WHEN I WAS A CHILD, I THOUGHT I WANTED TO BE A NURSE. That might have been driven by my mother. She was a social worker, but she worked primarily in hospitals. And at 13, I wanted a job. I wanted to get paid for something, but that wasn’t legal. So I volunteered as a candy striper at the hospital for four hours a day. But the other four hours a day, while my mom was still working, I would do administrative work for her and bill her at the end of the week. I would create my own invoice on a spreadsheet, and for $4 an hour, I helped her with administrative work. Then as I got a little bit older, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I’ve taken the StrengthsFinder assessment a few times. Since 2006, what’s been consistent for me are “belief” and “individualization.” So if you think about that [first] strength, “belief,” it connects to the fact that wherever I work has to be aligned with my core values. And I think that’s why I work for Bloomin’ Brands. I’ve been here almost nine years, and since I’ve been here, we’ve consistently done what’s right for our people. I feel like this is a place where I’m safe, and I’m able to thrive because of that. But the other part of my StrengthsFinder that stands out is “individualization.” I’m always intrigued with the unique qualities of each person — finding out how people can be different but still work together productively. I know that it has been proven that diverse teams produce better work, but it’s also very visible here at Bloomin’ Brands and all the restaurants I’ve worked in across our brands.
MOST TIMES WHEN PEOPLE ASK ME WHERE I’M FROM, I TELL THEM THE SOUTH SIDE OF CHICAGO. But I really come from Tracy and Regina. My parents met when they were 11 and 13 years old, and they met in the same neighborhood where they raised us, called Englewood. It’s on the south side of Chicago. But the interesting thing about Chicago is it was founded by Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable, a Black Haitian man. There’s a museum [in Chicago called] the DuSable African American History Museum, and we would go there on field trips and for community events. I just grew up with this strong sense of Black culture. When I got to college at The Ohio State University, I met my best friend on day one at orientation. And while she may have looked like me, her experience growing up in the suburbs of Ohio was very different [from mine]. She never learned anything about Black history. It’s something that I took for granted. It’s just how I was raised. I went to high school at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School — not many people can say their high school was named for a Black civil rights activist. But I do have that in common with Michelle Obama. I always tell people we went to the same high school at very different times. But I think that has created this sense of pride in me that not everyone experienced as a child, and it shaped me as an adult.
YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO FIND OUT I’M A COLLEGE DROPOUT. Most people might look at my role and say, OK, you’re an executive on a team that’s pretty impactful here in the Tampa area. But in college, I had some challenges. I think one of those challenges was being away from my family in Chicago. In my final quarter, it all came to a head, and I left Ohio State and went back home to Chicago. When I went home, I told my mom, it’s fine. It’s my last quarter. I’ll transfer my credits back, finish the classes at a school here, no big deal. I got home, and I started working in the restaurant that I had served in. They made me a manager. And a couple months later, I found out I was pregnant. After working, having a baby and getting promotions, I eventually went back and did exactly what I told my mother I would do, but it was five years later. And when I graduated, one of my classmates — we were resident advisors together [when I first started at Ohio State] — she was getting her doctorate while I was getting my bachelor’s degree. In that moment, I thought to myself, I could get really down about the fact that I came to school thinking I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and I could have been getting my doctorate right now. But in that instant, I couldn’t feel bad. I had a beautiful daughter who at that time was 4. And there’s no greater motivation to succeed than having a child looking up to you. I immediately said to myself, this is my journey. I can’t dictate my life by someone else’s journey. But I started studying for the GMAT right away, and I started scouting grad schools because I knew I wanted to continue to learn and push myself. I jumped right into my MBA program after that.
WHAT WE’RE TRYING TO DO IS REALLY BUILD A CULTURE WHERE EACH INDIVIDUAL WHO WORKS FOR BLOOMIN’ CAN THRIVE AND ACHIEVE THEIR PERSONAL ASPIRATIONS WITHOUT SACRIFICING ANY ELEMENT OF THEIR IDENTITY. And that’s important to me because, over time, I have gradually come into myself in a professional setting. I haven’t always been comfortable wearing my natural hair or wearing braids or even talking about myself as a single mom. Eventually, I got married, and now I’ve had more kids, and I run into women in our restaurants every day who say, “Oh my gosh, you had a baby and you’re doing this career.” You can have a baby and have a successful career in the restaurant industry. Sometimes people don’t think that’s possible. I want to show people the art of the possible and make it a reality for as many people as we can. But it is really about bringing my passion to life and celebrate the uniqueness of individuals — breaking down barriers where our differences might [make it seem] like we can’t connect or that I don’t have anything in common with that person.
MY PASSION FOR THE RESTAURANT INDUSTRY GOES BACK TO HOW I STARTED AS A SERVER. I value hard work and the fact that the restaurant industry gives you the opportunity to grow from a server to an executive. Although I have two degrees, no degree is required. Hard work is what gets you there. The other side of that is just the experience interacting with the customers. When I was 17 years old, I started waiting tables. I’m a natural introvert, but I would go to work and just come out of my shell because I got to meet new people every day who came from all walks of life. When you put food at the table, it’s something we can all agree on. It’s a form of expression. [At one point] I started a pizza business. What you put on your pizza could be a catalyst to a whole conversation. So I think it’s the way that the restaurant industry brings people together. It’s such a fun environment that [allows you to] truly be yourself, and that’s valued.
