Cultivating an Epoch Comeback
A Chairman at an Intersection of History | By: Katie Frankhart
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association—for newly-appointed chairman Paul Hess, this is an intersection of history...proof of the industry’s resilience and plenty of reason for celebration.
In 1921, the country was on the tail end of the worst pandemic in history with more than half a million Americans dead, recovering from a gutted economy when first-ever chairman George Nedtweg was tasked with leading the newly-established Michigan Restaurant Association. Despite the grimmest of outlooks, not only did the industry and country recover, but it entered into a decade of unprecedented growth and prosperity—the Roaring Twenties.
“It's often said that when you're in a position to do something significant or make a difference, you're usually standing on the shoulders of giants,” the 2021 chairman humbly admits. “I think of that when I look at everything that’s been done by previous chairpersons and everything that so many are doing for the future of our industry.”
Hess, co-owner and director of operations of Epoch Hospitality Group, certainly recognizes the significance of this role during this very moment in history. He’s not intimidated, nor worried—in fact, “very optimistic” are the words he uses. While the challenges faced in 2020 may have seemed unprecedented, this full-circle journey for the country, industry, and association proves his optimism is anything but blind.
“Every generation has its single biggest challenge, and this is ours,” he declares. “These moments in history remind us that humans are resilient, and we’ll find our way through by persevering and problem solving—because what's the alternative? We’re not here to give up.”
Standing on the shoulders of giants at this intersection of history, Hess has a clear aerial view of our future, and it’s looking very bright.
In Dearborn’s Fairlane Town Center shopping mall in 1977, Paul Hess was at the shiny, futuristic intersection of American consumerism: shopping, entertainment, and dining all under one roof...a monorail system over his head, carrying people to and from the connecting Hyatt Regency Hotel to their next destination—department stores, the skating rink, or perhaps the movie theater, which was nestled above the first Jonathan B Pub.
Two weeks shy of 18 years old, Hess was spending his last summer before starting classes at Eastern Michigan University looking for work; he stopped into that very Jonathon B Pub for lunch with a friend, only to leave with a job as a bartender after an on-the-spot interview with owner and local politician John Baja.
Beginning as a novice, Hess eventually became a jack of all trades. Weekend bartending shifts at night, extra hours dishwashing and working in the kitchen—he eagerly learned every in-and-out of the business. As the first chain restaurant in a mall that served alcohol, the pub concept took off with booming success. The busy buzz thrilled him, his front-of-the-house experience slightly reminiscent of the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
“The whole flare, the flipping mugs and shaking drinks, the magic that happens behind the bar,” he recalls it, “through that experience, I really became hyped about the hospitality industry and the people, I loved it.”
He continued working while taking classes, managing the restaurant, and perfecting the pub concept, helping to grow the chain to three locations in other major shopping malls. John Baja served as his mentor and recognized his knack, eventually inviting him into the business side of the operations.
While Hess is forever grateful for the Baja family and Jonathon B Pub launching his career, it just so happened that another family of a local hospitality dynasty needed him.
In 2000, Hess met a recruiter for the Wisne family of Novi-based Epoch Hospitality Group, which owned an array of hospitality ventures and other business concerns, from casual eateries to fine dining, upscale resort restaurants, private clubs, off-premise catering, and bakeries. This encounter eventually led to an opportunity with Epoch, as they wanted Paul Hess as their operations director.
“This was a bit of a change in style for me—another chance in my career to expand my horizons and yet another prominent family offering this opportunity.”
The family’s nationally acclaimed Farmington Hills restaurant, Tribute, served the dining needs of the who's who of Detroit and big-time celebrities, from JFK Jr. to Yoko Ono.
“The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal—everybody was writing about Tribute Restaurant as the finest restaurant between Chicago and New York,” he fondly recalls. “It was a wonderful experience into the upper echelons of fine dining that I really enjoyed.”
The Wisne family saw precisely what the Baja family saw in Paul Hess: Leadership. Innovation. Opportunity to grow. A future for their business, which landed in Hess’s lap when he least expected it.
