Fix or Dismantle?

Last Saturday evening, I braved a deluge getting out of San Francisco to wind my way up Highway 29 to attend a lively panel discussion at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa. This was the last in a series of panel discussions hosted by the CIA called Conversations at Copia. I was pumped to hear the panelists and the theme was one that is very close to my heart – equity (lack of it) in the food service space.

The panel moderator was Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods fame) who led the conversation.

The panelists were people I admire deeply, for their authentic voices and their commitment to making a difference for people through food – Traci Des Jardin (Bay Area Chef), Kwame Onwuachi (chef and author, Notes from a Young Black Chef), Brandon Chrostowski (founder of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute, featured in the documentary “Knife Skills” ), Angela Dunleavy-Stowell (CEO of FareStart – a program in Seattle that seeks to transform lives through food, life skills and job training. ) and Alycia Harshfield (California Restaurant Association Foundation – providing scholarship funding for young chefs on the rise).

They began with the question: What is equity? This set the stage for the conversation…If we start with a clear idea of what we’re going for, all on the same page, we can hope to get there. The answer boiled down to this: Equity is when everyone has the same level of opportunity to rise to the best they can be.

As a business owner, bringing equity into the workplace takes something. It has to be intentionally created as a plan or a strategy. The status quo is inequity. People show up with advantages and disadvantages, fueled by how the world relates to them. Those things will create a natural imbalance. I wish it weren’t so, but it is.

Traci pointed out that if one hired only the most qualified candidates for the job, one might find that the group looks homogeneous. That is, what shows up is the group that already has had all the advantages to end up at her door. She must be willing to mentor others who may not have had all the advantages to make it to her door. She knows that if she really wants equity, she must be willing to address what fuels the inequity. One of those things is lack of opportunity. Programs like EDWINS and FareStart help. Mentorship is key. And those solutions both seem like a fix….

Then came the next question. Andrew asked the panelists, “how do we address the issues of inequity in the food service industry – Fix or dismantle?” Angela Dunleavy-Stowell said “dismantle”. “Too broken” She made the case that the real transformation happens when we totally re-examine what is important and build a system that supports that. I agree. We have to redefine the foundations of our business model,. to align with human values. Create those values to be the leading force of everything we do.

It was then that Angela brought up tipping and the conversation and yes, it is a rabbit hole. For the next ten minutes or so, the conversation flirted at the edge of the hole.

For all the back and forth about this subject, I am a firm believer that tips must be abolished in restaurants in order for us to seriously address the issue of inequity. It represents inequity between the customer and the server, the server and the cook, the owner and the server, and server to server.

Full-disclosure: I have never worked for tips. I always have worked for a wage or a salary. I have been tipped for wedding cakes and such. But I do not have a server mindset.

There are so many reasons why tipping is the source of the problem in food service.

  1. It creates a natural rift between those who customer-face and those who don’t. Servers generally work only 6 hour shifts and the kitchen can typically work 8-12 hours at a time. And servers make more money on average than anyone in the kitchen. In one fine dining establishment I worked, the servers made more than the owner. The Back of the house and the front are naturally at odds; it’s been the case everywhere I’ve worked. I believe this basic reality, that servers make more money for fewer hours, is at the core of the problem.
  2. The servers tip is not based on service, but often based on the menu pricing. Therefore, the higher the prices, the larger the tips. And yet that is the server taking advantage of the fact that they have been hired at that restaurant. Sure they may need to be better at their job to work at a high end restaurant, but really, the customer will tip based on a percentage of the bill. By virtue of working at a restaurant that charges alot of money for it’s menu, the server gets paid more.
  3. While the server can move around to restaurants where customers will pay more for their food and thus tip higher, someone in the kitchen can not expect to make more money just because they are in a fine dining establishment.
  4. It is well documented that servers of color make less than their white counterparts. And so, to eliminate tipping would eliminate one place where inequity can rear it’s nasty head – with the customer.
  5. And finally, tipping creates a power dynamic between the customer and the server that, no matter what the tacit agreement might be, promotes inequity.

Dismantling is far more challenging than a fix. It requires a fundamental shift from all parties involved – business owners, employees, customers, and society as a whole. I, for one, am a stand for the shift.

