General Manager, Ocean Prime
Hometown: Buffalo, New York
As new restaurants have opened their doors seemingly every week over the past few years, Kal Harris has helped Ocean Prime maintain its place as one of Tampa’s go-tos for an elegant experience. Since Harris took over as general manager in 2016, Ocean Prime has seen staff turnover drop to 26% — almost unheard of in the hospitality industry — and this year Harris was named Cameron Mitchell Restaurants’ (Ocean Prime’s parent company) general manager of the year. For an industry that is notorious for its intensity and cutthroat nature, Harris says the environment his team creates is what makes Ocean Prime successful. “The culture in this restaurant is strong, so we’re very family-oriented,” he says. “We like to have fun with what we do, but we’re around each other so much that it’s very important that we maintain there’s a time for business and there’s a time to make sure we’re having fun. That balance is what makes you want to come to work.” Each quarter, the restaurant staff’s Culture Club holds an event to support a local organization, most recently Metropolitan Ministries and the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. Harris is also personally involved with James Beard award-winning chef Roy Yamaguchi’s fundraising dinner for the FARA Energy Ball, which supports research to cure the degenerative neuro-muscular disorder Freidrich’s ataxia. “Being out in the community is very important to us, giving back to the community in which we do business,” Harris says. “We want to make sure we give back. It’s easy to just collect money and go home, but you want to make sure that you make an impact.”
Tell me a little bit about what you do at Ocean Prime as the general manager.
The only consistent thing about what I do are the inconsistencies. The daily routine will change throughout the time, but it’s generally just dealing with people. Whether it’s dealing with different personalities, from associates to guests to dealing with difficult situations, making them positive, and enjoying our time here. We like to have fun and enjoy our time here. There are so many restaurants you go to that are black and white and extremely corporate, but we like to kind of think outside of that and look at the positives and see what we can do to make every situation a more positive situation.
How has Ocean Prime changed during your three years as general manager?
I don’t want to say changes, because this restaurant has been here almost 11 years. When someone comes in and thinks they’re going to make a change, it’s not necessarily how it works. It’s a team effort. Whatever happens in this restaurant, it’s not on my shoulders, it’s something the entire team does. We work very hard. We’ve had a remodel. The culture in this restaurant is strong, so we’re very family-oriented. We like to have fun with what we do, but we’re around each other so much that it’s very important that we maintain there’s a time for business and there’s a time to make sure we’re having fun. That balance is what makes you want to come to work. For me, every day that I pull into the parking lot, I couldn’t be more humbled that I get to be part of such a fun operation. That itself leans into the lack of turnover. Whenever there is turnover, we want it to be positive turnover. We want it to be someone who graduated college and then moved on. They spent some time here, worked their way through, and hopefully met a connection here and found a job through that. That’s our goal.
How did you get into the hospitality industry?
I started in hospitality at 15. I started as a busboy. I worked my way up. I was at a country club in Buffalo, New York. I worked there for three years until I went away to college. College wasn’t really for me. I made it a semester and a half. But the food and beverage industry was always kind of bringing me back to it. Hospitality is something I love. I love working with people, whether it be in the heart of house talking trash or talking football. It’s such high energy, or whether it be out front with the guests, taking something negative and turning it into something positive, or just taking someone’s anniversary and making it special. After my brief stint in college, I went back to Buffalo and worked at a small restaurant. The owner of the restaurant saw something in me. I’m not sure what, but he said, hey, Kal. I was 19 years old, and he asked me to come along with him and become a manager of the restaurant. He kind of showed me along. They were probably three or four of the best years [of my life]. I grew up, I matured. I still made some stupid mistakes, but I was young. I learned so much in that time.
I decided to move down to Florida. I got into country club management and started at a country club down here. I worked at Avila for five years. I was the assistant food and beverage director over there. I got to work with a great man over there as the general manager. Throughout my time, I really made quite a few connections there. I was very fortunate to find my way to Cameron Mitchell here. This is truly the restaurant where I feel like I can be myself. You come in, and so many restaurants put you in that bubble where they want you to be this kind of manager or that kind of manager. This restaurant truly allows us to be who we are.
What nonprofits/charitable organizations are you involved with? Tell me about Ocean Prime’s Culture Club.