In 2013, Toni Wisne Sabina, the president, co-owner, and founder of Epoch Hospitality Group unexpectedly passed away at 48 years old. Without hesitation, Hess and current business partner Kevin Aspinall stepped up to carry on the legacy. Now co-owners, the two have since moved the company’s focus towards catering and venue management. Their book of exclusive contracts and partnerships is filled with some of the state’s most important names—Suburban Collection Showplace of Novi, Meadow Brook Hall, Oakland University, and Ascension Health’s Genesys Banquet and Conference Center, to name a few.
“It was a great and exciting time when we started, and it really hasn't stopped,” he says, as he reflects on the journey. “Toni’s passing was very difficult, but I can only hope that we keep growing like this, adding to what her family started and contributing to her legacy.”
Paul is in his 20th year with Epoch Hospitality Group and his seventh year as co-owner and director of operations.
The Road to Chairman
Although a member of the MRLA since his Jonathon B Pub days, it wasn’t until 2010 that he joined the MRLA board, nudged by the encouragement of previous board member and celebrated industry leader John Carlin.
“I’ve been really fortunate and blessed in my journey in so many ways,” says Hess. “I figured I was finally at a point in my career where it was time for me to start giving back to the industry that's given so much to me.”
After 10 years of being a board member, it was the COVID-19 pandemic that set the stage for his future chairmanship—it became evident that there was so much more he could do for this industry, a vision to be had, and people to take care of.
Hess, who has four adult children, comes from a family that’s been engaged in the front lines in one way or the other— a medical supply chain manager for a major health system, doctors, nurses, teachers. They’re in the thick of it. Additionally, Epoch Hospitality Group has assisted Oakland County Health and Ascension Health in converting the Suburban Collection Showplace and the Genesys Conference and Banquet Center to vaccination sites. Early in the pandemic, their team worked directly with Suburban Collection Showplace as part of the field hospital and also participated in joining the MRLA in food distribution efforts.
“The COVID-19 crisis had already impacted me in so many ways, but it was very emotional to see and hear first-hand how so many people in our industry are struggling,” he says. “That’s why I'm so passionate about safely reopening and getting people back to work.”
The people—that’s what this is really about to Paul Hess. The Baja, Wisne, and Bowman families; hospitality workers; his own employees and family. That’s what’s on his mind when he thinks of his career growth, his purpose in this industry, his goals as chairman. This industry can’t be successful without the people who make it all happen—those with the “hospitality DNA” in their veins, as he calls it.
“Ask any hospitality business owner—at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you do, what your concept is, how many seats or rooms you have, or what your menu looks like,” he says. “Without your team, you're nothing. I won’t give up on these people...we have to get them back to doing what they love.”
Hess knows a thing or two about pushing through devastating times and refusal to quit—his high school sweetheart, Sue, has defeated cancer three times.
“Her attitude has always been to buckle up, get back in the game, and move forward,” he proudly shares. “She's my inspiration, my hero, and her perseverance allows me to be very optimistic about moving forward and getting things done.”
Also impressed and inspired by what he calls Andy French’s tremendous work in 2020, Hess prepared for 2021 and his chairmanship by asking himself this: how do we set priorities to get things done, and what does moving forward look like?
Priority #1: The Industry
Paul Hess doesn’t default to the word “recovery” when he addresses the most pressing and obvious priority for the industry.
A resurgence. That’s how he sees it.
In his eyes, it’s not about regaining control or strength, because those things were never truly lost. For Hess and the MRLA board, this is the industry’s rebirth—a revival. They’re focused on reopening and a return to some sense of normalcy, paving way for new normalcy ahead.
“One of the first things we did as a board was develop a committee, appropriately named the Phoenix Committee, to lead this resurgence, outline what our Renaissance looks like,” says Hess. “This includes reopening safely, getting people back to work, and being responsible corporate citizens in terms of abiding by and ensuring the health of our guests and staff. We also want to build upon what our MRLA staff, along with Chairman French and the board did in 2020.”
Hess says the committee and industry leaders look to 2019 as the benchmark for measuring recovery—the number of diners in restaurants, guests in hotels, events hosted, tourists visiting, and for most, a return to profitability. Despite a more promising outlook ahead with successful vaccination efforts, the industry has a long road to recovery—Hess says it will likely take two to five years beyond “the end of COVID” for the hospitality industry to return to its pre-pandemic glory, and he says advocating for relief opportunities and industry-specific solutions will remain critical throughout these years.
