Like many teenagers, Paul Kraft says he didn't see his time in the food service industry going beyond college.
It was 1993 and Kraft decided to join the waiting staff of Columbia Lakefront's newly opened Tomato Palace Italian restaurant for the remainder of his college days at Towson University. Since age 15, Kraft said, he was familiar with the restaurant routine, having worked as a busboy and, later, a waiter.
Meanwhile, he had his sights on another career.
"I fully expected to go to law school after I graduated from college," Kraft said. "That was my plan. That's what I always thought I would do. But when I graduated, I got two job offers and one would've led me on that path."
Kraft said his final decision led him on a different, but rewarding, venture as he served the lead managerial role for Clyde's Restaurant Group over the last 23 years, with 15 of those years at Clyde's of Columbia.
Kraft is leaving his position on Feb. 9 to embark on a new journey, this time in the construction industry with Costello Construction.
"Ultimately, I'll be learning how the buildings are built and the whole construction process," Kraft said. "Once I get that under my belt, I'll start working on business development and gross management. It's pretty exciting because it's a whole new realm of things that I've never done."
A lot has changed during his time with the Clyde's company, Kraft said. In May 1994, the Columbia resident said his first manager position took him to Tombs in Georgetown and, the following year, to the opening of Clyde's of Chevy Chase.
In 2001, Kraft said he made his triumphant return to his hometown.
"I grew up in Columbia, so I can remember being a little kid outside, watching the fireworks or out at the Columbia city fairs," Kraft said. "When I first came back, there were some people in the community who really welcomed me and made my transition from the Clyde's in Chevy Chase to Columbia pretty special. It also made me feel like I was really a part of the community."
Kraft compares the restaurant to the television sitcom, "Cheers," "where everybody knows your name," he said.
That atmosphere, Kraft said, hasn't changed since Clyde's opened in 1975, despite its cosmetic transformations in 2012.
Kraft said the 80-day overhaul and $5 million renovations critiqued the structural component of the restaurant — including its kitchen and restrooms — that was beginning to feel "cramped, old and dated." As a manager, he said he listened to guests' complaints, which were addressed during the project.
"Once we started getting closer and there were some community things going on that we were able to partake in, people were very anxious and excited for us to open back up," Kraft said. "I think they were really blown away by what we were able to accomplish in such a short time and the fact that we changed so much and, at the same time, we didn't change anything as far as how the place felt."
As he prepares for a new career, Kraft has few regrets.
"I feel like I did what I intended to do at Clyde's: leave it better than I found it," he said.
The husband and father of four says he's ready to catch up on the family time he has missed due to the evening, weekend and holiday hours required by the job.
"My kids had mixed emotions about [the departure]," Kraft said, laughing. "When I told him that I was going to be leaving Clyde's, my 6-year-old son started crying because he thought we wouldn't be able to eat there anymore."
Manager Tim Trolinger said Kraft has been a mentor to many employees, including himself. Trolinger wasa hired as a server in 2000, and said Kraft's guidance and support helped him become a bartender and later a manager in 2011.
"Paul is great to work with. He's a great teacher," Trolinger said. "I learned a lot over the years just seeing how he interacts with people in the community. He just knows so many people in Columbia and Howard County and he's able to make great connections. That's definitely been one of his strong suits."
Trolinger described working for Kraft as "fun," saying the manager always knew how to keep a positive attitude during rough times.
"He always saw the light at the end of the tunnel and was confident in showing us how we could get there," he said.
Claude Anderson, director of operations for Clyde's Restaurant Group, said Kraft's ability to meet and talk to people allowed the restaurant to continue to thrive.
"We have quite a few regulars there and most of them all knew him personally, and he knew them, too," Anderson said. "He took care of them like a neighborhood place would."