Workplace Relationships, Policy vs Culture?

As a woman moving into the second half of my life I know I have fixed beliefs. In a changing world I love challenging those fixed beliefs. I’ve been obsessed with looking at things I take for granted as truth and turning them on their heads. I do this as a personal growth exercise, to find ways to transform something. Sounds a little weird I know. I’ll give you some examples of how that looks in real life.

I recently had an opportunity to visit the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. I went in with all my baggage and perceptions and biases. I took an inventory of those things as I entered the building and asked myself to put aside everything I believed and enter with a curiosity and intention to learn something new. Not like a new fact but rather a new perspective. In doing so, I transformed something in my thinking about race. I left with something else in my bag of tools I use to understand the world around me.

I had such an experience yesterday in a conversation at work. I was explaining to a co-worker why I felt that workplace relationships were problematic, particularly ones between supervisors and subordinates. As HR in this company, I see it as my responsibility to prevent these kinds of power dynamics. Having been involved in such a relationship early in my career and being subjected to a toxic dynamic, my go-to attitude is to throw all such relationships into that pot. Even if the relationships themselves aren’t toxic, the precedent it sets for others is toxic. I stood strongly for this.

My concern has been with what could happen if hierarchical workplace relationships are allowed to exist. I think like an owner and consider liability too. From all angles to me these types of relationships look like a bad idea. I don’t mean just for the people involved in the relationship (the power dynamic leaving one person feeling trapped) but for the team around them. It could be seen as a conflict of interest: favored promotions, task assignments, raises and reviews. Others could feel uncomfortable and unable to speak openly. They might not feel able to address concerns to their supervisor about work of the partner. These, by the way, seemed so obvious to me that it never occurred to me that my younger co-worker might not understand this.

When I explained to her what I had experienced and how other kitchens have been run, she said I was imposing my fear onto her and her relationship. I began to examine what my lived experience was imposing on her. In my co-worker’s view, I was imposing the fear from my past onto how I saw workplace relationships. I was imposing my lived experience, in the form of a policy, into the way it should look in the future.

It made sense to me in my orderly way of thinking: if something can be problematic behavior, avoid it at all costs. Since I had evidence that something bad could happen, I was insistent that no hierarchical relationship should be acceptable in the workplace.

I was puzzled about why, in the age of #MeToo, she didn’t see this as a problem. This didn’t occur to her because the culture at this workplace didn’t have it show up as a problem until it was. Past relationships that had been tolerated were not hierarchical. She wasn’t aware as a matter of culture, that this behavior could be a problem. When we see backlash from co-workers in response to the relationship, the culture can’t sustain it. . It became obvious to me that it was the culture that was to blame and no policy would alter that.

I still believe that these relationships are problematic but it isn’t a policy that is going to change this. It is the culture that will change this. Culture is about how we behave towards others. We hadn’t created a culture where people see their actions as impacting others or as a precedent for what it creates in the future.

If we want a culture where workplace relationships are not toxic or disruptive, what can we create? Let’s say we want a culture where fairness and equity drives how individuals are trained and promoted within the company. A workplace relationship could be in conflict with this culture we are creating. All employees agree to this. Instead of keeping the relationship a secret, the company addresses the potential conflict of interest. They can be open about this and create structures with the team to address this as soon as the potential for conflict arises.

Even as I write this I am finding myself cringing, it still doesn’t feel good to say this. Do I want to go down this road? The reality is that workplace relationships will happen. They should not be ignored. We spend so much time with our co-workers, it almost seems inevitable. The key is to avoid having them disruptive of your culture, and harmful to others.

The Magic is in Accountability

I was walking to my car with an uneasy feeling in my gut. An hour and a half before, I entered the restaurant for a job interview for a human resources position. I was excited. I prepped my questions, had done my reading. From the initial telephone screen, I had a feeling that this was one of those establishments that functioned on the old school philosophy of restaurant management. Untouched and unaffected by the changes wrought by the #MeToo movement. I am very familiar with this mindset. It’s the one I started in 30 years ago. Could I make a difference here? What challenge was I facing?

