The Specials is an ongoing series of interviews with the unsung heroes of hospitality — from managers, waiters and sommeliers to dishwashers, farmers and foragers.
James Jarman is the manager at Cowshed, an independent steakhouse in Liverpool.
My first job was in a Build-A-Bear Workshop
In retail, people tend to be shopping for an occasion. In hospitality, it’s all about the occasion, whether it’s a birthday, a celebration or a date. Hospitality is all about the experience and it’s very personal. It’s all about the rapport you have with customers.
My first shift was on Valentine’s Day
I moved to Liverpool for university and, like most students, I needed money. A friend of mine who was working at the Cowshed asked me to help out because they were short-staffed and busy. I didn’t have a date, so I said yes — and the rest of history.
I studied musical theatre at college
I’ve always wanted to be an actor, writer or director. Because the hours at Cowshed are good — we start at four on weekdays, so I get most of the day — I'm still able to write and direct, and sometimes appear in productions too. A lot of my friends work in nightclubs and don't finish until four, five, or even six in the morning. That’s not for me.
I’ve worked hard to climb the ladder
I came in as a food runner, got promoted to supervisor within about six months, became assistant general manager and now I’m GM. I managed to save and get a mortgage, too. If I’d pursued a career in acting first, I don’t think I’d be in the same position. That’s something else I love about this industry — that good career opportunities always open up and if you’ve got the right work ethic, you’ll be fine.
We’re a family at Cowshed
That's partly why I stayed in hospitality, too. We’re an independent restaurant and many of the team have been here since day one. We’ll polish every single glass and every single piece of cutlery together, and we’ll all go out for drinks or meals together. There’s no front-of-house/back-of-house divide, either. We’re very close.
I describe everyone here as being like the Muppets
Though we all do the same job, everyone has their own personality — which is what we want. We want people to be themselves. Although in a sense we’re just ticking boxes, taking orders and checking in on customers, we don't want the front-of-house to ever feel like robots walking around.
A happy team is a hardworking team
Being a manager is about acknowledging that we’re all human. If someone comes in and says they’ve had a bad day, we’ll try to accommodate that as best we can. For instance, if they’ve had a particularly tricky day for one reason or another, we might let them run food on the pass, so they don't have to deal with customers.
Good managers work the floor
I'll still cover sections. It’s good for staff morale because they’ll see we’re a team. But, as a manager, I also need to be on top of things and notice things that are or aren’t happening. If we’re not on the floor, we might miss important things.
I believe in leading by example
I would never ask anyone to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself. A customer was sick all over a table once and I cleaned it up. I was never going to ask someone junior to do it. We're all in the same boat and if you have respect for your team, they'll have respect for you.
I try to provide the kind of service I expect when I dine out
I want to be greeted in a friendly way by people who at least act like they want to be there and don’t look miserable. Good service is also about tailoring to a guest’s needs. Obviously, we can’t change the menu completely but we always try to honour special requests and dietary requirements.
Good service is about making people happy
That includes finding ways to ensure that unhappy customers leave happy — because they say that if you have a good experience, you’ll tell one person, but if you have a bad one, you’ll tell 10
I love special occasions
If someone says it’s their birthday, we'll put a candle in their dessert or offer them a tipple at the end of the meal. The reactions you get from customers, especially if you make their day, are why I love hospitality.
The best thing a customer’s said to me…
… was that this was the best restaurant they’d ever been to. The weirdest? Someone once asked me if we keep our cows in a shed out back.
When I started here, I wasn't a fan of steak
I hadn’t had the best experience previously. Now I love steak. I’m biased but I couldn't go anywhere else for steak without feeling I was cheating on Cowshed.
As told to Superb. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.