Starting out in the food business selling vegetables and corn on the cob at 15 years old, Katrina Sheppard, later found herself pursuing her passions in hospitality after majoring in HR, becoming the General Manager at a spot she would always frequent with her friends.
As we walked in from a dark and rainy October night, we were instantly blown away by the place. Everything is lit up, warm, inviting, and lively. Early into service, we saw delicious food coming out of the kitchen, servers giving off best friend vibes with each other and guests, and the bartender pushing out drinks, while talking about what he’s concocting for tonight’s service (something with cinnamon).
For our Q&A session with Katrina, we were led up to the second floor of a three-story building, where we got to know firsthand what made Playa so successful, the amazing and passionate staff behind the name, and Katrina’s love and excitement for it all.
What was your first job?
I worked at a road vegetable stand, called ‘Strouds,’ where I sold veggies and corn on the cob. My nanny’s friend owned the farm, and that’s how I got the job, and I was around 15 years old. It was just outside the city in Ajax.
How did you become the General Manager of Playa Cabana Hacienda, one of the many restaurants under the very successful Playa name?
I worked down the street before, and used to frequent Playa Cabana with my girlfriends. I’ve lived in the city for about four years, and it was our first spot.
They hired me through a recruitment company called Lecours Wolfson. It’s even really hard to find assistant managers, and I have 2 assistant managers here. All our locations have assistant managers and it’s really hard to find good, qualified managers that are dedicated to the company and towards moving up.
Did you have any mentors or people you looked up to when you first started?
I went to Georgian College and I worked while I was in school. I had a really wicked general manager that helped me along the way in moving towards hospitality; it wasn’t my original goal. So, him and our operations manager Mic and Sue, showed me what it’s like to be successful in hospitality, that there’s so many different ways to love your job, and be good at your job.
What was your initial direction?
I took HR in school – general business, and then a HR major. So, it transfers into hospitality, but I think that if I were going to sit in an office, do a full-time HR position and not interact with people, which I’m so used to doing, it would be hard to make that transition.
Some people can sit at a desk, but for other people that’s just not your personality. You need more interaction to be happy.
What makes up a great Front of House?
People that work as a team. It’s one thing working for Playa Cabana where everyone really likes each other. I find that if you are able to build relationships within and outside of the workplace, you can kind of rely on your co-workers and on your staff.
One really nice thing about working here is that there’s no division between front of house and back of house. It’s like that at all of our locations, where people just really like each other, and during our interview process we look for people that have the same passions, which are food and drink – tequila, tacos, and Mexican cuisine. Our staffs want to provide a good experience, great service, and good quality product, which make Playa Cabana what it is. It’s a full experience.
I find our staff excited to come to work, whether it’s learning a new cocktail, or learning about a new menu item. There’s always something that’s changing that makes your day a little bit different, and everyone’s excited.
I’ve noticed that this place has a bit of an LA vibe with all the lit up neon, vintage signs and the overall look. Where did this theme come from?
The one thing with Playa Cabana is that all of our locations other than Playa itself, change pretty frequently. We do a lot of construction, and a lot of last minute changes. We’ve moved the bar here, and we’ve moved the bar at Barrio three times. I think that our vibe is always changing.
I know that Dave our owner did a lot of his training in New York and he loves and lived in LA. So, that’s where it came from, his personal background…but it’s more of like the late-night vibe spot.
How would you describe Playa to someone who’s never been here before?
I think Playa, as a whole is an educational experience, from the moment you arrive you have to take everything in. You have to be open to loud music, the hustle and bustle, and bright lights. The best way to do it is to let you server or your bartender choose for you to make recommendations, because they are so educated in the food. You can tell them what you like, what you don’t like, and they can put something together for you. It’s an amazing experience overall. Whether it’s about tequila or a different type of liquor, and Mexican cuisine. There’s just so much to learn.
Our bartenders and our staff go through a lot of different training, like tastings, weekly and monthly. I think people want that too, when you go out, you don’t want to read the menu and decide what you want, you want somebody to tell you what they recommend.
