Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
Dividend - Fall 2021 Creating Pathways to Excellence

Fire & Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay Shares Insights on Corporate Recovery after COVID

By Sue McMurray • Photo courtesy of Chad Mackay

Corporate engagement has long been a part of the Carson College’s DNA. Programs across the college have a history of inviting industry professionals to the table to offer business students key insights into enterprise environments around the world. Each individual who supports the college either monetarily or through other means creates access to transformative learning experiences for Carson students and upholds a standard of excellence that sets the college apart.

The School of Hospitality Business Management celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Burtenshaw Distinguished Lecture Series this year. The annual event taps corporate hospitality leaders to share career advice and industry perspectives with students.

This year’s speaker, Fire & Vine Hospitality CEO Chad Mackay, discussed moving forward in an industry the most severely affected by the global pandemic.

Values for Life

Growing up in a family in the restaurant business gave Mackay an early appreciation for hard work and insights on navigating adversity. His father, Paul Mackay, worked in the restaurant industry throughout his career, including serving as the general manager for the original El Gaucho and other iconic Seattle restaurants. Some ventures were successful and others failed before he relaunched El Gaucho in1996 and built a company and culture around it.

“I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth,” says Mackay. “My dad had to sell everything and relaunch his career. I learned the value of hard work by mowing lawns, having paper routes, and other jobs.”

This work ethic earned Mackay a business degree from Seattle University and an accounting career before he found his way back to his hospitality roots. He joined El Gaucho in 2003 and became CEO in 2013. Over the years, he strategized to foster continual growth and the legacy of El Gaucho’s service to guests and the community. In 2017, the company launched Fire & Vine Hospitality, which provides operational leadership, culinary expertise and product sourcing, marketing, and technology support for some of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic properties.

Silver Linings in a Cloud of COVID

When COVID-19 hit Seattle in early 2020, Mackay’s leadership was challenged like never before. Within a couple of months after the first COVID case, his revenues dropped. By March 5, he began layoffs, and by March 14, he shut down operations. The enterprise’s 485 employees dropped to just 22.

While Mackay accepted this setback, he rejected failure. He led his team by embracing the Stockdale Paradox, a prisoner of war survival concept steeped in an unwavering certainty to prevail. To support employees, Mackay paid unemployment and family health care premiums for six weeks. Realizing he would have to reinvent his business model, he and his team developed practices that could thrive in a world with COVID.

“We knew we could only go forward,” says Mackay. “We structured our decisions and purpose around our heritage of hospitality values such as individual responsibility, professionalism, stewardship, a strong community, and free enterprise. We planned to reunite the familiar faces of guests and our teams in a financially sustainable way.”

During the first shutdown, El Gaucho closed for 100 days. During that time, Mackay upgraded software systems and launched virtual wine dinner events that are now part of his business model. He also allows some employees to work remotely.

“Remote work is here to stay,” he says. “We can schedule events, book wine orders, and hold virtual tasting events—things I never thought could be done successfully remotely.”

He also describes the success of an annual industry conference that normally had 12,000 participants but grew to 120,000 when delivered virtually. “Offering a hybrid of in-person and virtual engagement could be a boon for the future,” he says. New tourism locations outside of large cities and other resort market opportunities are also promising.

Hindsight Guides Vision for Success

Mackay is optimistic about the future of the hospitality industry and encourages students to examine their values and mindsets to chart their path. Take a chance on something you want to try—a first job doesn’t define a person, he says. He also supports connecting with alumni and faculty networks for career advice and referrals. The best skillset is being humble, coachable, and open to others’ perspectives, he says.

The value of a handwritten thank you note or personal phone call can go a long way, he says—something he knows from personal experience. As a college student, he was selected for an internship over 40 applicants because he was the only one who called the employer back.

“Your path is what you make it,” he says.

Corporations seeking to learn more about engaging with the Carson College, please contact the Office of Development.

Chad Mackay

Remote work is here to stay. We can schedule events, book wine orders, and hold virtual tasting events—things I never thought could be done successfully remotely.