“As we're reopening, safety is our top priority, but we have to think about the impact that our industry has on the economy,” he says. “We're the second-largest employer as an industry in the state of Michigan, so we have to get people working again—this starts at the local level with our municipalities and local health departments, then eventually the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the policymakers in Lansing.”
Hess says this means securing assistance for restaurateurs and hoteliers, namely financial assistance through things like PPP funding, and reviewing and effectively communicating the critical protocols.
“We need to figure out how to strike a balance, how to get back to living life and operating safely at the same time,” Hess explains. “A significant step in doing that is educating people and regaining consumer confidence—there's a lot of misinformation out there and many people are confused, so it’s our job to be part of a solution.”
Diligent hand washing and disinfecting, glove-wearing and mask use, safety protocols, training on viruses and the FDA Food Code —this is what this industry is built upon, but Hess says industry leaders recognize it’s time to go above and beyond to embody the golden rule of safety, even enhance it.
“This committee is focused on developing these strategies and educating people so we can tell our customers, ‘it is OK to come into a restaurant, hotel, event space—here’s what we’re doing to keep you safe.’,” he explains. “Demonstrating that we are genuinely concerned and cautious will only help us rebuild this trust so we can make our customers and guests feel at home in our establishments again.”
Priority #2: The Mission
While dealing with the complexity of COVID and its setbacks, the new chairman insists the board can’t and won’t lose sight of its goals before the pandemic swept through the industry. “We must stop and reflect on where we were prior to March 2020 and revisit what our objectives were then and continue moving forward in those ways.”
Hess says this originally intended strategic plan includes continuing programs of advocacy for the industry and employees; workforce development and assistance; training; diversification, and broader participation and representation for all ethnic and socio-economic sectors within the state.
The new chairman already expresses his excitement for the next-in-line leader, current vice-chair Jennifer Szewc. “Seeing more women in leadership roles on our board is important to us—we anticipate Jen to be the chair next year following my chairmanship, someone who is a great person and an incredible leader.”
In 2017, the Detroit Restaurant and Lodging Association was created as part of the MRLA, giving the City of Detroit and all of its restaurants, conference and banquet halls, and sports and entertainment venues now have a singular voice within the MRLA to grow—something Hess wants to see more of.
“We need to continue to expand that and work with our partners in the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Detroit and throughout the state, up into Northern Michigan,” he says. “We have an incredible tourism industry here, and together we need to nurture and grow that to what it can and should be.”
Priority #3: The Workforce
Hess is passionate about building and fostering a strong workforce to pave the way for the industry’s future and a strong economy. The new chairman sees particular value in the Michigan Restaurant Lodging Association Education Foundation, believing it’s a very important part of the work MRLA does—continuing to promote the industry through education and training.
“Through that training, education, and certification, we're bringing in tomorrow's leaders—our industry will thrive based on our ability to attract quality people, educate them, and train them with the skill set that's necessary to succeed.”
Hess says that oftentimes, people don't think of all of the opportunities that exist within the hospitality industry—he says these limiting beliefs are what the MRLA resources are designed to change.
“Too often, when folks talk about the restaurant or hotel industry, they envision entry-level opportunity positions—maybe a dishwasher, a counter job at McDonald's, a hotel bellman, a desk clerk,” he reflects. “Of course there is good money to be made as servers and bartenders, but people don't necessarily think of all those hospitality jobs in supply chain, logistics, accounting, administration, sales, marketing, training and leadership, human resources—so many professional careers that are solid, high-paying jobs. It’s time to change that narrative, and we can lead with these great resources.”
With this list of priorities in-hand, Paul Hess knows the road ahead is no easy feat—but the easy route was never in the cards for him. While at a crossroads, he’s turning it into an intersection, finding the sweet spot where the old life we yearn for meets a future that’s healthy and safe.
“We have to be as proactive as we can, be visionaries, and do things we haven't done before,” he says, earnestly. “We have to work outside of our comfort zone to get people socializing again, get them comfortable with the idea of visiting hotels and restaurants and event venues —you can do it all safely, we can show them how.”
If history truly repeats itself, then we already know what we see before us: a leader and industry on the precipice of recovering like it’s the Roaring Twenties...again.