Mildred Fay Rivers, who celebrated 25 years with LongHorn Steakhouse this month, credits the brand with saving her life. Her parents had died and she was feeling down when she joined the restaurant in Cincinnati, OH, in 1993. “From the second I started waiting tables there, it felt like home,” said Mildred Fay, now manager of New Restaurant Openings. “The job was just what I needed. It saved my life and made me want to live again.”
Mildred Fay had intended to stay with LongHorn only three months to raise money for Christmas gifts for her two teenagers. She would return to managing fine-dining restaurants once she recovered from her grief.
LongHorn had other plans, though. Within weeks her managers asked her to help train new team members in a New Restaurant Opening (NRO) in the same city. “Then they asked me if I’d like to help open a restaurant in Miami. Imagine this: I’ve been married 17 years. I have a daughter who’s a senior and a son who’s a sophomore and you’re asking me to go to Miami on a free trip? Yes! I had never been away from my family, but my husband, Stanley Rivers, encouraged me to try it. I never stopped from there.”
Without the support of Stanley, her “childhood sweetheart,” who works as a personal fitness trainer, she couldn’t have managed her job and its travel, she said. Their partnership is going strong, too — in July, the couple celebrated their 42nd anniversary.
'I have a daughter who’s a senior and a son who’s a sophomore and you’re asking me to go to Miami on a free trip? Yes!'
And oh, the places she has gone while LongHorn’s restaurants grew to 500. Although she played a role in all the openings, she physically opened about 390 of them, plus another five in Puerto Rico, where she experienced Hurricane Georges in 1998. “I’ve visited many places I wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” she said. “Traveling is 90 percent of my job. It’s the best thing but also the most difficult thing.”
She has trained thousands of new team members. “Teaching and coaching doesn’t feel like work to me,” Mildred Fay said. “Even on my 20th day in a city at an opening, I relish the opportunity to coach a server, culinary team member or bartender as well as the managing partner and management team. Each new restaurant is another LongHorn baby being born.”
Her biggest challenge? “Bringing 70-plus new team members with different experiences together as one united team in a short time, connecting with them and then having to leave them.”
At 60, she doesn’t plan to stop passing along her LongHorn expertise to new team members any time soon. “I still have 50 to 100 NROs left in me before I leave my legacy and pass the baton.”
Many of the team members she put her stamp on have become managing partners and directors of operations. “Nothing makes me happier than mentoring and watching someone grow from a new team member to a trainer, manager or director. I get so much fulfillment from helping others be successful.” Others have stayed on happily as culinary team members, servers, bartenders and trainers, and that’s success, too, she said.
One of the people she mentored is Director of Operations Julie Sutton. “I would not be the strong woman I am today without Mildred Fay,” she said. Julie was being trained as a host in Canton, OH, when she came under Mildred Fay’s spell in 1997. “She has been hugely influential to me both personally and professionally. People gravitate to her because of her passion, desire to excel and have fun, and her caring demeanor. She is the mother of all mothers to trainers and the many team members on the road.”
Esther Hale, managing partner of the LongHorn Steakhouse in Denham Springs, LA, said she, too, is indebted to Mildred Fay. “If you are lucky enough to have Mildred Fay train you, she puts light in your life and gives you purpose and unyielding support. Her smile is contagious and her style unparalleled. My success has much to do with Mildred Fay and her dedication, conversations, prayers and determination.”
Mildred Fay feels lucky, too. “It’s a blessing to have a job that turns out to be your dream job — a job you didn’t know existed when you started out — for 25 years.”
For most of that time, she has lived in Atlanta, where the brand was based before Darden bought it. When she’s home, her favorite place to be is “in my own bed,” she said, laughing. She loves to just hang out and occasionally cook for her large family, which includes daughter LaTasha, son Stanley Jr. (Theo) and six grandchildren. “We all love movies and music so there is a lot of singing and loud laughter when we all get together.”
Not long ago, Mildred Fay experienced the company’s generous heart once again after her younger sister died. “The company and everybody in it was there for me,” she said. “They sent cards and letters and called me.” She said it meant a lot when LongHorn President Todd Burrowes told her, “You’ve given this company so much. We owe you, so take all the time you need.”
Her long tenure has provided her with a wide perspective of the brand’s career opportunities. “You can grow wealth with our good pay, stock purchase program and benefits. We have a Steak Master Series competition where a cook can make $10,000! What other brand is willing to invest so much energy and money in its team members?
“The bigger we grow, the more opportunities we’ll have. Look what happened to me when I only planned to work at LongHorn three months!”