That feeling in my gut was sadness, mixed with resignation. It was exactly how I had imagined it and I was unsure I could ever make a difference there. The management’s stand was clear. It’s us against them. My job would have been to manage that adversarial relationship.

I don’t blame them. Once upon a time, I thought that way. But I had been an employee also and I know its that mindset that makes the restaurant work environment toxic. It makes it impossible for employees to speak up and be heard, to ask for what they need, to feel emotionally safe. Today that doesn’t work and today that has to stop.

I’m thinking, what is missing in the relationship between management and employees that would transform that mindset. That special sauce: accountability. In my current position, I have had the privilege and honor to be able to practice this. Let me demonstrate what I mean.

In one area of our kitchen, we had one worker who had a reputation for unreliability before I got there. Always late for his shift, calling out 15 minutes before his shift began, disappearing for long periods of time during his shift. No one could count on him. Our management wasn’t holding him to account, which of course had serious repercussions. I think he had been written up a couple of times but no follow through. Morale among the team was low, because they were doing his work and wondering why they had to be on time. It lead to an environment that was resentful, angry and defensive.

I came into this environment, tasked with creating structures and boundaries. Since he had been doing this for so long, he had no idea that this could get him fired, so we had a conversation to set the boundary. I set up clear guidelines and explained what the consequences were. I was clear that these were standards we were holding him accountable for, that he was responsible for determining how his employment was going to go. It wasn’t about him, it was about the execution of the accountability.

Let’s take the tardiness problem. This young man was perpetually late on Sundays. We discovered that his transportation was a huge issue on Sundays which made him late. He couldn’t be accountable for being on time on Sunday. We changed the start time. And he showed up on Sunday on time. He just had to let us know what worked for his accountability.

When others in your organization are not performing, they are not fulfilling on their accountability. Is it the role? If you approach every worker as if they are doing the best they can, and hold them accountable for their job, everything is clear cut. Create the accountability clearly with them from the beginning and make it kind of contract. It is a powerful tool to help them improve performance and set goals for themselves.

People who are new in the workforce often are unaware of what it means to be accountable. The magic is in learning how to be accountable, declaring it and having others hold you to it.

Do You Know what Your Employee Turnover is Costing You?

The October unemployment figures came out last week and I don’t need to tell you the results; unemployment is low, and wages are increasing. In most industries at least. In the food space, particularly restaurants, an industry with very low margins and very little wiggle room, rising wages and low unemployment have combined to create a terrible labor shortage.

You are most likely concerned with finding warm bodies as opposed to finding someone who is the right fit. Maybe you are also dealing with intense competition from other industries in your region that pay better for less labor intensive work. In the SF Bay Area, we’ve seen our well-trained employees jump ship to work in better paying tech jobs with better perks.

In today’s market, the employee/job seeker seems to have the upper hand. It’s a buyer’s market, the “buyer” being the employee/job seeker. Once you have enrolled someone in working with you, are you invested in keeping them? If the answer isn’t “yes” it should be!

The cost of employee turnover is perhaps greater than you think. The National Restaurant Association has estimated the cost of replacing an employee in our industry can range from $4K to $14K per employee. The Center for Policy and Economic Research has created a neat little calculator to help you determine the real quantitative cost of turnover.  Find it here.

Once you have an idea of what it’s costing you to hire that person’s replacement, you can begin to see the enormous value in focusing on retention. Let’s examine this more closely.

Quantifiable Costs

There are real quantifiable costs of having to replace an employee.

  • Screening and recruiting – Today, you will post on job boards online so it reaches more people and many of the boards help you isolate by keywords. It’s easier than it used to be for potential candidates to find you and to apply for your position. Many of these boards have made it easier for your manager to sort through the many resumes and applications you receive.(cost savings over the old days!) But someone still has to spend time looking over resumes, calling, arranging for interviews with the team, etc. Let’s assume about four hours per applicant, all together. That includes the time each member of your team spends evaluating the new hire.
  • Administrative costs – The cost of on-boarding the new hire includes the time your HR person or manager spends going over all the paperwork, the employee handbook, the online portal you have for your payroll, going over policies, benefits enrollment. In many small businesses that don’t have full time HR departments, the manager is accountable for this so you are pulling the manager away from essential functions of his/her job.
  • Training – Depending on the position, this could be more or less costly. The more skilled the position you are replacing, the more costly it becomes. Let’s assume for the moment we’re talking about a manager, someone responsible for a team of people. The new hire will need more training around your processes and culture, and the learning curve can be steep. Realistically it may take the better part of a month to get someone completely trained.

