Next door to Model Milk, Pigeonhole looks especially cool, covered in the shadows of high trees along the tail-end of 17th Avenue SW. The award-winning restaurant is a unique dining experience offering an interior filled with a mix of classy and modern design features, and an experimental menu that pushes boundaries for a diner’s taste buds.
A successful business also needs excellent management, and that’s where Heather Wighton comes in. The long-time industry professional and general manager of Pigeonhole opens up about the skills she gained as a papergirl two decades ago, and how she applies those fundamental responsibilities in her position today.
You have a degree in Cultural Anthropology and Sociology. What brought you into the restaurant business?
It was kind of a fluke. After university, my initial plan was to go to South Korea to teach English, and then I was going to continue my education at a teacher’s college in Australia. My dad is a teacher, so that was always something I wanted to do. After university, my roommate and a girlfriend moved out here and called me to hang out for the summer. I applied to Escoba Bistro for a summer job. It was the business side of the restaurant and the operations that I naturally gravitated towards…I really enjoyed it, but it was a steep learning curve. I started managing right away. I was 21 at that time and I was there for about two years.
You work in the front-of-house daily, but do you cook at home?
I don’t cook. My fiancé is a chef so he does the cooking! Having said that, working in restaurant makes you expand your knowledge; you teach yourself about food and nutrition.
Can you highlight a pivotal moment in career for me in under one minute?
I’ve worked at some award-winning restaurants, including Rouge in Inglewood for almost two years. I enjoy working in fine dining restaurants. I love that level of service and the attention to detail. After Rouge, I bought my own restaurant called Muse. I was 27 at that time. It was a fine dining restaurant in Kensington, but it’s not there anymore. We had it for about two years, and my business partner at the time decided he wanted a steak house. I sold my shares and he started Modern Steak.
It took me a little bit to find my footing again and this is where I ended up. The ownership of Muse was a highlight of my career. You know, being young and taking a financial risk. You basically invest all your life savings, and you take a chance. That’s how you learn and gain experience…I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Later, Justin Leboe asked me if I would like to help him to open Pigeonhole. Another major moment in my career is seeing Pigeonhole being named the best new restaurant in Canada by Air Canada enRoute magazine in 2015.
What was your very first job?
My parents let me deliver papers when I was five! I think I made 10 cents a paper? It was actually my brother’s paper route, but I helped him out and eventually I took it over. I had it for 6 years afterwards, I think. It was kind of like running your own little business – going around and collecting payment from each house…I was also a babysitter and I taught swimming lessons and then I worked at Tim Hortons. Through university I was a nanny for a family, and I worked for Starwood Hotels.
What were the most important lessons you learned when you were younger while working that have helped you to become a successful restaurant manager?
You know, when you have your own business, it all comes down to organization and budgeting. You want to get paid and the people who work for you want to get paid too. Integrity is also important, especially when delivering papers! Even if it is raining or there’s a snow storm, you’ve still got to deliver papers. People expect their papers by certain time, so you have responsibility to get out there. Also, you have to be enthralled in the business itself – you have to love it and have a passion for what you do.
How do those skills transfer to your managing role today?
I do the events for the building and if I wasn’t organized? Even all of the back-and-forth emails, how many questions people have…you have to be on the top of it. You cannot procrastinate because otherwise you will get nothing done. As far as integrity goes, you run a staff and those people count on you. Everyone from the chefs to the front-of-house servers and other managers – you want to get things done for them, and you don’t want to let anyone down.
What was a big lesson that you learned in your management career so far that you think everyone could learn from?
I’ve come to realize that you have to take risks and that you shouldn’t regret anything. You only have one life. If I have not had taken that risk, putting my savings into Muse to take that ownership investment opportunity, would I be this advanced in my restaurant career as I am now? This experience taught me so much. Once you’re an owner you get to work directly with accountants and lawyers – it’s something that a manager maybe doesn’t necessarily get the opportunity to experience. You are really putting yourself out there when you are an owner. A lot of people want to be owners of restaurants. There is a certain glory about it, but it is not easy. The owners always need to be in the restaurant and have their fingers on the pulse at all times.
What do you think is one of the biggest challenges for a general manager to overcome?
As I get older, the life work balance becomes a challenge. It is important to make sure that you take some weekends off and spend it with family. You often miss those birthday parties and special occasions and that can be really hard sometimes. So, I guess that’s an internal and personal challenge.
What would you say is the best way to cope with this challenge?
You have to be open with your business and the people around you. You always have to set your limits. If you cannot do something, you have to say it otherwise you become overwhelmed.