From the Corner Office – Edie Ames

UPDATED: January 6, 2009
PUBLISHED: January 6, 2009

It didn’t take long for Edie Ames to get hooked on life in the restaurant
business. She started as a teenage
waitress at a Bakers Square in Chicago,
and that was it. She liked the fast pace,
the energy and the interaction with people.
“The restaurant industry just grabbed hold of
me at that point, and then I had no desire to
do anything else,” Ames says.

It wasn’t just enthusiasm for her job that helped her get
where she is today as president of Morton’s The Steakhouse,
overseeing more than 5,000 employees and 80 restaurant
locations worldwide. Ames attributes a lot of her success
to learning the importance of building relationships with
people early on—a lesson she learned from her mentor, T.J.
Kaikobad, during her days at Malone’s Grill & Bar in the
small town of Dalton, Ga.

“I used to think he was unbelievably insane,” she says.
“He would take just a random employee, a cook, and he
would sit down with [him] and he would spend an hour
with [him], and I never understood what he was doing. He
would do it day after day. What he was doing was building
his warriors. These people would absolutely do anything
that he needed them to do. They would go to war.”

Since learning the power of relationships, Ames
has been going to war on behalf of her employees and
consumers. That people-centered approach has been at
the core of everything Ames does—including the years she
helped Kaikobad open his own two restaurants followed
by 11 years at California Pizza Kitchen, where she served
as vice president of operations and training.

Since joining Morton’s about four years ago, the
42-year-old Ames stays in tune with her staff and the
needs of Morton’s guests by visiting restaurants—now up
to eight locations a month, requiring her to travel more
than 150 days a year. During these Quality Circle meetings,
Ames sits down at separate times with groups of
hourly employees and managers to find out what guests
are asking about and what changes could make Morton’s
a better place to work.

“Based on that feedback, I run the company,” she says.
“That is how I make decisions. I like to think that they
are making my life very easy because they’re telling me
exactly what their guests are asking for and they’re telling
me what’s important to them.”

That face time also sends a message to employees
worldwide that the leadership at Morton’s values its
workers. The emphasis on employee development echoes
Courtesy of Morton’s The Steakhouse
that sentiment. Ames has always had a passion for training and development
and is growing the available career paths that help employees
reach higher positions with the company. If a cook wants to become a
chef, Morton’s can help him get there.

Keeping in touch with employees (including posting her direct
contact information in every Morton’s location) and investing in them
has paid off for Ames, especially in the wine and spirits department.
By listening to staff suggestions, Ames realized Morton’s needed to
evolve to meet consumer demands. The missing links were a more
welcoming bar and an expanded wine program. Under her direction,
the company set to work on getting assistant managers to participate
in an entry-level sommelier program (an impressive 92 percent have
already passed). It also began renovating its existing bars to make
them less like holding tanks, as they were once called.

Ames launched the Bar 12*21 concept, which focuses on providing
guests with a hip and more open bar scene. The name honors the
original Morton’s steakhouse, which opened on Dec. 21, 1978, in
Chicago. “The risk was minimal, to be quite honest,” Ames
says. “We knew that by opening up, letting the light
in and making [the bar] a more comfortable place, we
would see a return on our investment.” At the beginning
of 2008, wine and spirits sales accounted for
29 percent (and growing) of the company’s total revenue.
Additionally, all 80 Morton’s restaurants won Wine
Award of Excellence in 2007 and 2008.

Ames admits making changes
at such a well-established company
wasn’t easy. One of her biggest obstacles
since joining Morton’s was getting longtime
executives to understand the need to connect with employees,
and convincing them of the importance of innovation and constant
evolution. She says genuine hospitality comes from giving guests
what they want—even if it’s something out of the ordinary.

So while the new line of tasty Mortinis, martinis with flavors like
pomegranate and pineapple, may not be the traditional staples of a
classic steakhouse, guests have welcomed them with open mouths.
The growing wine-by-the-glass program has also been a popular
addition, a success Ames attributes to the sommelier training and
increasingly knowledgeable staff. She says the training isn’t just
about selling wine and giving employees opportunities to learn.

“It’s also about the stories you can tell about different
wines and different winemakers and different regions of
world,” she says. “So when I think of our sommelier
program, I tie it right back to relationship-building
with the guest and the power of those relationships.”
Continued steady expansion suggests that diners definitely have a good relationship with Morton’s. In 2006
and 2007, the company opened
10 new steakhouses and renovated
16 to include a Bar 12*21.
Since Ames has been at the
helm, Morton’s revenue has
increased steadily each year to
$354 million in 2007. And more
locations are on the way, including
restaurants in Fort Lauderdale,
Fla., and Mexico City.

Just how is Ames going to fit
more locations into her already
grueling travel schedule? She says
she’ll do whatever has to be done.
Her husband of 10 years, Chris, is
COO of a gourmet sandwich and
salad chain, and he also travels
extensively. “We completely
understand what the other one
is going through,” she says. “He is
so supportive, and he just gets it.”

Regardless of the time she
spends on the road, Ames says
she enjoys the travel, and it’s
the best way to make sure the
company is moving forward in
the right direction. “We can be
great,” Ames often says. “But we
can never be done.”