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Q&A: Suzanne Cisneros, General Manager, Dread River Distilling Co.


    Like many successful career professionals in the culinary industry, Suzanne Cisneros started as a dishwasher, and there hasn’t been a position she hasn’t held in the food-and-beverage industry—which is what makes her so good at her job. As General Manager of Dread River Distilling Co., Suzanne is uniquely positioned to know what each of her team members are up against and set them up for success. She joined the team in 2021 and under her management, Dread River’s in-house restaurant and bar programs are thriving, distribution is ever-expanding, and brand awareness is growing. We sat down to talk with Suzanne about workplace integrity, getting out of your comfort zone, the importance of relationships, and cultivating a growth mindset—not to mention quite a romantic love story. Meet Suzanne Cisneros.

    Where are you originally from and if not from Birmingham, what brought you here?

    I’m originally from Albany, New York. I went to school at Canisius College in Buffalo and moved down to North Carolina with my brother who was in the Air Force. I met my husband there, and we moved to Alabama as restaurant managers in 2000.

    Tell us about your career journey.

    I have been in the business for 32 years. I have worked in just about every position from dishwasher, busser, administration, server, bartender, sales manager, general manager ... When I think of my career in the business, I usually tie it to the following restaurants that really helped mold me into the manager that I am today. I started out at TGI Fridays for about four years. I moved to Tony Roma’s for five years. Then I spent close to 12 years at Fleming’s and another five-plus at Perry’s Steakhouse. I learned things at each concept that helped shape me in my career.

    What traits make for a great GM? And along the same lines, what is the secret sauce to creating a driven, team-oriented staff—not only a positive work environment, but one in which team members feel a sense of purpose and fulfillment?

    Your team needs to be able to trust you and your word. I think you have to be caring but firm. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, but also admit when you are wrong. I always try not to get too caught up in what is “fair,” because everyone’s idea of what is fair is different. Instead I strive to be consistent so that they know what to expect. As far as the secret sauce: I think leading by example is super-important. I learned a long time ago that you could do something the right way 99 times, but the one time that you cut a corner, your staff will remember. Overall, team members just have to be proud of the product and the service that they offer, and they have to trust that you support them 100 percent.

    What is most challenging about being a general manager?

    Everything! [Laughs] Staying ahead is probably the most challenging part. You don’t want to be putting out fires, you want to prevent them. Thinking ahead and planning properly can greatly reduce the number of challenges that you encounter on a daily basis.

    Most rewarding?

    The relationships. Whether it is with your guests, your staff, or your vendors, the time spent with people, developing relationships, is by far the most rewarding aspect of this job.

    Describe a most cherished or memorable moment from your career thus far.

    I would have to say that one of the most memorable moments of my career was meeting my husband Carlos. I had been hired at a restaurant in North Carolina as a bartender and after a few weeks, I was training him on the bar. He walked back behind the bar at one point and showed me a $10 bill. He joked that he was going to use that $10 tip to start saving for my ring. I told him that he was going to need to save up a lot more than that! Who knew that he really would buy me a ring one day?

    What do you hope to accomplish as you assume the mantle of leadership at Dread River?

    There are so many things that I am excited about accomplishing at Dread River. Distribution is a huge priority for us. Getting our product out into other states will definitely be on the horizon. Showcasing our event space and our beautiful new outdoor area is something that I really am excited about as well. We are definitely the perfect place to host a rehearsal dinner or a wedding reception. Overall, I think really getting our brand out there with all of the different assets we have to offer is going to be one of the biggest goals for me to accomplish.

    What exciting things can folks expect to see on the horizon at Dread River?

    Our next spirit release! Coming soon.

    What fun facts or interesting things have you learned about Dread River that you think others might be interested to learn?

    Everything that we serve is made in house. As a distillery, we are only allowed to serve products that are distilled or bottled on the premises; therefore, we cannot use specialty liqueurs like Kahlúa or Cointreau. If we want to make a drink with a special liqueur, we have to make it ourselves. Our chef uses fresh ingredients daily to create our bitters, liqueurs, and syrups. This gives our drinks an incredibly unique and fresh taste that you won’t find elsewhere.

    What is something that most people would be surprised to learn about you?

    I have so many pets that we sometimes call our place a zoo. I am not just a cat person or a dog person—I am a pet person. I have had cats, dogs, gerbils, and hamsters since I was a kid. I even had two prairie dogs while I was in college. I cannot imagine a time in my life where I will not have pets.

    If you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?

    Remember that everything is a learning experience to make you a better manager. You can learn something from everyone and every situation. In your career, you will encounter people that are great and people that are far from great. You can learn from them all; you just learn different things.

    What are bad recommendations, misguided assumptions, myths, or terrible trends you see in the restaurant industry? Bust the myths for us.

    Bad recommendations: putting profits before people. Just don’t do it. I have worked for businesses that have chased the dollars without worrying about their people. The people on the front lines are your face. They represent you. You have to care about your people for the rest to fall into place.

    In the last five to 10 years, what new or changed belief or behavior has most improved your life?

    My ability to change and adapt has probably been my most improved behavior in my life. For anyone that has been in this business in the past few years alone, they have realized that you adapt or die. I think the rate of change and the ability to get out of my comfort zone has been challenged more so in the last 10 years of my career than any other time.

    When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

    Breathe. Take a walk. Make a list. Put on a little scented lotion—the kind that smells like a spa.

    What do you like to do when not working?

    I love to garden and work in my yard. I have vegetables, roses, herbs, and tomatoes.

    Do you have a mentor or role model, and if so, how have they influenced you or what have they taught you?

    I think one of my best mentors was my friend Chris. He always taught me that life was all about relationships. He could take a disappointed guest and after talking to them for a few minutes could turn them into a guest for life. I think that my takeaway from that is that you can turn any experience with people into a positive relationship. I try to grow relationships with everyone, whether it be a vendor, a dishwasher, a guest, or anyone else that I come into contact with.

    Any guilty pleasures?

    The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. My jobs have always carried a certain amount of stress. There are repair issues, staffing issues, HR issues, sales goals, deadlines, and a host of other things. Sometimes, when I go home I just want to destress and turn my brain off. Watching these shows allows me to do just that.

    What is your best piece of advice, motto, or quote you live by?

    What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In ‘96 I backpacked through Europe for two months with my college roommate, Julie. I am sure that she got pretty sick of hearing me say that. I am not sure how much those backpacks weighed or how we did it, but it didn’t kill us.

    What is your idea of joy?

    Watching something that I planted and cared for grow and blossom, whether it be fruit, vegetables, flowers, or my children.

    Share with us a white lie that you have told.

    I am not a good liar, not even remotely. I think that before telling a lie, I would just not say anything. I mean, I can’t say that I have never lied, but be worried if I am quiet. [Laughs]

    If you could choose another profession, what would it be?

    Probably banking or real estate. I really enjoy numbers.

    If faced with the prospect of facing your last day on a death-row sentence, what would you request for your last meal?

    A buffet for sure! There would need to be salad, steak, pizza, ice cream, lots of potatoes and carbs, vegetables—all the things!

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