THE PANDEMIC PUSHED EVERY BUSINESS OWNER TO BE CREATIVE. And I believe Florida’s hospitality and restaurant industry is going to come out even more resilient and stronger on the other side. Once you start getting that level of innovation and problem solving … I mean, we were trying to ﬁgure out how to adapt to municipalities changing guidance weekly, sometimes daily. At our organization, Boneﬁsh Grill and Fleming’s had never done delivery, so they didn’t have it as a muscle across the system. But in a matter of days, they had to ﬁgure out how to deliver. And they did that through collaboration with our other two brands, who have been doing delivery for several years. But again, I think that’s a behavior and a muscle that we’re going to hold on to — collaboration. I was collaborating with leaders from other organizations, [asking] how are you solving [problems]? Collectively, as an industry, we came up with new menus. We came up with new ways to operate and engage with our guests. And I’m hoping that the optionality of how you want to experience a restaurant sustains well beyond the pandemic. Choosing [if] you want to have delivery or carryout, how you want to pay, all of those features that just became a part of how we operated during the pandemic, I think they’ll stick around. And as everyone starts to gather again and restrictions are being lifted, we have a unique opportunity to bring people together around the table and celebrate the victory of coming out of the pandemic.
I’M FROM CHICAGO, SO I’VE ALWAYS CONSIDERED MYSELF A BIG CITY KIND OF GIRL. When I moved to Tampa, I felt like I did an entire one 180. It was like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. I looked at my 10-year-old daughter, and I was like, we are not in Kansas anymore. Because we moved to Riverview. It’s quite a ways away. But now when people come to visit, we’re excited to take them to Downtown Tampa to Armature Works, seeing the development. We were just riding scooters over at Armature Works a couple of weeks ago. I let my daughters ride, and I kind of kicked back and watched them. But even just the environment of being able to sit back and have a glass of wine while the kids are out playing on the grass — it’s exciting to see the shift. And I really feel like this is better than the big city. It’s becoming that big city feel but without the hassles of the congestion of the big city. It’s a little bit more laid back and relaxed with the wind blowing in your hair by the river or in Channelside. I’m excited about the growth. And I’m starting to see more of that local business flair pop up even in Riverview. So it doesn’t matter where you are in the Tampa area, you can find what fits your style.
I COME FROM A VERY MUSICAL FAMILY. My sister is a singer. My brother is a singer-songwriter and musician. He plays multiple instruments. My mother would host special events like a Father’s Day or Mother’s Day luncheon, and the running joke was we knew my sister was going to sing. We knew my brother was going to play the keyboard or the piano, but no one knew what I did [laughs]. I was there to support. I was there to organize, maybe, and help with logistics. But I think I have a unique skill of finding a connection with anyone. And that’s really evolved for me throughout my career, as I’ve traveled across the country connecting with our [employees], I find there’s always something intriguing about every individual.
I LOVE TO PAINT. So whether it’s Painting with a Twist, or with a cocktail in hand, or I even think back to when I purchased my first condo in Chicago. I was so excited to get the keys and paint my daughter’s room. I painted it a bright yellow. I took letter sponges and put [the lyrics to] her favorite song up across the wall: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. So whether it’s painting a portrait or painting a room, I think it’s relaxing for me.
I’M NOT MUCH OF A COOK, BUT I CAN GET BY. But my go-to if someone says, “Hey, we’re having a potluck, what do you want to bring to the table?” I typically lean on baked mac and cheese. Over time, I’ve found two options that I go with. And both were gifted to me by Pinterest because I’m a huge Pinterest fan. One is a little bit more creamy, while the other is a little more savory. I tried to pass them on to my daughters and teach them how to make it. One [daughter] chooses the creamier one and one chooses the more savory one, but both are good options.
FOR YEARS I’VE BEEN SAYING I WISH I COULD CLONE MYSELF. If I could wake up in the morning, look at my schedule and say, “All right, the girls are doing this, and work requires this, or my mom’s doing that. One of you go here, and the other go there. We’ll meet back up tonight.” I know it’s probably not ever going to be possible. But I would love to be able to continue to be fulfilled by my job and my passion and my purpose and not miss a moment with my family.
I DON’T REALLY HAVE A BUCKET LIST. When I think of something I want to try, I generally try to make it happen in a year or two. I’m a little impulsive. A little bit of a risk taker. I swam with sea turtles in Barbados before I even knew how to swim. I just threw on a life jacket. I thought it sounded like fun, so let’s do it. I’ve tempered that a little bit as I’ve aged, but my instinct is still very action-oriented. I also think tomorrow isn’t promised. So if we want to do it, let’s ﬁgure out a timeline and create a plan, and let’s make it happen.
I’M VERY FAMILY ORIENTED, SO MY PERFECT DAY WOULD DEFINITELY INVOLVE WHAT I TRY TO DO [ON MOST] WEEKENDS. … just snuggling with my girls. My husband and I are blessed to have four daughters, 18 and 16, then 2 years old and 5 months. Snuggling with those little ones just gives me so much joy and energy. If I could, I would break up the day [so] I have snuggles, then go out and hang with the teenagers, and then close the night with dinner with my husband, just the two of us. With work and [the girls’] activities, every moment we get to spend just one-on-one is precious.