Andrea Ykema didn't go to college to become the area director of seven local Applebee's restaurants, and she didn't set out with that career goal in mind. Like many high school and college students, she wanted a job—and restaurants provided a great opportunity.
Bill Knapp's, Subway, and eventually bartending and serving at the Alpine Avenue Applebee's paved the way for where she is today: one of the youngest women in a leadership role in Michigan's restaurant industry. Ykema feels it's a career path that deserves attention.
"I don't know if people know the opportunities," Ykema said. Her opportunity to take on a leadership role began while she was still a college student, studying communications at Grand Valley State University. She was offered the chance to take part in Applebee's leadership development training, and became an assistant manager. Her successful leadership led to more opportunities, and she moved on to become an hourly manager, opening the Greenville Applebee's. "I loved it," she said, explaining that her experience as a server and bartender put her in a good position to lead the restaurant's new staff. The opportunity to open the new location solidified her belief that this could become her career.
A big part of Ykema's success is her management style: passionate, competetive, direct, collaborative, and empowering. She responds to stressful situations with calmness and composure. Being a cheerleader for her staff is also important. "My feedback helps them make more money," she joked, noting, "It's about a behavior, not personal. And I emphasize the positive."
Her own drive is also a big factor in her success. While Ykema acknowledges she is often the only woman in the room when leaders in her industry gather, it doesn't matter to her. "I don't think of it in terms of male/female. I try to be the best in the room, no matter who's there!" Her style is to be assertive and positive.
Ykema describes her job as challenging, but in a good way, with a good salary, good benefits, and a certain degree of flexibility. As a wife and a mother of three boys, being able to have a work-life balance is absolutely necessary, and her position allows for that. "I am accountable for hiring the right people, and providing the right training and follow-through." Contrary to misconceptions about the restaurant industry, she is not tied to restaurants 24/7.
Early on in her commitment to a leadership role, when it became obvious to her that Applebee's could become her "big girl job," as she called it, Ykema's friends and family asked if she was sure. But the restaurant industry has been a good match for her style. "The energy and excitement—it's different every day." Looking back, she says, "I wouldn't have done anything different. And there's still a lot of potential to grow."
Written by Jennifer Reynolds, staff wrtier for West Michigan Woman.