Empty Storefronts

I live in a small town outside of a big town. Whenever I tell people I live in Alameda, they say, “I love Alameda, it’s so cute!” This five-mile long island that sits along the southern edge of Oakland, is separated from 2018 by three bridges and two tunnels. Coming upon Alameda feels a little like the 1950’s, which may be why people think it’s so “cute”. It was once home to a Naval Air Station and half the island still has homes that look like barracks. On the other half of the island there are old Victorians, a neighborhood called “The Gold Coast” because of the beautiful front lawns and the old mansions. It is a bit idyllic.

I live on the East End, close to the older homes away from the Naval Base. Park Street is our main shopping stroll. Lately, I’ve noticed so many empty storefronts. It’s alarming to me. The restaurant next door to the movie theater, down the block another that has been empty since we moved here four years ago. The old shoe store on the corner closed. A huge space where a Mexican restaurant used to be sits vacant. I can count at least one vacant shop on each side on every block.

There is some good news. We have a few outposts of some really great local businesses. We have a Burma Superstar (originally in SF on Clement), The Star (an extension of the Little Star brand), our very own Scolari’s (with an outpost at Alameda Pt). We’re getting a Cholita Linda (from the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, they better open soon!!)

I once owned a restaurant with my husband in the Ferry Building in SF. In those days, the Ferry Building was just opening up, and the mission of the folks who developed the list of tenants was to have a good representation of small artisan businesses from the Bay Area. Slowly, over the course of the last fifteen years, the tenants of the Ferry Building still represent local businesses. However, for most of the them, the Ferry Building outpost is only a small segment of their business. Many of them have big money behind them.

Which is to say merely this: Entrepreneurs who create small businesses must at some point partner up with bigger businesses to scale and  compete. As long as a small business keeps it’s focus, and maintains some independence, it can benefit those investors as well as the communities they serve.

For me, I never thought I would think that way. However, my community comes first, and empty storefronts don’t serve the community..

San Diego, February 2018

It has been nearly a year since I last posted. Not for lack of anything to say. Just because there has been so much to say and I don’t know where to start.

This weekend, I went to a conference in San Diego for a program I’m enrolled in, the Team, Management, and Leadership Program through Landmark Worldwide. The conference completed on Sunday afternoon around happy hour, so we all headed over to the bar for some drinks. Afterwards on my way back to my room to get ready for dinner, I stopped a couple sitting at the fire pits facing the Marina and asked to bum a cigarette. And thus began a deeply inspiring conversation with two remarkable and open young people with a passion for the restaurant industry.

Over this past year, I have become increasingly determined to see transformation in the restaurant industry. From the issues around unfair wages, to immigration, to sexual harassment and racism I have become more concerned with how to go “behind the kitchen door” to talk openly and candidly about what could be possible for employees and employers and even customers if we were to address these issues head on. While the rest of the world is having this discussion, how would our industry look if we could join that discussion?

K. and D. work for a major restaurant franchise in Dallas and both were so generous and open about sharing their thoughts on what it has been like for them in their professions. A  few things became really clear: 1) they both love the restaurant industry and wouldn’t want to do anything else. They have found their calling and love what they do. 2) They are committed to the development of the teams they work with. 3) They were inspired to see changes AND some things still work.

We talked about the closeness of teams of restaurant workers and how that can lead to inappropriate behavior being misinterpreted. We talked about tipped workers and what motivates them. We talked about how some changes in structure (eliminating tips) may not achieve the goal of transforming culture, but just result in the most skilled servers leaving for higher wage jobs. We talked about how the public doesn’t have the perspective that restaurant workers can be professionals, that it isn’t a career, but a job.

I don’t know how long we talked, the time just flew by. We covered so much, these strangers and me, and I am so grateful for their deeply thoughtful opinions. As I begin to tackle these issues and look at workable solutions, I find myself really hungry for such engaged conversations. My intention is to transform this space from  blog to a forum for active engagement and thought leadership.

Please join me and keep reading>

In 2017….

I haven’t found myself here for the past few months, but I have thought about writing nearly everyday. 2017 has come in with a BANG, and it has been almost impossible for me to tear myself away from the daily barrage of shocking news, from the Muslim travel ban to ICE raids to Supreme Court nominees. I feel like that guy in the video I saw on FB who wakes up every morning as normal, reaches for his phone and reads something that permanently fixes his face in a look of distress, not too different than the Edvard Munch screamer.

It has been hard to think of anything else, and yet for me, it has also been paralyzing. There are so many things I want to address, to take action on, but how to begin?