Non-Quantifiable Costs

There are very real soft costs of employee turnover as well.

  • Trust and social capital suffer. Teamwork is essential in our workspaces, and takes time to develop. The kitchen and dining room perform a dance every night based heavily on trust and teamwork. If the person next to you on the line is constantly changing, it is nearly impossible for you to develop a sense of trust with that person immediately and it can take a while to develop it. High performing teams require a high trust context and that takes time to develop.
  • The overall morale of the team can suffer when there is high turnover in the workplace. The high turnover might be for a variety of reasons which all eat away at how the remaining folks feel about being there. I worked for one company that had ridiculously high turnover. In fact, I probably had to cut at least 5 termination checks a week. Most of the terminations were people who had worked for less than two months before leaving.  Employees who stayed became resigned to the fact that whomever they were training would be out the door in a few weeks. They became resentful of management who didn’t care enough about the quality of the candidate. And they couldn’t do their own jobs well while training others.
  • Quality of food and service can suffer which nobody wants! A team of folks who have worked together closely, who have come to understand the menu/winelist, who have become familiar with customers – this is what maintains the quality of everything you are trying to create in your business.

You may be asking yourself now, “how can I reduce my turnover without spending more money than I’m saving? I mean, employee benefits would be great to offer, and I wish I could give everyone a $2/hour raise. But I can’t. So how can I compete?” This is precisely what I intend to tackle in my next post!

You can find this post on Bernoulli Finance’s site as well under The Workshop

Diversity And Inclusion – how it fits in our industry

Diversity and Inclusion.  Do these occur for you like trendy buzz words,  bandied about like Sustainable and Organic? Do you really understand what they mean and why they are important? I’ve been playing around with this in my head as I embark on my new business as a human resources consultant in restaurants. Everyone wants to be diverse and inclusive, but what does that really mean? How do restaurant owners implement inclusion as culture in their businesses?

I’ve been doing some reading up, applying what I’ve read to what I’ve experienced and thinking of ways to fit that into the conversation in the hospitality space. It is clear that we are diverse but diverse in a way that pigeonholes workers into positions. This is a generalization but on average, restaurant employees get darker-skinned the deeper into the restaurant you go.   Within our own little worlds there is gender and race discrimination which is very much a factor of our diversity. We are diverse yet still can be very segregated. What’s missing is inclusion.

Much has been written for  the corporate environment about D & I (as HR folks call it) but how do we address this in our industry? If we can create inclusive work environments, I believe this is where the industry transforms.

First we acknowledge the importance of diversity. Diversity is a reality. Our world is diverse. We celebrate diversity.  In the corporate environment,  diverse opinions generate fresh ideas. Also, with greater diversity in a group, disagreement is expected and there is a greater need for constructive problem solving. However, in the corporate environment, hiring is often done by looking at a certain template for success. Using a template such as education may favor one group over another, squelching diversity. Having an MBA from an Ivy League institution might be viewed as essential for success by some managers when in fact, that may not be the case. There may be an implicit bias that is thwarting success.  It might be more beneficial to the team to broaden the definition of success by asking what value an individual brings to the team.

So what is inclusion? Inclusion is the culture you create that values diversity. Inclusion is about examining implicit biases that exist within all of us, whether we like it or not. By creating policies for advancement and training, you create inclusion as a culture.  It can look like a practice of having regular team meetings to discuss issues that come up, culinary teams and hospitality teams. It can look like a practice of pooled tips. It can look like offering ESL courses for your employees.

I have written here about issues like sexual harassment and the need to model ethical behaviors. All of these issues can be addressed through developing a culture of inclusion.

Here is my shameless plug! I am currently raising funds for my tuition to eCornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Certificate program through a GoFundMe page here. I am offering free workshops and trainings to donors, so if that appeals to you, please donate! I would be so grateful for the opportunity to work with you using what I’ve learned.

