Back of House

People Who Inspire Us: James Johnson

You have probably seen many articles that I have written over the years that talk about the opportunities that the casino industry offers. Countless stories of individuals who started off at the hotel front desk or as a dealer in the pit, who are now running the hotel or in some cases may be the general manager of the entire casino.

What you might not have heard are the stories of those team members whose contributions might have gone unnoticed, but provide just as much to the success of the operation with little fanfare or recognition.

One of those such individuals is the story of James Johnson. James started as a dishwasher at Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel in Tama, Iowa, in 2011. He was a familiar face in the back of the house and you never had to question his reliability or his attention to detail. For any of you who think that this position is not important, wait until you have a plate come back dirty or you run out of crab leg pliers on seafood buffet night.

I was the general manager at that time. What I did not realize about James was how he got to work. He rode his bike 14 miles each way. He’d leave at two o’clock every morning to get to work on time. Never once had I heard a complaint from James or even that he had brought it to anyone’s attention; this was just what he did. I’m sure I’m not alone in waking up some mornings and not being eager to get out of bed – and I didn’t have a 28-mile bike ride facing me.

In the winter of 2015, I had just driven through a blizzard that had started sometime in the night that had already dropped six inches of snow and the temps were in the teens. I knew there would be several team members calling in, not able to make it in on the icy roads. I had just made it through the parking lot and to the team member entrance and noticed there was the bicycle by the door. James’ bike.

I thought he must have left it from the night before, but no, he had ridden his bike in those conditions to make it to work. When I talked with James about what was going through his mind that morning, it was just the same as always, “I needed to get to work because I needed the job.” At times where the snow had drifted, he got off and walked his bike through the snow.

After that, I never grumbled again about having to get up and go to work.

I caught up with James in November, visiting the casino after retiring from the position a few years back.

Since that time, James has purchased a car with his savings from his job and continues to take his job very seriously. When asked what he felt the significance of his job was, he responded, “I make sure the kitchen team members have all the clean tools that they need to do their jobs correctly. Also making sure that the waitresses always have clean glasses for their guests and not letting them run short on anything that they need.” According to Bill Goodman, Meskawki’s F&B Director, James has offered suggestions on how to more efficiently manage the onslaught of dirty dishes during a busy shift to make sure that the new crew coming in always has a clean kitchen and dish room to begin their day.

Goodman also noted that James has expanded his duties, where he is becoming even more of an asset to the food and beverage department as he moved into the kitchen on some days to develop his talents in becoming a cook. James said, “I like cooking breakfast the most. Flipping omelets in particular is a skill that I am most proud of.”

I asked him what he liked most about his job. He responded, “I wanted to have a job that I liked and could depend on. One that gave me the chance to get ahead, has benefits and has allowed me to continue to move up.”

Operators know that these back of house jobs have the highest turnover and start at the lowest wages. Dishwashers, cooks and maintenance personnel often work in high-risk environments with equipment, chemicals and tools that require strict safety protocols. And yet, even in organizations that promote internal guest service, these laborers often face disrespect or are just ignored.

These are the untold stories, the behind the scenes work that may never come to light as to who contributes to the success of your operations. We need to celebrate these events and individuals for the effort they contribute without seeking anything in return, for they are the backbone of your company. This is only one of thousands of stories that take place every day in tribal casinos. How many Jameses do you have in your employment who have a unique story to tell? Seek them out and create an environment that inspires others to achieve that level as well. Indian gaming gives an opportunity that was not there before. Having a job provides an individual with dignity and pride that they are making a better life for them and their family.

If you are in management, take the time to acknowledge and praise these achievements, not only for the recognition to the individual, but for creating the type of culture that you look for in all your team members. You will be rewarded ten-fold by those who look to duplicate that effort with extraordinary achievements of their own.

Dan Stromer 10 Articles