Photography by Brandi Stage Portraiture
Hair and makeup: HD Hair and Makeup
Venue: The Rack House Steaks & Spirits
Having worked in restaurants and fast-food establishments since the age of 16, Jill Smith knows a bit about customer service and hospitality.
As general manager of Rack House Steaks & Spirits, she strives to give every diner a special, memorable experience.
“This includes service tailored to them,” she says, “as well as dishes that they maybe haven’t tried before.”
Rack House, the Gulfport eatery Smith has run since 2021, is a favorite of locals and tourists alike — who rave about the flavorful entrees and hand-crafted cocktails. Recognized as one of Gulf Coast Woman’s Best Places to Eat and a 228 Award winner, the restaurant boasts an “elevated casual” vibe and an extensive bourbon, rye, whiskey and scotch selection.
Steaks and fish of the day sell especially well, along with lemon parmesan chicken and braised short ribs. Smith likes to eat light on the job and usually opts for a salad topped with fresh fish or tuna poke — but she’s no stranger to the smoked prime rib served for brunch.
“Our menu offers unique dishes and variety that you can’t find anywhere else,” she says. “In addition to that, we also have our upstairs Bourbon Lounge that offers a laid-back atmosphere for after-work cocktails or the perfect date night spot.”
CLIMBING THE LADDER
Although Smith seems naturally suited for her role, she considered many careers over the years — but something always brought her back to the restaurant business.
“I think the people I’ve worked with have kept me interested in it,” Smith says. “I personally love going out to eat, so I take pride in providing a great dining experience for a guest.” A native of Long Beach, Smith has spent her whole life on the Coast — except for brief stints in Orlando and Colorado after Hurricane Katrina. Married to Brian Smith since 2016, she is also a guardian to three rescue dogs, Lily, Buddy and Holly, as well as an avid pool player.
Smith entered the food business as a teen and has been rising through the ranks ever since. “It’s something that was easy to get into and advance quickly,” she says, “and I’ve had fun doing it!”
When she joined Gulf Coast Restaurant Group 12 years ago, Smith got serious about building a career in the industry. She started as a server at Half Shell Oyster House shortly after the first location opened in Gulfport, and from there, she was promoted to front-of-house manager, then kitchen manager.
She later transferred to the Biloxi location, where she was front-of-house manager, and just over a year later, she was promoted to kitchen manager/assistant general manager at the Hard Rock location. After being named general manager there, a position she held for a couple of years, she found the hours and location weren’t a good fit and returned to the Gulfport store.
“From there, I focused even more on my career,” she says, “and when the general manager position opened at the Rack House, I jumped at the opportunity.”
Danielle Capasson, who has known Smith since high school, describes her friend as driven and persistent. Also caring and supportive, Smith wouldn’t hesitate to give someone in need “the shirt off of her back,” according to Capasson.
“Jill is well suited for her position because she actually cares about the wellbeing of her employees and guests …,” Capasson says. “She is an understanding and forgiving boss while holding people accountable.”
Meghan Lind, training and events coordinator with Gulf Coast Restaurant Group, met Smith while working as a bartender in 2016. She remains impressed by Smith’s compassion for people and animals, as well as her willingness to offer a helping hand and be a resource for her employees.
“Things are constantly changing in this industry, and Jill is always eager to improve things,” Lind says. “Whether it’s food recipes, service standards or the working environment for staff, she’s quick to make suggestions and implement improvements.”
‘KEEP THE BIG PICTURE IN MIND’
As general manager, Smith is responsible for maintaining quality and productivity standards, as well as ensuring a safe, secure and healthy environment for staff and guests. She makes a point of being in constant motion — checking in with each station and getting feedback from tables of diners.
While the food speaks for itself, Smith says, the servers and bartenders play a big part in earning customers’ loyalty.
“We have a great team that has a passion for customer service and love to take care of our guests and see them come back again,” she says. “They are treated like family and friends, and many of them have become just that.”
As eager as Smith is to please every patron, she’s equally dedicated to her team and strives to set a worthy example. Having found a foothold in a male-dominated industry, she has words of wisdom for other women wanting to do the same.
“First, show up and work hard; the quickest way to move up is to be a reliable employee and to be flexible to change,” Smith says. “The best advice I can give someone is to keep the big picture in mind at all times.”
Following her own advice, Smith has big aspirations for Rack House that extend beyond the Coast. Namely, she wants to expand the brand into other markets.
“I’ve always loved this concept and want to be a part of helping it grow,” she says. “This company has been a huge part of my life, and I consider them all family.”
As the Rack House concept gains traction, Capasson and Lind see Smith playing a large role in its continued success. Despite all Smith has accomplished already, they believe her upward trajectory is just beginning. “I hope to see Jill rise to an area director, the company’s first female AD,” Capasson says. “The sky is the limit.”