How To Lead from the Top

Steve Shlemon brings more than thirty years’ experience to Benihana. His wisdom in the industry has set the tone for his leadership, which trickles down to every aspect of the company’s culture

Steve Shlemon had never eaten in a restaurant before the day he started working in one. At the impressionable age of eleven, Shlemon kick-started his impressive thirty-plus year career in the industry washing dishes at a German restaurant in Chicago that was owned by a friend’s parents. He was hooked from the beginning. “I think I made seventy-five cents an hour,” he says. “I got to eat for free. I loved it.”

The bustle of the back-of-house appealed instantly to the mind and heart of the young boy, but the draw of the industry turned out to be strong and lasting. Enamored by the fast pace and passionate crews it took to successfully run a restaurant, Shlemon says he never questioned his decision to stay in the business and feels a sense of pride about how he worked his way up from dishwasher to CEO. “I’ve never looked at it like a job,” he says. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who like what they are doing, and that never gets stagnant. I wouldn’t trade it for anything; that’s how much I love it.”

For Steve Shlemon, the secret to success is to love what you do. “I’ve never looked at it like a job. I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who like what they are doing, and that never gets stagnant. I wouldn’t trade it for anything; that’s how much I love it,” he says.
For Steve Shlemon, the secret to success is to love what you do. “I’ve never looked at it like a job. I’m surrounded by a bunch of people who like what they are doing, and that never gets stagnant. I wouldn’t trade it for anything; that’s how much I love it,” he says.

Success henceforth happened quickly as he worked his way through various positions at places like Steak and Ale in Florida, Bennigans in California, and TGI Fridays in Texas. In 1989, he joined the Outback Steakhouse team as one of the first franchise owners for the business, during which time he opened sixteen restaurants over the course of five years, setting the groundwork for what could be considered the most significant break in his career at the time—when he took over operations as vice president of Carrabba’s Italian Grill in 1995.

Shlemon was promoted to president in 1999, and over the course of his twenty-year tenure with the company, he grew the chain from a mere 15 locations to an impressive 235. It was during this time that he honed lessons learned from mentors like Norman Brinker (Steak and Ale), Dick Rivera (TGI Fridays), and Chris Sullivan (Outback Steakhouse) into his own leadership approach and style. Their various influences taught him many things, including the importance of finding and maintaining a trustworthy staff. “You have to select the right people, diligently train them, and make sure they exercise great judgment in everything they do. They [should] understand the strategy and the vision of the company,” Shlemon says. This foundation of trust and fostering of talent provides a critical groundwork for growth.

As he leads and guides new locations into existence, Shlemon must also be able to hand them off to local teams and trust the company’s vision will be met without too much interference. Micromanagement is one of his biggest pet peeves. “You don’t want to work in a company that’s a ‘boss’ environment, where you dictate everything in an ivory tower, so you’ve got to trust that your people are doing it the way you would,” he says. “And they have to trust that I am doing what I need to be doing. Otherwise it won’t work.”

These early lessons in growth and quality control were crucial to earning the position Shlemon has now. As president and CEO of Benihana, Inc., he currently oversees operations for three brand names under the company umbrella: Benihana, Haru, and RA Sushi.

Only one new location opened during the five years prior to Shlemon’s arrival, so he hit the ground running. During his first fiscal year with the company, he plans to open two new Benihana locations, four RA Sushi locations, and relocate a Haru location in New York City. He’s also eyeing the international market for more opportunities. The company currently has rights to open franchises in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean—areas that Shlemon says have a lot of potential for successful expansion.

On a smaller scale, Shlemon’s day-to-day responsibilities are similarly demanding as he trains new staff, makes sure quality food remains a priority at existing locations as menus are updated, evaluates renovation plans to freshen the look of older locations, and looks at technology solutions to improve the customer experience. Demographic testing is another responsibility he takes very seriously; knowing who your audience is and listening to what they like and don’t like about your brand is crucial. “The way they read your menu and look at your building might be different from what you see internally,” he says.

Shlemon has both short- and long-term plans for Benihana, but despite the enormous list of everyday tasks, he thrives on the daily grind and constant challenge and takes a distinctly methodical approach to the multitasking. “You have to keep focused on what needs to happen, instead of shooting at everything at once,” he says. “Set a strategy, keep people focused, and everything will get done.”

For a young Chicago native who worked his way up the restaurant industry’s food chain, it would be easy for Shlemon to let his successes go to his head. Instead, his focus remains on staying grounded in the most important aspect of his business: the people. When asked how he would like to be remembered should retirement eventually peek over the horizon, he says, “My legacy would be that the people running the business would be one hundred times better than when I took it over. I want them to continue to build upon what I created.”

Creating a solid staff base is certainly crucial to his success, but arguably more notable is Shlemon’s enduring passion for the job. He advises anyone who might be interested in taking the plunge to dig deep into their own motivations before jumping in, as it’s not a career for the faint of heart. “If you want to be successful in the restaurant industry, you have to have the passion gene and the hospitality gene in your heart,” he says. “If it’s looked at as a job, you’re not going to be successful.”