Emigrating from the Philippines to Canada just as the economic recession hit, 22-year-old Leo Canapi felt lucky to get a job washing dishes. Hard work and many promotions later, he is the general manager of one of White Spot’s prestigious locations in downtown Vancouver.
Canapi had been studying engineering, with his heart set on being a teacher, but once he arrived in British Columbia he realized he needed a job — any job. He knew textbook English yet lacked confidence in his conversational skills, a shortcoming that made his first job excruciating: going door to door, drumming up leads for vacuum-cleaner sales, earning 25 cents for each hot prospect. “I lasted from 9:00 to noon, and then I said, ‘I can’t go back’,” Canapi recalls. He moved on to part-time work at a courier company and then, seven months after arriving in Canada, saw a hiring advertisement for a new White Spot outlet in White Rock, BC. He waited four hours in line for his first interview, then was asked if he could stick around another two hours for a second interview. With only enough money in his pocket for the bus ride home to Surrey, he chose to wait, passed the second interview and was hired as a dishwasher. His starting pay was $3.85 per hour.
“I was just happy to have a job, but I almost quit. It was such hard work,” he says. “My father convinced me not to. He encouraged me to look for the good things in whatever job you’re doing. He said, ‘ Find something you really like, and you’ll never go to work‘.” Canapi vowed to be the best dishwasher White Spot had ever hired, and was soon named Employee of the Month. Promoted to janitor, he set his sights on being “the best janitor ever,” while using his down time to study White Spot’s recipe book. Eighteen months after starting as a dishwasher, he was cooking, mentored by a co-worker who was studying at Vancouver Community College to be a chef. “Within two years I was a head cook and had won Employee of the Year,” he says.
With the exception of two years working as a sous chef for his mentor at the Coliseum’s Centre Ice restaurant, Canapi has spent his entire hospitality career at White Spot, steadily advancing through the ranks as his confidence and skill set grew. Joining the company’s “opening team,” he spent lengthy sessions at new outlets throughout BC, helping train the kitchen staff. “My expertise was in the back-of-the-house stuff, but eventually I came out from the kitchen and started learning about the business, understanding the books, dealing with customers, learning the whole service component. Before I knew it, I was running everything.”
After management stints at five White Spots in the Lower Mainland, Canapi was made general manager at the Seymour and Georgia location in downtown Vancouver, where he has been now for five years. The restaurant opens at 6:30 am and closes at 11:00 pm, with its 65 employees essentially divided into two shifts. Canapi is either the first person there in the morning or the last person to leave at night. In between, his duties include extensive paperwork, which he likes to complete before the morning shift even starts; consulting with his kitchen and service managers; dealing with customers; and, throughout the day, interacting with his staff. He makes it a deliberate practice, he says, to greet each employee individually every day, and to know personal details about each one. “To me, the secret of managing is you have to value the person. Every single member of the team is important. If the dishwasher isn’t working out, the chef has no clean pans, and the serving staff have no clean cutlery.”
Given his own background, he values academic education yet believes there is no substitute for work experience, which is why he’s a keen supporter of the apprenticeship program. “The situation in a culinary school is an idealized one, but you never know what you can really do until you feel the heat of a real working kitchen.” Once hired, whatever the job, the way to get ahead, he wholeheartedly believes, “is to learn to love the job you already have and to find new ways to do it better. That way, you’ve done your best to be prepared to become the next person in that next job.”