Donald Imgram has worked a dozen years in the restaurant business, but his theater degree from Skidmore also comes in handy during his shifts as floor manager at Leunig’s Bistro & Café in Burlington. With the busy Church Street restaurant as his stage, Imgram directs a cast of waitstaff, bartenders and bussers through fast-paced drama five days a week.
Leunig’s regulars know Imgram as the smiling maître d’ who greets them when they enter. His charm and years of experience may make the job look effortless, but restaurant work is a pressure cooker — especially at a place like Leunig’s, where presentation is paramount and the food has a reputation to uphold.
After college, Imgram worked at a New York City talent agency and flirted with studying interior design before heading north for the less hectic pace of New England. He landed in Burlington, bought into 135 Pearl, the now-defunct queer-friendly nightclub, and launched his career in the restaurant biz.
Imgram has worked in restaurants all over Chittenden County. He managed the Daily Planet before coming to Leunig’s four years ago. When he’s not on the job, he loves to garden in his yard.
Known for his out-loud fashion sense, Imgram didn’t disappoint on the day Seven Days chatted him up about his job: He wore a bright paisley shirt, smart slacks and alligator-skin shoes.
What are your duties as floor manager?
Greet and seat. I try to get everybody who comes through the door seated as quickly as possible. Remember those little square puzzles that had one little piece missing, and you had to move all the pieces around to get the picture? It’s like that. That puzzle never has an end, until the end of the night. But I love those puzzles, so for me, it’s a great job.
How do you determine how long the wait is going to be? Is that science, or is it art?
It’s pretty much science. It’s how long diners have already been there versus how many names are ahead of them for that size party versus how many reservations [are] already taken. It’s a lot of math.
What’s the longest someone’s ever waited for a table?
Four and a half hours. It was during Jazz Fest, when we don’t take reservations. So every single person, whether you’re a regular who’s been coming 30 years or a stranger who’s just come into town, had to wait in line.
What does a maître d’ do?
The maître d’ is the conductor of the orchestra, so you’re giving feedback to the kitchen and the servers and the guests. It’s really kind of a heady job. You’re just trying to make people happy all the time. When your shift is nine hours, that’s a lot of happiness to try to spread around.
Do you get cold in winter standing by that door all the time?
Freezing would be the correctword. Every job has its positives andnegatives. That’s one of the negatives. Fortunately, it’s not that cold for that long in the winter.
What would you compare your job to?
[Cruise director] Julie McCoy from “The Love Boat.”
Do you speak French?
Un peu. I took four years in high school.
Ever have to bounce a rowdy customer?
At Leunig’s? Not so far. But I have at other places.
Is it rude when people make reservations and then don’t show up?
What’s the strangest cocktail you’ve ever made?
There was something with curdled cream. I don’t know what it was. It wasn’t here. It was brown liqueur and curdled cream. And I thought, You must have a cast-iron stomach.
Does your job have an element of theater?
It’s complete theater — and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar. In theater, you always have to think on your feet. Yeah, it’s rehearsed. Yeah, it’s scripted. But when somebody messes up their line, you’ve got to cover for them, and it’s got to seem absolutely flawless. A lot of people say the restaurant business is all smoke and mirrors. It’s not. It’s really very transparent, as is a play. But what you don’t know as an audience member, you’re never supposed to know — because everybody on stage has done their job so well that you don’t know so-and-so forgot their lines.
Do you have a favorite restaurant-themed book or movie?
Waiter Rant. Read it. It’s hysterical. It’s 100 percent true. It takes place in the New York City metro area. It’s just a mess of collected stories that are [the author’s] and that were shared. I would never want to be in this business in New York.
What makes Burlington better?
The people here are much more real — infinitely more real. That’s one reason I left New York.