Dayton restaurant, bar encourages employees to follow their dreams

Owners of Sueño and Tender Mercy say strong dining scene depends on developing local talent.

Credit: Submitted Photo

Credit: Submitted Photo

The Idea Collective, a hospitality development and management company that owns Sueño and Tender Mercy in downtown Dayton, is creating a foundation for their employees to learn, grow and in some cases move on to open their own businesses.

Chris Dimmick, who owns the restaurant and cocktail bar with Ginger Roddick, David Kittredge and Chef Jorge Guzman, said the first step to creating an environment that fosters growth and development is identifying the right talent.

Credit: Jon Morton Studios

Credit: Jon Morton Studios

The owners look for passionate and empathetic people and find that those in leadership positions typically have a goal of opening their own restaurant or business, Dimmick said. It is almost a prerequisite for a management position. If someone does not have that end goal, they might talk them out of a leadership position because it’s a lot of work, responsibility and pressure for a paycheck verses a learning experience, he said said.

“We’ve found a lot of passionate people... that love Dayton and want to be a part of this next wave of hospitality and amenities for our city and sharing their craft,” Dimmick said. “If we can identify that in someone, we feel the responsibility to harness that passion and drive and make sure that we’re doing everything we can to share our experience and our best practices with those individuals to continue their growth and development as others have done for us in our career.”

Dimmick grew up in a family that owned restaurants in California and after studying business at the University of Southern California he worked for a number of hospitality groups. He said things he always wanted in a job was growth, development and constant learning, which is what his team provides to employees at Sueño and Tender Mercy.

“I think it’s important in today’s job market with this work force, with young people that have ambition and passion for hospitality, we have to share everything we know with them to keep this whole thing alive. Independent restaurants are threatened daily,” Dimmick said, in reference to the last three years of COVID-19 impact.

Preparing for the next step

Dayton native Lauren Gay is an example of the talent Dimmick wants to see flourish.

Gay directs the wine program at Sueño and Tender Mercy and is planning to open a new wine business this summer in downtown Dayton’s Fire Blocks District, “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I didn’t have the opportunity with Sueño and Tender Mercy to learn as much as I did,” she said.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Gay moved back to Dayton in 2018 to be part of Sueño and Tender Mercy. The passion the ownership team has for Dayton is inspiring, she said.

“If they see the potential, maybe I can have some small part in propelling my hometown forward,” Gay said.

She noted she always wanted to start something of her own, but it was at Sueño and Tender Mercy where she realized she wanted to focus on wine.

She has a degree in business management and in her position as general manager at Sueño she combined her education with hands-on experience. She learned the ropes of interviewing and identifying the personality traits that are important to building a team — which has made her a lot more confident to start Joui (pronounced Joy), a wine shop and bar.

Seeing potential

The owners are also encouraging another employee — Isaiah Ashba — to take the next step toward his dreams.

He started working at Sueño in June 2021 as a bartender and has now transitioned into a general manager role, Ashba said. When asked what his goal is, he said he hopes to open a soup shop with six to eight rotating soups that people can get year-round.

Credit: Submitted Photo

Credit: Submitted Photo

“It has always been something I’ve kind of had on the back burner and then honestly working at Sueño really kind of jump started me to more actively pursue it especially because they are so supportive of that kind of thing,” Ashba said.

With encouragement from the ownership team, he started a Facebook page for his business, The Stock Pot, last year and hopes to do a pop-up this year featuring soup and wine pairings.

After identifying the right talent, Dimmick said its important for their employees to know that they are selling an experience and a feeling, not just food and drinks. He said they immerse people into their internal systems and into an understanding of the actual business — not just the day-to-day operations, but the math and numbers behind it.

Communication is important too to creative a collaborative environment.

“We’re trying to build something that will last, something that will have a legacy, something that will continue to grow and thrive over the next few decades for an entire generation in Dayton and to be able to do that not only do you have to find and develop great talent, but you have to let them do their job,” Dimmick said.

Dimmick’s team makes sure that the expectations and resources are there before stepping out of the way and letting people learn and grow through the experience. Dimmick said this is one of the ways they empower their employees.

“I think it’s really important to have grace as a company with our people,” Dimmick said. “We can’t expect perfection, but we can thrive for it. As long as we’re progressing every day then that’s the goal.”

Chef Mariah Gahagan, who has worked for Tender Mercy for over a year, said she appreciates that the owners have developed her job into something that fits her skill set. After being a chef for many years, Gahagan said she was looking to do something different after the pandemic.

Credit: Submitted Photo

Credit: Submitted Photo

As a kitchen manager, Gahagan preps the bars at Tender Mercy by receiving and ordering goods, making batch cocktails and syrups, among many other tasks.

“I’ve always been confident in my abilities, but I had some bad experiences workwise and lost a bit of that,” Gahagan said. “Being supported has really brought that back for me.”

She also appreciates the understanding of a work/life balance from the ownership team, she said.

Being creative

Sabrina Cox, the owner of Haus of Sequins in the Front Street Building on Second Street, said she found her confidence from working as the general manager at Tender Mercy for over a year. She said she left in October 2022 to pursue Haus of Sequins, a lifestyle concept bringing dopamine dressing and living to the community, full time.

Credit: Staff

Credit: Staff

“When I was first hired one of the initial things that one of the partners said to me was you’re not going to be in this job forever,” Cox said. “Going into it they already set me up knowing that this was just a launch pad for something that I wanted to do for myself.”

Cox said she came to Tender Mercy after working several corporate and nonprofit jobs where she had to subdue herself and wear a lot of beige. She said the team at Tender Mercy encouraged her to be herself.

“The people that work at Tender Mercy are unlike any other team that I have ever had,” Cox said. “They are so incredible and so talented.”

Another part of empowerment is creating opportunities for people to be creative and expressive with their craft, Dimmick said. If an employee has an idea for a pop-up event at the restaurant or bar, the owners are open to working with them.

That’s what Gay has been doing with her series of wine events at Sueño.

“These aren’t just events to support our business. They are opportunities for profit sharing for our leadership,” Dimmick said.

He explained that they are layering an opportunity of entrepreneurism within the business for them to try new ideas, earn extra income and flush out concepts and elements that they are curious about doing in the future.

“(It’s) a really powerful way for folks to dip their toe in the water of ownership and further their behavior and thinking as an owner,” Dimmick said.

Gay said these opportunities allowed her to express her creativity by coming up with fun themes and experiences that are kind of outside the box of what Sueño typically offers.

Building the future

When asked how it feels to be a stepping stone for people to go on and do great things in Dayton, Dimmick said it’s the most rewarding part.

“It’s one thing to create and operate a sustainable, successful business, but that’s not going to get you out of bed in the morning every day,” Dimmick said. “This is about an impact. This is about protecting the future of independent restaurants and hospitality and watching people grow, develop and take the same risks and challenges that we took. It’s just amazing to see. We know what it is like and how hard it is. If we can be a small part of the continued success in their next chapter in bringing more awesome experiences and amenities to a community like Dayton that is so receptive and appreciated of it and supportive of it, that’s exactly where we want to be today and into the future.”

He noted that their way of running a business isn’t groundbreaking, but they have had amazing historical precedents that they are inspired by here in Dayton. Companies like NCR supported growth and innovation that served their people, company and community, he said.

“They ran successful companies and cultures that launched and incubated more successful companies, lifting up as many folks as possible through their developmental approach,” Dimmick said. “We don’t have to look far to see that this mentality of sharing expertise, resources and energy with aspiring leaders is meaningful and impactful for everyone involved. It’s just who we want to be as a culture and we’re constantly learning how to do it better.”

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