The night of the election, I was attending the Tuesday night session of the Communication Course at Landmark Worldwide. My friend was finishing the course and, as is the custom, she had invited me to come and see what I could find valuable. (As background I will say that I completed all the Landmark Curriculum for Living coursework in 2003, and have created my world from that work. So I’m in.) I remember walking home through the streets of downtown San Francisco to the BART station, passing bars with TVs on, and nearly breaking down as I saw our country slowly making a choice that I could not accept, that I could not fathom. I saw, in my mind, as I walked through the night, that all that we had accomplished as a nation in terms of enlightened leadership, was about to be a memory.

In the ensuing months, I kept hoping that this was just a bad dream. I think alot of people felt that way. That we would wake up one morning and the nightmare would be over. But January 20 happened. I still can’t put the words “President” and “Trump” together. It really feels, for someone who has any sense of history and the ideals this country is built on, like the Twilight Zone.

After that night in November, I began to ask myself, who are the people, the Americans, who voted for this man? What was so important to them that they could forego what is so essential to what makes us Americans in exchange for what this man was offering? Did these voters understand that obsessive fear has the effect of closing a society? And this man pandered at every move to the fear.

Out of this, my Pie Project was born. For now, that’s what I’m calling it. Other names I’ve come up with are “Language as Pie”…I like that one alot. Let me explain:

Years ago, a friend was road-tripping across the country from California to his home in Boston, and he sent me a picture of some fabulous pie he was eating in Memphis, confessing that he couldn’t eat just one piece, it was so fabulous. As a former pastry chef, and lover of pie, I thought at that moment, how fun it would be traveling from city to town around this country, eating different pie.  After all, I once saw Paris by traveling from chocolatier to chocolatier and trying chocolate.

So why not take this opportunity to travel now, eating pie and hearing stories. To hear what people are thinking, to hear their stories, to hear what we have in common, and not what we have that separates us.

The project was born, to plan a listening project around pie. Because pie is common language, interpreted differently, with stories and feelings surrounding it. It is friendly, a starting point for the conversation, a good place to come back to.

In an interview with the New York Times, Barak Obama spoke about the importance of books for telling stories and that his community organizing began with a desire to hear people’s stories: “The thing that brings people together to share the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issues, it’s that they have shared the same stories….If you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find out what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.”

This project is in the planning stages, but I intend to make my first trip this summer, or late summer. I’m going to be doing some practice meetings here in the Bay Area (shout out to Lakeisha, who suggested that!) and I will write about them, most likely on another site.

For now,  I will continue to write about things that inspire me! Up next, ROC United has created a program called  Sanctuary Restaurants and what we need to do in the restaurant industry to take action…

 

Leadership

I began working in kitchens when I was 25 years old. I was living in New York City. Having given up life in a office to pursue a career as a pastry chef, I took a position in an executive dining room run by a major hospitality corporation. I felt lucky to get the job; they said they’d train me. The last guy in the job jumped the turnstiles on his way to work, got arrested and never showed up again. Just don’t get arrested, they said.

Before that time, I had never worked in an environment  where men somehow felt it was acceptable to comment on a woman’s looks, or what she might be like in bed. My value as an employee had never been questioned before based on my sex.  I had never worked in a place where people made sexual comments openly to co-workers. The food business was new to me and I wanted to belong. It didn’t matter to me much at the time; I felt like I had to be part of the club so I accepted it as the culture in this new career I had chosen. I played along.  It was 1987.

I moved back to my home in the Bay Area shortly after that, and landed a job in a different sort of environment, a big hotel where all the pastry cooks were women and the pastry chef was a man. He was respectful of all of us, intent on training us well and as a result well liked. I liked working for him, he led the pastry department and was a good role model. It was a professional shop.

The hotel was unionized which meant that when business ebbed, the ones with the least seniority were cut so I ended up moving to Southern California to work. I found a position in a hotel as a pastry cook. The hotel had no pastry chef because for a long time they had been bringing pastry in from outside. The chef decided to hire me, kind of as a favor to his friend in San Francisco. He figured he could stick me in a corner of one of the hotel’s restaurant kitchens and let me do my thing. I had no direct supervision and no mentors.

This chef already had a reputation. It was rumored that he was let go from a huge position with major hotel chain after being charged with sexual harassment.

I took my job seriously and did the best I could without any guidance. I liked making my cake recipes and introducing my own cookies. Every Sunday the hotel had a brunch buffet and I took great pride in producing all the pastries and cakes for the table.

The “pastry department” kept all its production in refrigerators accessible to all the restaurant staff and often, when I arrived in the morning, I would find the shelves of the reach-in in disarray.  If I spent Saturday preparing for the brunch, I would come in Sunday morning  to find at least half of everything eaten by the wait staff and line cooks from the restaurant. I would bring this to the chef’s attention and he ignored me.

