Sam Harrison, Restaurateur

In our regular #MyFirstMcJob series, big chiefs remember when they were still small ruts

Sam Harrison 1

Hi, Sam! Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Sam Harrison and I own a small collection of independent restaurants, cafes and food shops in West London, including Sam's Riverside, our flagship restaurant, in Hammersmith. 

What was your #MyFirstMcJob?

Working in Browns restaurant in Oxford when I was a student.

How did you get that job?

I'm pretty sure I just knocked on the door because I was a student and I needed a weekend job. I think they had an old-fashioned “we’re hiring” sign in the window.

What did you have to do?? 

I started as a busboy, a backup to the waiters. Browns at its peak was a very busy restaurant – big numbers, high volume. As they got to know me better, I developed into a waiter, looking after seven or eight tables on a busy Saturday night or Sunday lunch.

How long did you work there for?

Most of my third year at university, at weekends.

How much did you get paid?

Browns paid you £1 an hour because there was no minimum wage. You kept all your cash tips so I could earn a small fortune as a student. I'd expect to walk away with £150 in cash per weekend. My rent was £52 week so that left me quite a lot of beer money. I was probably about the wealthiest I've ever been, relatively.

What were the perks of the job?

They were pretty long shifts. If you were doing Sunday lunch, we started at 10am and finished at about 6pm, and you'd be pretty knackered. You could order something off the menu and have a beer. I remember they did a chicken caesar salad, which back in 93, 94, seemed very glamorous. I remember thinking: “The sort of thing one day I might eat in New York!” It sounds silly, but back then, a chicken caesar seemed very glamorous. 

Did anything funny happen? 

It was always a bit mad and hectic. As a waiter, I'm convinced I put the order through for a table of eight, but it didn't print in the kitchen, so the people didn't get their food. The head chef – a grumpy older guy – totally blamed me and it all kicked off.

What skills did you learn that you still use today?

I learned about working with all types of people, teamwork, happy customers, tricky customers, and grumpy chefs! Working as a waiter in a busy restaurant like Browns takes a certain skill. You're permanently adapting. You have to think on your feet, so you have to be streetwise, not simply intelligence. I've worked with very clever, intelligent people who can't do it.

Are you still in contact with anyone you used to work with?

The only person I'm in contact with is the owner because he's a bit of a legendary name in the industry and now has other places in Oxford. He’s very sweetly been to my places and always sends me a nice email saying: “You're doing great.” The hospitality industry is like that. There's mutual respect and understanding for how hard we work, and particularly as owners, you keep an eye out for each other.

Why is alumni important to you?  

People I've worked for have always kept an eye on me as mentors and sounding boards when I've needed them. The hospitality industry is relatively small. Good people stay in touch and keep an eye on what alumni are up to. I love to hear about people when they're flourishing. I wish them every success. Maybe your paths will cross again and they'll come and work for you again.

What would happen if you went back and did a shift as a busboy in Browns today? 

I think I'd be all right because I'm often doing the same job in my own places. I'd probably be a bit more relaxed, realise it's not the end of the world if table 22 doesn't get their drinks that second, and be thicker-skinned when it came to dealing with grumpy chefs.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I'd say: just soak up all experience. Having gone on to run my own businesses, I pull from everywhere that I've worked. I've had restaurant and hotel jobs that I really didn't like, but I still learned. So: soak it all up, learn from people, ask lots of questions and try to have fun.  



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