 

 

 

 

Conversations for Creating Teams Everyday

You have a line cook who keeps getting into it with a server. You have a bartender who can’t keep his hands to himself. You have a dishwasher who always comes late. Daily occurrences in business, and as the owner you need to do something about this. You’ve got to have these conversations or your business may fall apart.

Are you an expert at communication? Maybe. Or maybe not. You have enough on your plate without having to worry about how to navigate this. I think I’ve heard it a million times, that being a business owner would be great if only you didn’t have to deal with employees.

But employees are what keeps your restaurant running, and you have to trust them to do it well. You want to trust them with your brand. You’ve created something that is a reflection of yourself and can you be adept at passing that onto the people who are the faces of your business? When communication is present, there is huge value in your team, and they can function and get along.

Let’s start with the arguing line cook and server. I have heard this so many times, it always is the same. Essentially this story is usually the same thing, wrapped in different packages. The cook feels disrespected and stressed out. The server who has to deal with the fussy customer takes frustration out on the line cook. By the end of service they are threatening to take it outside.

This is kind of an extreme case. But really the most absurd thing about the restaurant industry is that there are two groups of people who view their jobs very differently and yet they must collaborate to complete the dance.

Whatever is responsible for this great divide could fill a book, and it will take some big cultural shifts within this industry to actually bridge the divide. Even in houses where the FOH and BOH and Management can often appear to get along, there is often an undercurrent of something (wage disparity, race, and gender are some of those things) that runs between them all.  However, in the meantime, communication can do some of the heavy lifting.

What do you bring to the conversation that could make a difference? How can you create a better functioning team through communication? Begin to have conversations with your teams that promote relatedness. Everyone wants the same thing, but each of us have different concerns and commitments. If everyone relates to each other from those commitments, the communication shifts.  To understand what each of us is committed to  we can start with these questions:

  • What is the best possible work environment for each person on the team? Some people are there for the money, others for professional training. But everyone wants to enjoy the work they do. So what does that look like for each person? Create this with your team regularly, either with pre-service meetings or any other way you can (family meal, etc.).  Keep asking the question; create it as a possibility.
  • What is each person putting aside to be present for their team? Have a huddle and ask this of the team before getting on the court. The FOH can do this in lineup; the BOH can do it at the beginning of a shift. (all together?) Five minutes. There is a saying that when you come to work you leave your personal life at the door. What is that? Acknowledge it. And then create from nothing what the evening is going to look like. Customers will be satisfied. The cooks will be prepared for whatever they have to handle. The servers will be knowledgeable. The managers will be able to rely on everyone to do what they do and do it well.
  • What are you accountable for?: Like players on a soccer field or baseball diamond, everyone on the floor or in the kitchen knows what they are accountable for. AND everyone knows what they can count on others to do as well. With on-board training, weekly team  meetings and once a month all hands meetings, get everyone present to what they are accountable for so no one is unclear about what is expected.
  • Can we take a breather to talk?: we’re always trying to beat the clock in the restaurant business. Take the time to have the conversations necessary to work without concerns about anything.  An extra five minutes of peace can make for a smoother and peaceful work environment that seems anything but peaceful.
  • Have fun! No need to be so significant! Nothing’s wrong, it just didn’t go like it should have. No grudges, no drama, done…The people who walk in your door want to have fun. Imagine as a customer, you walk into a space where everyone is mad at everyone else and can’t wait to get home. No way is that a place I want to be!

These are just a few ideas to get the whole team (front and back) to work as one. We may be skeptical about this industry’s ability to see real change, but it begins with one. And then one of those workers leaves and takes your practices to someplace new, and it becomes a ripple effect. And change happens.

 

What’s the purpose..

This is the very first blogpost I did when I started my blog, but I wanted to post it again. To represence why I am doing this and what I believe is important…

 

A little over a year ago, I was taking a little nap when my phone rang. The area code was Upstate New York, which only mildly concerned me, as my daughter goes to college up there, so I decided to answer it even though I had no idea who was on the other end.

“Hello, B?” the woman’s voice, kind of high pitched New York accent reminded me of Estelle Harris, the actress who played George Constanza’s mother on Seinfeld.

“Yes?”

