What I learned while slinging tacos

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

A connection I made on social media recently posted a blog post about the things they have learned as a new professional. That prompted me to think about the things that I've learned along my own development.

I remember the process of getting my first job at Adolph's Mexican Foods, a restaurant famous where I grew up. My parents had always imparted on me the importance of looking professional and working hard to get what you want. I remember going in, filling out an application, and then anxiously awaiting a phone call for an interview.

See the thing to know about Adolph's and me is that my family and I ate there all the time. We had gotten to know the owner and his family and the other employees on staff. I didn't want to depend on my relationship with everyone and wanted to dress to impress, so imagine everyone's shock when I showed up in the ugliest brown suit for my interview. I sat down with the owner, John Perez, and we chatted for about fifteen minutes. In that time, John shared with me some of the most meaningful lessons of leadership that still stick with me even today. Being John's employee taught me a lot about hard work, collaboration, and life in general.

To give you an idea of some of the meaningful lessons I learned, I present to you the top 3 things I learned while slinging tacos.

1. Why we need clearly defined values and expectations

During our conversation, John told me one of the central guiding principles for his staff: "Keep the customers happy and keep them coming back." While it is an obvious line for someone who runs any kind of hospitality/customer service centered business, John has always been a pillar of the community and dedicated to the people he serves. For him it has always been important that when people come into his restaurant they have a good experience. So I wanted to make damn sure everyone's experience was a good one.

You see, John depended on each staff member. He gave me a job, but he also instilled the values and vision he had of his restaurant and what he expected his employees to do beyond the normal routine of the day to day.

When you have clearly defined values and expectations and some measure by which to hold people accountable for living them (even if it's just at work), it provides a sense of direction for people to work towards. I know that it is certainly true from my own experience. I think in most jobs, it is easy to get complacent and forget some of the values that should shape your work, but when you have clear expectations set and a system is in place to hold people accountable for them, your focus stays sharp.

2. The value of having fun at work

My uncle was the one who introduced me to the era of crooner style music like Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and others, but the restaurant played all of the classic easy listening songs like Dion's "Runaround Sue," The Penguins' "Earth Angel," and others. My friends will have no trouble reading this and imagining me delivering customers' orders while singing a song, particularly when we were extra busy. I brought music even on the days when "my music" wasn't playing. All so my co-workers and I could have some karaoke sessions while cleaning up after a hard day's work.

Some people would get really burnt out by the time the work was done (and sometimes before), but as an ENFP I brought the party to work every time, and kept the team spirit up. When you are able to make the work fun, time flies by a little faster, you feel a little bit better about what you were able to accomplish and look forward to doing it again the next time. All of these feelings aren't just felt by employees, who ever is the beneficiary of your work feels it too. I can remember the customers that sang along, smiled, and laughed along with us. It's a powerful feeling being able to have fun and bring people together while at work.

There might be those that view the fun you have as being unprofessional or something to that effect, but maybe you just have different ideas of what having fun means. Don't forget to engage those folks too! I know that jamming out to music and singing along doesn't vibe with everyone and some people are more inclined to punch in and punch out while not involving themselves in any other extras in the workplace. As long as a balance is struck between having fun and getting the work done, there shouldn't be any problems, right?

3. Teamwork makes the dream work

I was always delighted when I was assigned to work the same shift as some of the staff both in the front of the house and the back. When you have the right combination of people, there's this effortless flow that everyone works in. High functioning groups like this have a lot of trust in each other, realize that their success depends on the performance of the team, and they do whatever they can to make sure they are successful.

As a people person, I'm always interested to know my team, our individual strengths and weaknesses, our interests, etc. It helps me to click with other people with ease and to make sure that relationships remain strong. I don't know how we would have made it through those busy Taco Tuesday's without making sure that our team was solid.


There you have it. The top 3 things I still carry with me from my days slinging tacos. A huge shout out to John and Jeff for taking a chance on a kid who showed up in an ugly brown suit for an interview. Another shout out to the various people I had the pleasure of working with at Adolph's in East Moline. If you're ever in the area, make sure you eat at this place.


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