What does hospitality mean to you?
Hospitality means to me, the whole experience, similar to guest satisfaction, where the person who comes into the building was provided with even more than what they expected. From the first person who says hello, to the server greeting them at the table, they’re just blow away by everything, the server’s personality, and everyone they interact with in our establishment.
The person is mind-blown by the overall experience and just happy with everyone they’ve interacted with, which made their experience better.
Was there ever a time that you had to go above and beyond for a particular customer?
In the hospitality industry, you have to go above and beyond for everyone, because there are so many different places for them to go eat, socialize and drink. You have to be able to provide exactly what they want, plus more, so that they’ll continue to come back.
Describe a typical day for you at Hacienda?
I spend a lot of time on the phone, with reservations, booking large parties, and that takes up my morning. Making sure that the staff are set-up and ready to go for the night, and that the lighting’s right, because from walking in you notice the vibe and it’s something that’s very important to us. The staff is educated about that day’s specials. I interact with different suppliers, making sure we have enough product of what we need, sourcing out new tequila, and new product.
What is the most exciting part of your day?
Tastings are one of the most exciting things, because I watch the staff try new product, and be educated on it, so they’re excited about selling that product, and providing that for our guests. This is really exciting for me because you want them to be successful, because they make you successful. Interacting with my co-workers, and the management teams are exciting because we bounce ideas off of each other all the time.
How do you balance keeping things light and friendly with the business aspects of being the GM?
You definitely have to have a divide between. I think that your staff has to respect you, so they know business is business, and as much as you want to be supportive in their social lives outside of work, they come here to work and to make the business successful. It’s building a mutual respect for your staff.
How do you keep the team and yourself motivated?
We do a lot of incentives, friendly competitions between location-to-location and in-house. The staff thrives on that, being the best server within Hacienda, being the best server within Playa; and our back of house team is very team oriented. We seat up to 500 people on a Saturday night, and our back of house team kills it all the time, just constantly communicating with people and constantly giving them feedback on what kind of job they’re doing.
Even if you always have to be the most motivated person, I think working with other people that care so much about their job, and about the company will always keep you motivated. You always want to thrive and be the best.
What is your most memorable customer experience?
The Raptors players come to Playa a lot.
What are your pre-work and post-work rituals?
Pre-work: I walk my dog and drink greenhouse juice.
Post-work: Everyone socializes quite a bit in the hospitality industry. Personally, I don’t go out all the time after work, because I work at 9 in the morning everyday. I try to keep it a little bit more low key than that.
How do you keep up with Toronto’s food scene?
I go out to eat a lot. I think that you have to, not just to see what kind of competition you have, but to make sure that you’re on the same page as everyone else, and to look for new ideas of what you can do, what you can embrace, and what you can improve on. You have to read reviews and not take everything as 100%. Basically, doing research and going out, just keeping up.
When you go out for a meal, how do you turn off the work part of your brain?
I don’t think you can, I don’t think it’s possible. Once you’re in hospitality you’re brain functions a certain way, and I don’t think you can change it or turn it off.
Would you like a day to be able to?
Umm, I don’t think so, it keeps you busy, but that’s why you’re in hospitality, because it keeps you happy.
Do you have any favourite apps?
I have a daily ritual of certain online sites that I check like Polypore, Foodgawker, Hautelook, Guilt, and Snapchat.
A Cocktail Shaker
What’s one word that describes the Hacienda culture, from the people eating here to the staff?
It’s so hard to just pick one word for Hacienda and the staff. They’re lively, out-going, dedicated, they embrace everything, and are open-minded.
Our guests are eclectic and diverse.
My favourite meal at Playa Cabana is the Stuffed Poblano Peppers with oaxaca cheese, served with salsa roja, rice and beans.
Outside of Playa…Barbarians just opened a sandwich shop and they have the best sandwiches. Anything off the menu’s good. It’s not greasy, but the buns are covered in flour…the messier the better. (Sandwich shop: TLP)
What’s coming up for Playa?
Well we always thrive to expand and if you can expand you must be doing something right.