Star performance Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

With Latin music blaring and dancers twisting on stage, it’s obvious that David Wallack founded Mango’s Tropical Cafe on fun.

But don’t be fooled — Wallack takes the restaurant and nightclub business very seriously. With 20 to 30 job applications coming in daily, his 240 employees know that they can’t afford to slip up or they could possibly pass their positions to the next in line.

Wallack takes communication beyond rules and regulations by making it personal. The company’s president makes sure employees understand his expectations and the price for not performing. His approach keeps them at the top of their game, contributing to 2007 revenue of $19.7 million.

Smart Business spoke with Wallack about how to cultivate your employees to perform like superstars.

Q. How do you communicate your expectations to employees?

[We have] a manual that dictates everything from demeanor to dress to meetings and conduct and what’s expected out of each person in each position.

The first thing is to get someone else’s company manual and use it as an outline. I say that literally. I’m sure in the beginning [that] I did the same thing. And then you just adapt it to your own needs, your own company’s needs and your own personality.

Over the years, I began (the manual) and others in the organization have contributed substantially. That keeps growing each time you run into a situation that’s not covered [and] you add a section and cover it, and so it continues to evolve. You bring in your experts in that division, have a meeting, make notes and then draft.

Then notify and send out the modification to every staff member and, if necessary, review it at the next staff meeting so that it’s not just written but everybody also knows about it.

Q. How do you make that communication personal?

[We have] regular, mandatory staff meetings, which, when needed, were once a week and moved to once a month. [We have] mini-meetings, shift meetings run by managers. Those can be departmental as well as entire shift.

And regular contact between me and my management and me and my staff and an open-door policy directly to me for anyone if they have a problem that is unresolved.

The way I [make myself approachable] is I show up. It’s a hello, a handshake with everyone from the manager to the bartenders, the security, the dishwashers, the line cooks. I’m in there with them. They’re seeing me. There’s a touching. There’s maintenance of a connection there.

With the women that work for me, there’s a hug and a kiss on the check, looking in their eyes, letting them know they’re special and letting my staff know they’re special. … It’s realizing even within the management set, there’s a heart to it all. While we have the rules and the level of professionalism that we have to maintain, it’s also acknowledging the human factor.

Q. How do you empower employees to perform?

I let my managers manage. If they have a problem, they’re going to bring it to me for my guidance, but I let them manage.

They hire; they fire. I don’t stand in the middle. When an employee comes to me with a problem, I don’t put myself in the middle of my manager and that person. If a person gets fired or they’re disciplined, I don’t put myself in the middle unless I see an overriding legal issue or an unusual problem that my manager may not know of, then I may inject myself.

However, if there’s something that I would have my manager know that they may not have known, I’ll do that in a meeting with my manager, but it would be my manager who would then still either bring that person back or not.

Q. How do you handle underperformers?

Disciplinary action takes many, many forms, from minor to major. Once you invest in a person, you want to give them every opportunity to succeed, from just a little private meeting with no write-ups involved and encouragement and understanding what’s holding a person back, to a write-up, to a suspension, to a fine, to whatever it takes to motivate that person into performance. Everyone responds to different stimuli.

I’ve always likened that to the more you ride, you understand a horse. Some horses, all you’ve got to do is [click your teeth] and you have the best ride of your life. Others, you’ve got to break a stick off a tree, not hit them with it but just show them it’s in your hand. They’re going to pick their ears up and rock and roll, the best ride of your life.

And others just need a little tap. And some, you can hit them and it won’t even matter.

In many ways, people are the same way.

We don’t beat people with a stick, but showing them the stick means you can be fired, a suspension. Certainly for us the stick is, ‘You are fired.’

Everybody has a different motivation.

How to reach: Mango’s Tropical Cafe, (305) 673-4422 or