What it's like to work at Carrabba's Italian Grill -- an insider's account

(Editor's note: The following story is an account by a former Carrabba's employee who no longer has ties to the company. One WalletPop editor who recently dined at a Michigan location of this national chain will attest to the veracity of this insider glimpse, given the exceptional experience he and his family had there.)

Can you imagine throwing out four or five pieces of lasagna cooked just a few hours ago? Can you imagine doing it every single day? How about having to work in a kitchen at 8 a.m. every morning for a restaurant that's only open for dinner?

I went through all of these different scenarios and more during the five years I worked for Carrabba's Italian Grill as a manager. There, I learned more about food and the commitment to excellence than I did at any other point in my nearly 20 years in the restaurant business.

A glimpse, not a review

This article is not a review or a list of tips based on the dining experience that I've had at Carrabba's. If you're looking for something like that, check out the five ways to save money while eating out at restaurants. Rather, I'd like to think of this post more as an insider's look at a Carrabba's kitchen. I think you'll find it interesting and informative, applicable to your dining experiences not only at Carrabba's but also at similar restaurants.

"No love sincerer than the love of food"

This quote used to appear on the menu and marks the cornerstone of every Carrabba's kitchen. I never had the pleasure of training directly under the founders, Johnny Carrabba and Damian Mandola, but was trained by people who did, and I saw the founders often enough throughout my career there. They epitomized this quote through their actions and high standards.

From scratch

To say that their kitchens cook "from scratch" is an understatement. For most restaurants, "fresh every day" means that some small percentage of an item is cut fresh every day, not that they throw "everything" out and truly start from scratch. But at Carrabba's, if the restaurant had a lasagna that came out of the oven at 9 p.m. at night and didn't sell it, then guess what? At 10 p.m., when the kitchen closed, we'd throw it out.

This applies to all of the following dishes as well:
  • Fried mozzarella
  • Chicken Parmesan
  • Pizza dough
  • Lasagna
  • All pastas
  • All tomatoes
  • All fresh-cut spices (basil, parsley, etc.)
  • Anything heated: spaghetti sauce, meatballs, sausages.
  • Marsala sauce
  • Lemon butter sauce
  • Garlic mashed potatoes
You may wonder how the restaurant could ever turn a profit throwing away this much food, but these parameters just put that much more pressure on a kitchen manager to focus, and know just how much of each of these items to make.

Quality in, quality out: Lessons learned
I learned a lot about food while working at Carrabba's that also applies to life in general; the more of your heart that you put into your job, the more reward you get out of it. Commitment and perseverance always pay off in the end. In order to be very successful at what you do, there's a certain amount of courage involved, to do things the right way no matter what the financial cost.

Furthermore, I learned that investing time and energy into people will bring you successes that you could never have achieved on your own. I learned the true power of teamwork and that training is everything in regards to successful restaurant management.

Love of food, love of community

Besides their sincere love of food, your local Carrabba's should have a sincere love of community as well. We opened up our restaurant and immediately became closely associated with local schools, community centers, city governments, sports teams, and anything else we could find to spread the word about our name and our great food.

And we didn't just get out and shake hands, we gave away our food. On any given day, we could serve anywhere from 50 to 500 people for free. And it was all because we knew our local community would support us long term. All we had to do was to spread the word that Carrabba's had great food and great people, and we knew we would succeed.

The authentic dish

If I thought this restaurant was subpar, I'd tell you about it. That's simply not the case. You can get a decent meal at Carrabba's even if they are not completely committed to the standards and recipes that the founders created. You can get an alright meal there even if you have cooks just going through the motions and collecting a paycheck.

However, you can also get a fantastic meal in terms of freshness and quality on any night of the week if you visit a Carrabba's run by someone who has the same sincere love of food that the founders do.

Now, that's not to say I can guarantee any Carrabba's experience. If you had an experience there where you did not get a high quality meal, that location probably has a kitchen manager who's not dedicated to what he's doing. At most Carrabba's, you'll get an excellent meal every time you visit -- the result of a kitchen manager who has invested plenty of time and energy in his staff to make sure that their dedication level meets his. In my experience working at Carrabba's, a consistent passion and love for food allowed the restaurant to produce a solid product every day of the week. Or, as the Italians like to say, "Mange, mange!"

Do your experiences at Carrabba's seem similar to mine? I'd love to hear any complaints or complements from you.

David Bakke blogs about personal finance at Money Crashers, a popular resource site focused on educating readers about financial topics like banking, getting out of debt, setting up a solid financial foundation, investing, career, and more.
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