“This is Nadine, DJ’s sister in New York. I’ve been trying to reach you through facebook, but I wasn’t getting anywhere so I thought I’d call. How are you, B? and how’s your husband?”

“We’re ok.” I said,” How are you, Nadine?  It’s been a long time.”

“I wanted to let  you know that Davy passed away a few months ago. You and your husband were so good to him. Thank you so much for taking such good care of him.”

It had been nearly five years since my husband and I closed our rotisserie restaurant in a successful food center in San Francisco, five extremely hard years from which we only recently began to fully recover. N’s brother, he liked to be called DJ, had been a regular customer of ours, and when I say “regular”, I mean every single day.

I remember DJ’s first visit to our shop. We must have been open just a few weeks and we served kind of expensive roasted meats and side dishes. The food was sold by weight, so I put some items on plate for him and weighed it out. I could see the struggle on his face as he asked me to put some food back…From that day on, whatever DJ ordered was $5. A plate full of food and maybe some chicken soup. We called it the “DJ special” and every single day we fed him, and sat with him at our tables outside, while he told us about his most recent ailment, or ordeal at the VA. He must have been in his 70s then. He would show up with his baggy flak jacket, his sweat pants and bright green hightops, floppy hat and sunglasses because whatever medication he was taking made his eyes sensitive to light. Every day we were open, DJ came for lunch. If we were going to be closed for any reason, we’d pack up a bag full of food for for him to have the next day (very rarely did we close…holidays like Christmas mostly.) Like me, DJ was a member of the Tribe and we’d talk holiday food together…Whenever he wasn’t feeling good, I would tell him I’d say a healing prayer for him at synagogue. He pulled me aside one day to tell me how much that meant to him.

Hearing Nadine’s news, I was heartbroken. The day we closed the restaurant for good, a December day in 2008, was the last time I’d seen DJ. I had always thought we’d see him again, maybe if we’d opened another place. But I had lost my stomach for risk, and 2009 was a terrible time to try to raise money. News of DJ’s passing made me feel like I had failed all over again.

About six months later after N’s call, I was talking to someone who lives in Bernal Heights about my client who opened a restaurant down the street from her. I had begun doing bookkeeping and restaurant consulting on a freelance basis after I closed my place, and I loved working with chef/owners like Tony and Jonathan. “They are a great addition to the neighborhood,” she said. Like a family that had just moved in next door.

While I was still doing some client work, I met a woman who needed help with her operations. She couldn’t keep going the way she was…something had to change and she didn’t even know where to start. One thing was certain for her, she had come to feel that she owed it to the community around her to stay open, and the only way to do that was for her to be successful.

Of all the reasons people open restaurants, to be unsuccessful is NOT one of them. Everyone wants to succeed, but if you’ve spent your career learning your craft and developing your passion, you may have missed the part about running the business. In fact, maybe you’ve hired someone to do that part but you need to understand it yourself.

Red Truck is the place to find that information. In this space, I’ll cover in simple terms, what are financials, why you need a POS and which one to choose, how to be an employer. Mostly I want to hear from you about the challenges that face you as a restaurant owner. I’ve faced just about every single one, and if I haven’t, I know someone who has and I’ll be inviting them to guest blog here too. I’ve worked with start-ups, pop-ups, well-established businesses. While buying the services of a consultant can be expensive, I have designed my blog to be an inexpensive way to get crucial information to establish a strong foundation. You owe it to the community that you serve to be a success.

St. Helena, Ca – July 8, 2018

My husband and I came into the cool of the restaurant from the heat of a Napa Valley afternoon, searching for a cool cocktail and a little snack to tide us over. I hadn’t been in this particular space since it’s new incarnation as The Charter Oak Restaurant but it was unmistakably the same space with a new vibe. This is to me, the quintessential Napa Valley restaurant with outdoor seating on the patio outside, grape vines everywhere, a brick structure with high high ceilings and a long wide bar that faced out to the patio. I used to sit and nurse my daughter on that patio while sipping a glass of beer.

I never miss an opportunity to talk with servers and bartenders. This was no exception. We usually identify ourselves as long-time restaurant folks, as my husband is still a chef and I love to write about restaurant finance and human resources.