The chef had assigned a young man to work with me, someone who no one in the main kitchen liked, and who had worked many stations before being banished to pastry.  He took immense joy in continuously baiting me, making lewd remarks and gestures, spending most of his time fooling around and telling me my pastries sucked. I told the chef about the sexual remarks; his advice was to “ignore him.” It was 1989.

I also have stories of chefs that would never tolerate that type of behavior in their kitchens. One could tell immediately the effect those leaders had on the culture. After having worked in Europe for a short time, I came back with my husband to the states where we both found positions in a hotel. The executive chef was a dog; his comments even made the male cooks cringe. As a result, some of the other men in the kitchen took this as carte blanche to make comments of their own. One day, after hearing something particularly disgusting (way worse than “pussy grabbing”), I blew up. I didn’t go to HR but I should have. I was furious. I heard rumors that the chef was going to find a way to “get rid” of me.

Within the next few months, I left but that chef left soon afterwards. My husband took over as executive chef and immediately, the tone became professional. That kind of talk was unacceptable and I think everyone was relieved.

These experiences articulate a basic tenet of leadership :  As a leader, if you model a certain behavior, that behavior becomes acceptable in the culture. People may be sexist or racist, but if they are surrounded by a culture in which that behavior is frowned upon, they will not act upon their prejudices. If bad behavior is exhibited in the leadership, it becomes sanctioned.

Sexist and racist behavior has been sanctioned in our industry longer than in any other. It is time to take it out of the shadows and take leadership in transforming our culture to one of safety for all. We can take the high road.

 

 

 

 

 

If not now, when?

The Food + Entrepreneurship Conference opened yesterday in San Francisco at The Village on Market Street. The conference is hosted by La Cocina, the local food-business incubator is in its second year and yesterday’s events were well attended. The outcome of the election last week was on everyone’s mind, and so the discussions took on an urgency. I think if the elections had gone the other way, the tone would have been one of possibility. Now the mountain may be harder to climb.

I attended the breakout sessions that addressed activism in the food business because I’ve been deeply curious about how to run a small food business with an eye to social justice. I ran my own businesses with the intention of taking care of my employees, my community and the environment. I look around and see so many businesses answering that same call and I want to learn how they do it profitably. I mean the nuts-and-bolts of it. What do their balance sheets/income statements look like?

I will write more about what I learned and what inspired me about the day, but one moment really stood out for me.

After lunch, I listened in on a panel discussion let by La Cocina’s Leticia Landa called “Activist Owner: Can you Fight Social Issues & Run a Good Food Business?”. The speakers were Cristina Martinez from South Philly Barbacoa, Anthony Myint (The Perennial) and Shakirah Simley (Bi-Rite Businesses). One common thread the messages: Begin with an intention to fight social issues, plan your business culture and profitability around that, and all else will follow. Cristina who spoke through an interpreter, said she has created community through her food and her employees, paying them better than most restaurants in Philadelphia, and so drawing loyal talent to her kitchen.  Shakirah and Anthony both spoke to providing living wages to workers, providing training and support, and giving back to community.

All day, I had been thinking about how we need to extend this conversation across the country, and how California needs to share this message to other states. A young woman raised her hand to ask a question. She was from Foodlab Detroit(I think, that was the name…definitely Detroit). She explained how hard it is to encourage her clients, new food entrepreneurs, to do all these things that one needs to do to be responsible business owners. it felt like she was saying,”This is all fine and good for you folks but that’s just too much to ask of someone who is trying to build something for themselves.” She was passionate. I, for my part, have always wondered as a white, middle-class woman, where do I get off telling business owners that they should rethink profitability? This is hard enough to make money without having to think about activism.. So am I trying to impose my own vision of the way things should be without being realistic about the hardships of being a food-entrepreneur?

Look, I understand what it is to be a food industry worker and a food entrepreneur. I know that this is an industry which lags far behind in doing the right thing by its employees. Living wages, sexism, racism. All issues screaming for reform in our industry.

We need to begin.  We, of all the folks,  know what it’s like to struggle on minimum wage, to work without health insurance, to endure sexual harassment and hostile work environments. We are the ones who know this. That is why we have to be be the ones to CHANGE this. It has to start from us.

We should want to take care of each other and set an example for entrepreneurs everywhere. Our work is to nurture in every way.

As the Jewish prophet Hillel the Elder said, ” If not us, who? If not now, when?”

