Michael Blake, director of food and beverage at The Charleston Place.

If there were one word that described Michael Blake’s impressive career and how it is an example of what can happen in the hospitality industry, the word is “opportunity.”

Armed with a high school diploma, Blake started as a dishwasher at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.  Now 26 years later, he leads more than 200 employees as director of food and beverage at The Charleston Place, the iconic hotel which he calls “the epicenter of Charleston hospitality.”

“There are opportunities in hospitality to expand your career,” Blake said in a recent interview.  “For a young person, you want to start early to get a good foundation in hospitality.  You want to see all aspects of, for example, a hotel if you want to grow into leadership.  

“You’ve got to build that foundation and there’s no better way than seeing how all of the various departments work together to deliver the guest experience. When you understand how important each role is, it really makes you value the people you work with and that, to me, is the foundation of leadership.”

Young people just out of high school or college are blessed to have a welcoming work environment in hospitality jobs that range from kitchens to servers to front desks.  And these days, compared to when Blake started, the pay is much better because the overall job market is more competitive.

“Come in as a new employee with an open mind,” he recommended.  “Then identify a career  pathway based on what piques your interest and learn every step along the way.  Make sure to ask questions, take things away and learn from every job you have, no matter where you start.”

Charleston residents of any age who are looking for work also are valued in hospitality, Blake said.

“As an industry, we are making it more desirable to be here than in the past,” he said.  “Because we’re paying more, we want the best of the best. There are so many opportunities now at all levels of organizations.

“We value outside perspectives and a desire to lead with an open heart.  It doesn’t matter where you came from or how old you are if you have that desire to serve people.”

He said people wanting to make career changes bring much-needed life experience to the hospitality industry.  

“We’re really in need of people who have real-life experience,” such as a stay-at-home mom who might want to get back into the workforce.  “They can handle pressure.  They have outstanding life skills and are able to lead with confidence and juggle a lot.”

Opportunities also exist for retired people who want a few hours on a job to keep engaged in the community as ambassadors for the Lowcountry.

“They are the consummate professionals,” Blake said.  “They bring valuable skills to the job and their professionalism comes in handy.”

Raised in the Lowcountry

Blake started at The Charleston Place in January after more than 20 years at various Kiawah Island properties.  He wasn’t dissatisfied with what he was doing, but was looking for a new challenge.

Michael Blake. Photos by Ruta Smith, Charleston City Paper.

“I’m building a team of key leadership,” he said.  “If someone is willing to entrust me with their career, it’s very important to me to deliver.”

Blake’s family has generational roots on Wadmalaw and Johns islands.  After graduating from James Island High School in 1996, he started as a dishwasher at Kiawah Island Golf Resort.  By 2000, he became a server, moving to The Sanctuary in 2004 as a supervisor at the Jasmine Porch restaurant.  Two years later, he became assistant general manager.  And two years after that, he moved to the Ocean Room, where he became general manager.  

In 2012, Blake and his family – his wife and four children – moved to Orlando, where he was food and beverage manager at a Ritz Carlton.  But by the next year, he was back at Kiawah where he continued to advance in management.  By 2018, he became director of food and beverage of The Sanctuary.

This year, he moved to a similar position at The Charleston Place, which was acquired by a local ownership team last year.  

“I believe in the philosophy of the ownership now – its community-based values that are so aligned with my personal values that I had to come here,” he said, adding that The Sanctuary had similar values of service.  “But it was time for a new chapter.”

Seeking younger talent 

In addition to developing a leadership team that oversees more than 200 employees in restaurants, bars and food operations throughout the hotel, Blake said he believes in fostering the culture of hospitality through community projects.

“I teach high school and college students and help them get jobs in hospitality,” he said, adding that he helps them understand how to prepare for interviews, dress and develop life skills.  “It’s probably one of the proudest accomplishments of my career serving as a mentor to these kids.”

Blake oversees the hotel’s food and beverage department.

He also serves on local hospitality outreach groups to help to promote and advance the industry such as Explore Charleston’s Heart for Hospitality Steering Committee. In 2021, Explore Charleston launched a new Intern Cultural Enrichment Program (ICEP) under the Heart for Hospitality umbrella. It seeks to place minority college students in world-class internships with area hospitality businesses, offer personal and professional development opportunities, and introduce the undergraduates to local culture and the Charleston community. Blake is an instructor in the program, and The Charleston Place and Kiawah Island Golf Resort hired ICEP interns each of the last two years

“There are several initiatives that allow high school juniors and seniors as well as college undergraduates to have the opportunity to prepare for jobs in the hospitality field.  Students learn about restaurant skills as well as soft skills.”

Blake said these programs are vital in today’s exciting and challenging hospitality environment.

“The need for strong hospitality talent is in such high demand. There are so many great hotels and restaurants that are in our community that are in dire need. 

“Many students find that the skills they have learned allow them to work while they attend college or save money towards their financial future.”

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SPONSORED CONTENT:  To learn more about hospitality career opportunities in the Charleston area, visit LowcountryHired.com. This story is made possible thanks to the support of Explore Charleston.