for my real job!” It took being out of my comfort zone and away from societal pressures for me to realize that I wanted to make this my career.
A good friend of mine convinced me to go backpacking throughout Southeast Asia and India with her the year after I graduated college, and it was on one of our many escapades—this time in Vientiane, Laos—that we stumbled upon a restaurant run by Peuan Mit, an organization started by Friends International that essentially helps street children and young people learn translatable skills to help give them a better future. To clearly indicate how much of an effect this meal had on me, I named my blog post about it “Setting the Table, Asia Style” in reference to Danny Meyer’s hospitality must-read Setting the Table, which I had also been reading and annotating for the last few weeks. What really stuck with me—what inspired me to come back from my travels and hurl myself wholeheartedly into this industry—was seeing how much of an impact one could have. Seeing our server training a new hire, watching him instruct her in open-armed service, crumbing, reading back our order, was so exciting. That meal started it all.
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
When I first became seriously invested in my restaurant career I was still in my early twenties, so one of the aspects I was most drawn to was the variability of my schedule and the constant expansion of my social circle. I met new people and made new friendships literally every day, and each shift behind the bar meant a chance to interact with new guests and create a memorable experience for them. As I have grown older and settled down, particularly being in a neighborhood restaurant, I have been lucky enough to translate that same joy into a slightly different vessel—forging relationships with regulars who we have seen get engaged, married and have babies; or developing team members and creating opportunities for them to keep them invested and avoid stagnation.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
Since I didn’t realize I was going to go into this industry when I was in college, I didn’t begin studying or even paying attention to the hospitality industry until I met one of my mentors. Unbeknownst to me, she started gradually developing me into a restaurant person, and before I went backpacking she told me to read Setting the Table. That book, combined with my experience in Vientiane, lit the spark that started my mostly self-driven education—primarily reading all the books I could find about food and restaurants, wine, cocktails, service, and teamwork. I also had the chance to spend a week in Napa with a friend who was enrolled in the CIA’s Wine Program, so that certainly helped, as did attending my first Tales of the Cocktail when I was just getting into the world of bartending and bar managing. To this day I reference an incredible lecture taught by the folks at Anvil in Austin on building a bar team.
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
I come from an area where almost all of my friends, even my outer circle, have a second degree, and my parents both worked their way up in non-profits. Of my 500+ graduating high school class, only four of us that I know of work in restaurants professionally. It is therefore unsurprising that my parents were not at first thrilled by my decision to commit to a job that, in addition to the long hours and unhealthy lifestyle most people already associate with it, also lacks upward mobility and financial stability. With the intervention of some amazing female role models I worked with fairly early on, I was able to convince them—and myself—that this world holds a viable future for me.
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
As with any job, you reach breaking points and have to reevaluate where you are going. I definitely had some doubts, particularly after finding myself in a serious relationship after having been single my whole life with a man who has a ‘normal’ life—what we in the industry call 9-to-5’ers. The idea of having a normal schedule so that I could have evenings and weekends with him, as I so often witnessed others doing in my working life, was definitely very tempting. I toyed around with the idea of getting a desk job, but in the end my passion for the job won out. (He is actually working on his Real Estate license so he can have a more flexible schedule.)
When did your career reach a tipping point?
After working at Founding Farmers on-and-off for two years I was promoted to Head Bartender at Farmers Fishers Bakers. At such a busy, fast-paced restaurant, with so many moving pieces, it was the greatest challenge I had experienced at the time. It pushed me to understand rather than just do, which was a big reason I was so much better prepared for the opening of All Set and setting up a whole new restaurant from scratch. In addition to the organizational/financial aspect of the job, being in a position where I worked side-by-side with co-workers that I was also responsible for developing and managing helped me mature and rise to a level I had not realized I needed to.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
Something that has been very challenging is the issue I have had with my voice. I severely strained my vocal cords in college and have never regained my original sound. It has been difficult to work in the service industry for a number of reasons-often people can’t hear me in noisy environments so I’ve had to make sure my communication is clear and concise. Also, people tend to think I’m sick, which is never a good thing when handling food and beverages! Damaging my voice has made it harder to be taken seriously and at times passed over for promotions. Being serious about hospitality and advancing my career has made me take my health seriously. Although not 100% better, through vocal therapy, life style changes and a couple of surgeries, my tone is my more consistent and I don’t feel like my voice is the only thing that people remember about me-now it’s my personality or depth of knowledge about food and beverage.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
My most useful skill is my genuine desire to make people happy whether they be our guests, team members, vendors or neighbors in our community. Making people happy makes me happy so it’s never a bad thing to look for a solution to a problem when others may dread a table visit. Having to recover a guest is a great way to make a friend and knowing that I have a deep well of warmth and compassion that I can draw from is like a secret weapon I have that makes me confident and reaffirms my love for hospitality.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am most proud of encouraging a person who wasn’t a ‘restaurant’ person to continue to want to work in restaurants. I was only able to find my path in hospitality because of the inspiration from my mentors and for me to serve in that capacity for someone else makes me feel like I am continuing a tradition.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Find a mentor in the industry, find a way to stay engaged so you don’t lose your passion. Go out to eat, don’t feed into negativity, be a good winner