The Culture Club is something that’s always been here, but we want to make sure we keep it going. We have these quarterly events we do with associates. It’s all on a volunteer basis. We did Metropolitan Ministries most recently and we have the Humane Society coming up here shortly. We do quite a bit just to get the associates involved. Being out in the community is very important to us, giving back to the community in which we do business. It’s something that’s very near and dear to my heart, but we want to make sure we give back. It’s easy to just collect money and go home, but you want to make sure that you make an impact. With the FARA event that I do with Roy [Yamaguchi] every year, I worked at Roy’s for five years, and Roy is a close, personal friend of mine. Paul Avery, who chairs that event, I’ve known him for quite a few years as well. We work together and create that event. It was just this past Saturday at his house, and it was a fun time. It’s always good to get Roy back in town. A James Beard award-winning chef, he’s just a fun guy to have in a room and talk to and enjoy. We do a lot with the Boys and Girls Club as well. We do an event with them every year. There’s so much that we do in this restaurant, and we don’t do it because we have to do it. We do it because we want to do it.
How do you choose the organizations you get involved with?
Mainly it’s something the restaurant cares a lot about. I know we quite a few associates in this building that are passionate about animals. That’s why we do the Humane Society. With this restaurant, whatever decision we make, it’s generally a team decision. We put it out there. When we did Metropolitan Ministries, we care to give back. When we do Feeding Tampa Bay and Fork Fight, that’s something that most people in the restaurant are passionate about, myself included. We always want to make sure we’re giving back to something that not just one person cares about.
Fill in the blank. When I’m not in the office, you can find me…
At a Lightning game or fishing.
Who is your mentor, and why?
There are a lot of people in my life who have impacted me. I look up to my family a lot. I know when I came down here, Glen Zito from Avila took care of me quite a bit and took me under his wing. That’s someone who’s made a big impact on my life. I look up to Roy quite a bit as well. We’ll still call and text, and he’ll shoot me some advice from time to time. It’s not bad getting advice from a James Beard award-winning chef who went to the Culinary Institute of America. I take a lot from a lot of the people I’m around. Relationships are very important. I like to ask a lot of questions. I never want to be the smartest person in the room. I want to put myself around some smart people and ask some questions and see what I can do to become better.
Do you have a motto or philosophy you live by?
Take care of people. You want to take care of people, and be a good person. Don’t take care of people to gain something from it. I want to take care of people I’m around just to do it. So many people want something from somebody. You want to selflessly take care of people because you can.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received, and from whom did you receive it?
I kind of touched on it before, that you never want to be the smartest person in the room. That’s something Paul Avery told me years ago, and I’ll never forget it. It’s pretty important. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re not asking the right questions. I’m sure someone told him that, and I know it’s not an original quote, but when I was younger and he told me that, I certainly took it to heart.
What do you love most about Tampa?
Well, the weather’s important, coming from Buffalo. Having this beautiful weather down here is phenomenal. I enjoy that it’s not as crazy as Miami. The food scene here is bustling. The food scene here in Tampa, I’ve never seen it as hot as its been. What we’re doing around here, there’s so many restaurants. Chef Adam here is pushing the limits. We have so many restaurants popping up that you don’t have to go to Miami anymore, or you don’t have to go to New York, or you don’t have to go to Chicago anymore. You can come to Tampa. We’re certainly becoming part of that food scene, and I’m certainly excited about that. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.
What is the last book you read or your favorite book?
The last book I read was a book by Cameron Mitchell, Yes is the Answer. It touches on a part of this restaurant. We had a guest who was coming in here for quite some time and had cancer. We made T-shirts for Bob. He’s healed, and we’re so happy for him. He wrote this letter to Cameron. He would come in every Friday. He would have a Dewar’s and soda. He would talk to people at the bar. He was a part of our family. He was an extension of our Ocean Prime family. He wrote Cameron this amazing letter that was actually in the book. It was pretty special to see that, when you’re here, we’re not just serving food and beverage. We’re making connections. We truly have friends and family that are guests, and they’re not just associates. That was something that was pretty special.
Which app on your phone could you not live without, and why?
Probably my email app, unfortunately. That’s the sad app. Other than that I’d probably go ESPN. Checking scores, seeing what the Lightning are doing. Keep an eye on my Buffalo Bills and of course the Bucs.
What is your dream vacation?
I’d want to go to Ecuador, I think. I want to go to the Galapagos Islands, check out the beaches out there.