Lessons my mother taught me

My mom is all about family and love, but she's also the smartest and toughest business person I've met. Her lessons were honed in the kitchen of a restaurant, but they apply to journalism and government contracting alike.

I feel very fortunate to have the parents I do, and since Mother’s Day is rapidly approaching, I thought I’d talk about some lessons my mom has taught me over the years.

The first, of course, is about love. It might sound a little gross, but when we were kids, my mom used to say: “I would take the food out of my mouth to feed you.” My mom came to the United States from Greece when she was 20, so it helps to hear that line with the appropriate accent -- and hand gestures.

My mom is a very demonstrative person. There are lots of hugs in my family. When my brother, Dennis, and I would fight, she would stop us, and then make us kiss each other. Dennis really hated that.

The second lesson is toughness, and I don’t think I’ll ever match her there.

We had a restaurant outside of Luray, Va., just where the highway starts to curl up the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to the restaurant, we had a couple of gas pumps, and a sign that said "Last Gas Before the Mountains." It was a scare tactic for the tourists.

Our house was separated from the restaurant by a gravel parking lot, and one day, I came out of the house to walk to the restaurant when my mom burst out of the back door of the restaurant. She bent down and picked up two handfuls of gravel, and ran around to the other side of the building.

I ran after her, and caught up just in time to see her chucking gravel and yelling, “You sonavabitch” at some guy trying to urinate behind a shed.

Believe me, you don’t mess with Katina.

But the lesson most appropriate for this audience is her business acumen.

Nearly every executive I talk to mentions at some point how change is constant in this market, and that’s true with the food industry as well. There are new competitors and food trends as well. And for the 20 years Mom and Dad were in the business, my mom was in a constant state of study.

What are people eating? What’s the competition doing? Why didn’t this special work? Let’s try this.

She also had a keen operational sense, including how to peel a potato. Too much potato with the skin adds up to pounds of potato lost, especially when you are working with 50 pounds at time.

Slow periods were an opportunity for deep cleaning.

And, of course, there was her record keeping, which wasn’t just about numbers of meals served, but also about weather conditions and information on events happening at the time. Multiple factors could impact business, and she kept diary of sorts to keep track.

My parents have been out of the restaurant business for 20 years, but they never have really retired, with several apartments that they rent, and with the community service work that they do.

Mom doesn’t like computers, but give her a piece of paper and a pencil, and she’ll figure it out, whether it is what to charge per meal at the hospital fundraiser, or how to finance a new line of credit for the apartments. Her methods might not be textbook perfect, but you can’t argue with the results.

She and my dad set a high bar, especially in the area of hard work. I tried to match that when I went to work full-time for them at the restaurant. I was in my 20s, and they were in their 50s. I could barely keep up. I still marvel at all that my mom is able to do as she approaches 80.

Even though I didn’t stick with the restaurant business, I want to say thanks to my mom for the heart, the passion and the lessons.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.