|From summer paycheck to lifetime passion.|
When Damian Hopf took a job waiting tables at age 18, at first he just wanted a summer paycheck. What he found instead was a home and passion for the hospitality industry that has made him a rising star at Pappas Restaurants.*
Damian first came to work at Pappas Restaurants fresh out of high school. Once he discovered his enthusiasm for hospitality, he continued working for the company while attending community college and then Hilton College. He quickly climbed the company's career ladder, becoming dining-room manager and then kitchen manager while drawing on the knowledge he gained from his education. Less than a year after graduating—at only 24—Damian became general manager of the Pappas' newest concept restaurant, Yia Yia Mary's Pappas Greek Kitchen in Houston's dynamic Galleria area, making him the youngest GM in the company's history. Now 32 and in his seventh year as general manager at this ever-popular, Greek-food eatery, Damian remains enthusiastic about hospitality, excited about his company and grateful for the opportunities his Hilton College education has brought him.
Why did you want to pursue a career in hospitality, and particularly in restaurants?
When I got my first job waiting tables, I didn't know I'd stay with the industry. But I felt like I immediately fit in. I found that it was really satisfying to spend a day's work helping other people and making them happy. Based on the decisions I made in my job, I was able to positively impact 1,000 diners a day. I thought that was really neat. As I grew in the company and saw and watched how other managers worked, I watched them and thought to myself, "I can do that and I can do a good job at it." I was also impressed with the Pappas management and thought my values fit in well with theirs. So what started with a job I thought I'd have just for the summer has become my career. It's just so important to pick something you love to do, and that's what I did.
Why did you decide to attend Hilton College?
It was based purely on reputation. I had heard so many good things from Hilton College graduates whom I worked with at Pappas Restaurants, and so I knew the program was something I wanted to pursue. They really turned me on to the College. At that point I knew I wanted to stay in the hospitality industry, and it was the best program out there, so it was an easy decision.
What was your experience at Hilton College like? What valuable information and experience did you gain?
I was working for Pappas the entire time I was in school, so there wasn't a lot of time to get involved in College activities like many students do. But this decision really paid off well for me. My Hilton College education really confirmed everything the job was teaching me. It gave context to my career path—being able to learn important lessons from industry professionals at the College. To me, it was like a young fisherman being able to sit down and talk to the guy from "The Old Man and the Sea." You had all this experience and guidance at your disposal, and that was really valuable.
You worked all through school at Pappas Restaurants. How did you juggle school and work, and why did you think doing so was important?
Hilton College really instilled in me that having experience working in the industry was crucial. I knew that pursuing this career path was absolutely something I wanted to do, and so I took every opportunity to further my career in the restaurant industry. As far as juggling—I enjoy the industry so much, and the fact that I was learning something that interested me and that I could apply at work made it easy to stay focused. Everything I learned was intriguing to me and I had great teachers. Also, Pappas Restaurants was very supportive, offering me tuition reimbursement and always telling me that I was doing the right thing—being in this program and working. The support from both sides really helped.
How has your Hilton College education enhanced your career?
The knowledge I gained from my Hilton College education, accompanied with my work experience, was so advantageous when it came to going head to head with competitors for a job. That's what I would tell any prospective students. Coming out of Hilton College, and with work experience—in a job interview, you're a Ferrari going up against a Volkswagen. You're just so far ahead of the game. I also made good connections with industry professionals who still give me guidance, and I appreciate the camaraderie. I've had the opportunity to come back to the College and speak to classes, and it's really rewarding, sharing with students the experiences and successes I've had so early in my career.
What is most rewarding about your career?
What's really special to me is the fact that in this industry, you're rewarded for hard work and doing the right thing. To me, there's nothing better than being recognized for the effort you put toward doing a good job. Also, being able to see others succeed is satisfying. I have two other managers on my team who are Hilton College graduates, and it's great to see them do well. I couldn't be any happier or more proud of what our team has been able to accomplish here. I couldn't be any more pleased to see the team's success, and I'd like to see this restaurant have multiple locations across the country. I hope to be a part of that.
What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a similar track?
I can't stress enough how important industry experience is. Working in the hospitality industry—whether it's for a restaurant, hotel, casino or other business—is very important. Pair up that experience with your bachelor's degree, and you'll be in a really good position to compete and build your career. Remember it's a demanding and challenging industry, so you need experience as well as a quality education.
Why should prospective students consider Hilton College?
It is the best program in the nation, it really is, and I can attest to that from having gone through it. The relationships you build and the knowledge you come out with are worth a lifetime of work. If you come to Hilton College, you'll be ahead of the game, and you'll have the knowledge you need to succeed.
* Houston-based, privately owned Pappas Restaurants operates eight successful brands that include nearly 100 restaurants in seven states, plus successful catering businesses in the Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio markets. The Pappas Brothers—Harris, Chris and Greg—were inducted into the Hospitality Industry Hall of Honor in 2009 and have been long-time supporters of the College and its students.