Katie Stephens apparently isn't afraid to take on new risks, work hard, or embrace transitions. In the restaurant business, these character traits have led her to become sommelier and part owner of Beckett's Table and Southern Rail. But the best part is, this trajectory is rooted in an unexpected beginning. In November 1997, Stephens became a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines and 22 years later, she still is.
"Being a flight attendant is a great career and something I was amazed that I was lucky enough to get into," she says. "I would never want to give it up."
Her career in the airline industry was a complete accident. While attending college, she worked for Mark Tarbell, hosting, bartending, and serving at Tarbell's and Houston's. She interviewed with Tarbell knowing she probably wasn't qualified for his opening crew. But she wasn't deterred. She told Tarbell, "I will work harder than anyone else, study every day, and give you a commitment for three years." This tenacious work ethic and her willingness to learn new skills helped Stephens prepare for opportunities and move outside her wheelhouse.
After working in the restaurant and service industry for several years, Stephens was staring at a crossroads. In 1994, in her late 20s, she was wondering what was next. At 28, she says she, "started putting feelers out and completed one application, interviewed with Southwest Airlines, and was hired a year later."
As a flight attendant, she brings a unique perspective to the restaurant business. Stephens noticed how Southwest Airlines used its resources to create a culture that supports its employees and makes the job more than punching a time card. "It is always inspiring to walk back into my businesses and figure out what can we do to create a culture to assist our employees and provide a support network that they feel like we are more than a job."
For example, she says one of the hardest parts of the restaurant business is hiring the right people. Watching her employees climb the ladder from expediter to a busser, server, or bartender is fulfilling because she know they are enjoying a sustainable quality of life.
Working toward a better quality of life is personally important for Stephens. She came from a single-mom home. Her mother was raising two girls, but at the same time, Stephens says she had a wonderful relationship with her father. "We were limited in our finances, but I never viewed that as a hindrance," she says. "I didn't recognize that we were lower income and that my circumstances were less than ideal."
Stephens says she is a natural optimist, the type of person who jumps before she looks. She says sometimes there are consequences, but that doesn't stop her from taking risks. She emphasizes her husband, Scott, is forward-thinking and supports her push for new endeavors.
Cultivating awe and taking risks for Stephens almost always means exploring a new opportunity.
While a flight attendant and business owner, she attended different wine certification classes to learn about what more she could bring to the restaurants through better wine education. She credits and is grateful to Tarbell, who cemented her inspiration to learn more about wine. In 2001, she received her sommelier certification.
This training is incorporated at Beckett's Table. Currently the restaurants serves 40 by-the-glass wines and another 50 by the bottle. "We take the time to have the correct cellar temperature, we do a test on the wine to make certain it is fresh and lovely and stands up with a a beautiful profile for at least 48 hours, and are part of an Arizona program that is becoming nationally recognized," she says.
According to Stephens, the goal is to demystify wine, make it fun, and not take it so seriously. She's clear how this is a collaborative effort and how having four principal owners makes it easier to bring quality wine to the table — literally. In fact, the team will take recommendations from other staff members.
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Making it a team effort is important to Stephens in running both businesses. As an owner she has taken a lead position on-site and this helps her take the pulse of the employees and the guests. "You have to have happy employees to have happy guests," she says.
It's a formula that seems to have paid off. Southern Rail opened five years ago, while Beckett's Table has been greeting guests since 2010. The draw of working at both is to cross-train employees in multiple roles so they can ebb and flow in various places across the restaurants.
This restaurant management style also fits how Stephens embraces her work obligations. Stephens is constantly on the move, either flying, managing, or tasting wine. She says sometimes the pace is exhausting, but also rewarding. All of her interests involve hospitality, and she definitely feels the restaurant business and the flying industry do intersect.
Her main motto, whether she is greeting guests at Beckett's Table or making a passenger feel more comfortable, is simple: "Give more than what I take."