I first met Regynald G. Washington in May, 2017. We both happened to be at Bistro Niko. I was there to check out drink specials that the restaurant had planned to serve on Mother’s Day. Washington was grabbing a quick bite at the bar.
As the bartender set up his station for the cocktail demo, a server dropped off Washington’s order of salmon flatbread. I ogled the dish as it arrived and made a comment about its tasty looks. Next thing I knew, Washington offered me a bite. Hungry and curious, I accepted.
He could have said, “Do you even know who I am?” Then, he could have ticked off highlights from his accomplished résumé: former elected officer and board member (including chairman) of the National Restaurant Association, as well as the Georgia Hospitality and Travel Association (now Georgia Restaurant Association) and the Florida Restaurant Association. A dozen years as an executive for the Walt Disney Co., where he rose to one of the highest levels as vice president of global food and beverage. Georgia State University’s graduate program in hospitality even bears his name.
“I’m a food and beverage guy. We think food and beverage is to be shared. There’s someone who wants to taste it, you let them taste it. That is kind of what we do,” Washington said.
He currently serves as president of the dining division at Paradies Lagardère, a company that operates stores and restaurants in airports, hotels and other locations throughout the United States and Canada. But, having clocked 42 years in the service industry, Washington has earned himself a nickname: Mr. Hospitality.
He’s receiving a lot of other titles lately, too.
The Georgia Restaurant Association will present the hospitality and restaurant executive with a lifetime achievement award at its annual gala in August. It will be the second major honor this year for the Atlanta resident. This past May, he accepted the International Food Service Manufacturers Association 2019 Gold Plate Award, the most prestigious awards program in the food service industry.
Washington got his first taste of the hospitality industry when he was 13 years old. His parents gave him a weekly allowance each Sunday, “but it was so chintzy, it would run out by Tuesday,” Washington recalled.
However, growing up in touristy Marathon, in the Florida Keys, presented Washington with an opportunity to earn extra spending money by working at one of the many beach resorts. So, he got a job busing tables at one of the fancier resort restaurants in town.
“I started learning a lot about food and beverage — the back of the house, the front of the house, banquets. I fell in love with this industry. By the time I graduated from high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue my further education in the hospitality industry.”
He earned an associate degree from Miami Dade College, then went on to Florida International University, where he earned a bachelor’s as well as a master’s in international hotel and restaurant administration.
“The rest is history — with just hard work,” he said.
Hard work. That’s at the core of everything Washington does, and a topic that he discussed when he delivered the commencement address for Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business this past May. “Be a maniac about excellence,” he advised graduates on moving through their careers. “Always focus on delivering excellence. Quality is never an accident. It is the result of attention to detail, intelligent direction, and skill for execution.”
The first job for nearly one in three Americans is at a restaurant. And half of all adults in the U.S. work in the restaurant industry at some point during their lives. Washington is unusual for having stayed in the industry for more than four decades, but, even for individuals who don’t make a career out of it, he sees restaurants as teaching grounds for skills — like time management, teamwork and conflict management — that are valued in any profession.
“There are times when you are going to have difficult guest issues,” Washington said. “You have to work through those, and do it in a professional manner. You don’t lose your composure or your dignity. You remain respectful, and work through to a positive solution.”
The hospitality industry is a demanding one. It can take the patience of Job and the strength of Hercules. What has been Washington’s staying power?
“I love unlocking potential in other people. It’s really great to watch people reach a level they thought they could never reach,” he said.
But, he cautioned, impatience isn’t part of a recipe for success.
“There’s no shortcut. Everybody wants just to hurry up and be super successful. You’ve got to learn whatever it is you need to learn, and do it extremely well,” he said. “I don’t care whether you are a bus boy, server, manager, dishwasher, cook or maître d’, do your best to reach for excellence. When you reach for excellence with everything you touch, a lot of great things will eventually happen.”