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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA ENTERPRISE : Would You Care for a Career Move With That? : Labor: In the restaurant business, it's still possible to go from entry-level peon to top ex- ecutive. In fact, most owners did.


IRVINE — Scott McIntosh still likes to dish out the grub sometimes, even though he is the new chief operating officer of Claim Jumper, a restaurant chain noted for its huge portions of ribs, roasted chickens, steaks and other down-to-earth fare.

Despite a hearty increase in salary and responsibility, McIntosh seems to relish his occasional excursions to the restaurant kitchens, where he toiled for years.

"I need one with fries and two mashed with gravy on the side," he yelled to a cook during a recent lunchtime rush at a Claim Jumper in Brea. He then dashed behind a counter to load plates with mounds of potatoes, slabs of seared salmon and thick barbecued burgers.

In less than two decades, McIntosh, 35, has risen from dishwasher to one of the fast-growing chain's top executives, overseeing daily operations and managing 2,500 employees.

McIntosh, a high school graduate, attributes his success to tenacity, a passion for the restaurant business and an owner who prizes loyalty and in-house experience over a string of college credentials.

Founder Craig Nickoloff, 43, says his new operating chief came out of the best school for aspiring restaurant bosses--"the school of hard knocks."

"I am a firm believer that you can't beat hands-on knowledge," Nickoloff says.

Fortunately for McIntosh, he's in an industry that still gives employees a chance to work their way into management positions from such entry-level jobs as dishwasher and server.

Most restaurant managers and executives start at the bottom, said a National Restaurant Assn. spokeswoman, although she noted that the organization does not keep statistics on how many have college degrees.

"It's the story of the industry," spokeswoman Wendy Webster said. "More than 60% of top owners started in entry-level hourly jobs. You really need people who have worked every aspect of the business."

P. Christopher Earley, a professor at UC Irvine's Graduate School of Management, agrees. "The restaurant and hospitality industries do not have an emphasis on [academic] credentials," said Earley, a specialist in organizational behavior. "A lot of these companies are looking for practical knowledge."

There is a place in the business, however, for executives with formal business training, Earley said. While individuals without such schooling can understand a cash-flow statement, they might fail to spot overall industry trends, he said.

McIntosh began washing dishes in a Long Beach coffee shop when he was 15, working for Nickoloff's father, Carl, who died a few years later. Like most kids, he just wanted a job that would provide some pocket money.

When the Nickoloffs opened their first Claim Jumper in Los Alamitos in 1977, McIntosh signed on as a dishwasher, then began to work his way up the ladder. He became a busboy, then was promoted to cook by the time he was 19.

After an extended hiatus to Hawaii to surf--one of his other passions--he returned and entered the company's management training program. By age 26, he was in charge of the Fountain Valley Claim Jumper. At 32, he was a regional manager, running the chain's three restaurants in San Diego.

Three weeks ago, he became the company's first chief operating officer, a new position created to ease founder Nickoloff's workload as the chain goes through a growth spurt.

Despite his ascent, McIntosh admits that it was years before he realized he wanted to make a career of the restaurant business. Even as late as age 30, he said, he still figured he would leave Claim Jumper one day to get "a real job."

"But then I realized I loved the business. You can work in a fun, exciting atmosphere--and you can make a lot of money doing it," said McIntosh, who owns homes in Laguna Niguel and Lake Forest.

As he rose through the ranks, McIntosh developed a reputation as a manager who communicated well with employees, providing a sympathetic ear for problems, grievances and suggestions.

"When you see him, you always feel you can talk to him," said Damien Navarro, 20, who trains Claim Jumper hosts. "He always addresses you by name."

McIntosh said he takes particular pride in helping workers get ahead. "The biggest kick I get out of my job is helping people surpass their potential," he said, downing his third cup of coffee during a half-hour afternoon interview.

"Scott bleeds Claim Jumper barbecue sauce," said Robert Benson, general manager of the Brea restaurant, describing how the new executive's life revolves around the company.

Nine years ago, McIntosh met Rosemary, a hostess at Claim Jumper's Santa Ana restaurant. They were married two years ago. They have an 11-month-old daughter, Rachael, and are expecting a second child in December. Rosemary, now the company's regional service manager, plans to step down soon to become a full-time mother.

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