Carl Fine of Egg Harbor Café Named Restaurant Leader of the Year

Routinely recognizing employees for their efforts is a foundational aspect of developing a motivated and capable team while also increasing engagement and retention. All too often though, we neglect to provide this same feedback and appreciation to our managers and leaders.

So a few months ago, I reached out to my LinkedIn network and asked for their help in finding an exceptional restaurant operator deserving of the title Restaurant Leader of the Year. The response was incredible! Dozens were nominated and each leader I spoke with was impressive, unique, and quite simply amazing. Their passion for the industry shone through and it quickly became evident why they had been nominated.

But after much deliberation, we narrowed the field to just one. Congratulations to Carl Fine, Regional Manager of Egg Harbor Café, for earning the title Restaurant Leader of the Year.

Let’s dig in and learn more about his leadership style and what brought him to the industry in the first place.


Basketball Background

I’ve talked before about the benefits of bringing a sports and coaching mentality to restaurant leadership. And interestingly, team sports have played a huge role in Carl’s life. He not only played basketball throughout college, but he also accumulated a decade of basketball coaching experience under his belt too, first at Montreat College in North Carolina and more recently as the assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at Trinity International University in Chicago.

He volunteered for the latter role to support his wife, Summer, as she pursued her own coaching dream serving as the head coach of the team. During this time, Carl took to the court himself again, joining semi-professional teams affiliated with the International Basketball League and the Independent Basketball Association. On top of that, he picked up a few jobs waiting tables — fatefully, one of those at Egg Harbor Café — to make ends meet.


Finding His Sweet Spot  

To be an effective employee and leader, there’s no getting around putting in the time and energy to learn the ropes. And Carl did just that. He stayed in the server role at Egg Harbor Café for four years before making the leap to management. It was during these early years that Graham Hallen, who nominated Carl and has worked at the café for a decade now, saw something unique in the basketball-coach-turned-server.

“[The multiple jobs and coaching duties] could have been a great excuse for him to show up every day at 5:30am, tired, irritable and just watching the clock to get out the door at 2:30 in the afternoon,” says Graham. “That could not have been further from the truth.”

And Carl’s perseverance paid off in 2014 when Egg Harbor’s owners, John Wright and Mike and Aimee Farrell, offered him a co-manager leadership opportunity. Despite having previously launched and managed a successful landscaping business for nearly 10 years before selling it to an investor, Carl questioned his readiness for leadership. However, the owners remained confident that his character and abilities were a winning combination for the family-owned business. They encouraged him to “focus on the people and the numbers will come” — a mantra that has undoubtedly allowed the business to now grow to 20 locations, maintain a low turnover rate, and inspire coworkers like Graham to publicly recognize Carl’s lasting impact.

“Carl has brought his coaching and leadership skills to [Egg Harbor] and been a shining example of what it can be like to work in a place that has the abundance mentality — a place where [career] coaching is just as important as life coaching,” says Graham. “In only a few short years, Carl has risen from being a server to now completely overseeing the growth and success of our second oldest store in Lake Forest and our fastest-growing store in Libertyville. There are five managers currently in place right now as a direct result of Carl’s leadership and guidance.”

Graham credits Carl’s devotion to continuous personal and professional development as a driving factor in his successful transition to leadership. Carl uses the information he accumulates as much for self-improvement as he does to share with young talent and assist them in overcoming obstacles to find their own successes.


Foundational Beliefs

When asked about his foundational leadership beliefs, Carl lives by the following guidelines:

  • He never makes “desperate hires” and instead bases hiring decisions on the candidate’s heart and character, not just their employment experience.
  • He has a strong faith-based belief system and considers himself a servant leader with a genuine love for people.
  • He customizes his leadership style to each individual and recognizes how influential (for better or worse) his leadership can be.
  • He operates on a teamwork and group service model, where any server can assist a table, ensuring a more consistent and high-quality customer experience.
  • Though he values long-time staff members, he regularly rewards performance over tenure, resulting in a lower-than-average industry turnover.
  • He believes wholeheartedly in Egg Harbor’s mission to change the negative perception of the restaurant industry and is extremely proud to be intimately involved in this revolution.


Setting the Bar

The best leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing aren’t shouting their successes from the rooftops or drawing hordes of attention to themselves. Instead, they’re busy advocating on behalf of their team and putting their energy into building relationships with their people and customers.

Carl is no different. “In an industry full of under-the-table payouts and addiction, it is people like Carl [who] remind us that if we commit to keeping our compass pointed north, then we will attract more of what we already have,” says Graham. “Egg Harbor has created a culture that values integrity, self-awareness, and honesty […] and we are incredibly fortunate to […] have someone like Carl to inspire and reward the right people who want to grow and evolve into the best version of themselves.”



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