This restaurant tacks on a service charge instead of requesting a discretionary tip. I think I’ve written about this in the past, and I have yet to hear from anyone on the finance side about how it is effecting the bottom line, or labor costs, or employee turn over. That is my next step.

But listening to Zach, I asked if this policy deterred him from taking the position there. After all it occurred to me that there are lots of other restaurants in the Valley that don’t have this policy and he could be making money in tips. “No,” he replied, “I knew I wanted to work here because of their bar program.” A professional restaurant staff…that builds retention. A well-treated staff, everyone believing that they are making a contribution and they see the results.

I had another conversation with a restaurateur this week. And her concern was how, with rising costs all around, particularly real estate and labor, could she still provide her customers with a great value at the prices she was charging. Would she have to raise her prices, or provide less service? What are the trade-offs that are  being discussed – reduced service models, or higher prices?

It almost feels like the income inequality that we are seeing in our economy is playing out in the way restaurants are redefining themselves…

Food & Beverage Innovators? How about Game Changers?

The San Francisco Bay Area is a hot-bed for all things food, including food & beverage start-ups. It is the combination of the commitment to great food, good health, and access to lots of venture capital that nurtures this.

Many of the new food and beverage start ups claim they are values- and mission-driven. They have admirable intentions to improve health, help the environment, or improve the quality of life for the exploited. I was curious about whether a company can maintain these lofty goals while answering to investors. Does the push to make money and justify yourself to investors affect the decisions you make as a food entrepreneur? These food and beverage entrepreneurs raise large sums of cash through VC. Often these are investors who are more interested in exit strategies than the overall mission which birthed the business.

I attended a forum of food and beverage entrepreneurs the other day, hoping to find an answer. And I discovered something.

The forum was set up as a panel discussion with five leaders in the food and beverage industry. Small “start-ups”, all of which were “value and mission driven” and they all spoke about what motivated them to start their businesses. Caryl Levine of Lotus Foods is committed to helping small farmers in Asia produce rice using water-saving techniques. Dr. Neil Renninger of Ripple Foods is committed to promoting the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet. David Lacy’s company Smashmallow produces healthy indulgences! Blair Cornish of Harmless Harvest talked about the company’s commitment to supporting “fair to life” practices for the farmers that supply their coconut water. Bentley Hall of Good Eggs talked about how the company curates their offerings based on strict criteria of transparency among other things. Good Eggs also has a reputation of being a great place to work, where their values and their culture are synchronistic.

Then in the course of the discussion, one of the panelists mentioned that their company was trying to negotiate with Walmart to carry their product. It was in the context of how Walmart wanted the wholesale price to be insanely low.

Something in me snapped.

I just envisioned a Walmart cashier, scanning the $5 box of coconut water, made in Thailand in a certified “fair for life” coconut farm, while she has to get food stamps because her full time job at Walmart doesn’t pay her enough to make ends meet.

Walmart is, and this is fact, a company that is constantly being sued for illegal labor practices. Gender and sexual discrimination in hiring and labor. I could go on, but I imagine if you are reading this, you get my drift.

To me, this isn’t a whole lot different than the restaurant who touts itself as “farm to fork”, as a better way to eat, but still pays its servers tipped minimum wage and managers are harassing women in the kitchen. To me, this defies a value-driven mission statement.

Personally, I do not patronize restaurants that I KNOW have unfair labor practices. I don’t care if they have three Michelin stars (I don’t know if they exist, but I wouldn’t go to them if I knew). So I don’t shop at Walmart. Yes, they do employ alot of people, but why can’t they just treat people with dignity? Is that too much to ask?

What would happen if Coca-Cola decided it wouldn’t sell to companies like Walmart until they treated employees with respect? Would Walmart shift? Could it be possible to create a #MeToo movement that would cause this shift?

( A little plug for Good Eggs here: If grocery stores could all be run like Good Eggs, maybe the world would be a better place, just saying…)

So that’s my question: If the #MeToo movement can have the wide-spread impact on attention to harassment, if Dick’s Sporting Goods can say they refuse to sell guns in their stores, why can’t food producers refuse to sell to companies with unethical business practices? What kind of change could that cause in the way large companies  are run…