 

 

 

Community

 

On Saturday afternoon, I was invited to a lunch and book signing at Insalata’s, a restaurant in San Anselmo, for Marcus Samuelsson’s new book, The Red Rooster Cookbook.  The book is a compilation of recipes and stories from his restaurant in New York, in Harlem.  The lunch was a promotion to highlight some of the dishes in the book and Marcus Samuelsson has always been a favorite of mine on the Food Network. I had always thought he seemed like a likable bloke. Besides he is Swedish (by way of Ethiopia), and having lived and worked in Stockholm for two years, I thought I might wow him with my slick Swedish slangy greeting, “Tjena!”

Well, I didn’t get the chance even though I was seated three chairs away at his table. It was loud and there was much going on…but I did get to see a picture of his new baby boy, whose face graces his lockscreen, as his phone was passed around. A proud papa.

Heidi Krahling’s crew produced a great meal starting with the Bloody Rooster (the garnish looked like a cockscomb!), then Bird Funk and Chicken Liver Butter (poor man’s pate), Obama’s Short Ribs (named for a very famous guest), Brown Butter Biscuits (I had two) and finishing with Red Velvet Cake. Much of the meal was served family style, apropos as community is what this is all about. Shout out to Heidi’s amazing crew for a service well done!

Chef Marcus stood up to talk about his motivation for creating a restaurant in Harlem, the neighborhood where he lives. A restaurant should be a meeting place for community, and Harlem is a community of rich cultures, food and music, hustle and swing. Not always pretty but real. Through these pages, I can take a walk uptown, hear the salsa beat coming from one doorway,  samba on the next block,  swing on the next. I can make friends with the ladies on the stoop in the summer heat, turn away from the hustlers on the corner, feel the whoosh of hot air coming up from the subway. I want to go there.

Building community is more that just the creation of a space for community to happen. The Red Rooster employs nearly two thirds of its staff from the neighborhood. He understands that he has been embraced by the community as he has embraced it. The business that he’s created enriches the people involved with it. It is a reciprocal relationship and both parties understand that. If his business didn’t exist, there would be a hole that would be hard to fill.

If I could ask one question of him, it would be this: how are you able to articulate so perfectly the idea of community within the walls of your business? It is a courageous endeavor. Marcus’s business has consequence to the people it touches , whether they work for him or they come to enjoy his food. Like parenthood,  being successful and staying relevant to community is a burdensome challenge, but one that can bring great joy.

Lycka til, Marcus!

 

The First-time Worker

February labor numbers came out this week, and no surprise, the food industry is one of the leading creators of new jobs in the private sector.

While 242,000 new jobs were created in February, more than 40,000 of those jobs were created in the restaurant industry. One in five of these new restaurant jobs were filled by first-time workers.  (see “Half of QSR Jobs filled by First-time workers, promotions”, National Restaurant Association March 4, 2016)

First-time workers. Immediately that set the wheels turning in my head. I think the implications of that are profound.

If you currently own or operate a small restaurant business, you understand exactly what this means. The person that walks in your door, asking for that minimum wage job, has never had an employer.  You are their first. Most likely, you are asking them to do things they’ve never done before. This is the beginning of a relationship. Not just the relationship between you and them. It is the relationship of the newbie to the value of their work and labor. You have the chance to impact that in a positive way.

From another perspective, if you were sending that person out into the world to work for someone else, wouldn’t you like to send out a capable, well-trained individual so that our whole industry becomes stronger? Wouldn’t you like to send that person out with a strong sense of confidence in what they do, so they can grow in whatever they do, even if it isn’t being a line cook?

After all, nearly one third of all Americans say that their first working experience was in some form of food service. We are training America’s workforce in a very real way. How do we do that responsibly?

I have created a list of 6 things I think are essential to teach the newbie in the hopes of contributing to their worth as employees, for you and for others:

  • The importance of showing up!: ok, this seems obvious, right? Does the employee understand what that means? Getting to work on time, being ready to work when you get there, calling in when you are running late. You as an employer need to be strict about this or this can lead to really bad habits, even for your best worker. I have worked in places where the time and attendance is so strict that we have lost really talented people because they couldn’t be on time if their life depended on it, let alone their job. We are not like office workers; if someone shows late in the restaurant, the business can grind to a halt. Instill this sense of urgency.
  • Teamwork: Think of the best place you ever worked. Something needed to be done, you were swamped, someone stepped in and helped, you worked like a real crew. In my restaurant, lunch was a dance between cutting meat, serving customers, ringing people up, calling back to the kitchen for reinforcement. It was so much fun, my team was completely in sync. No one stood around and watched. All the best work environments from the perspective of productivity and employee satisfaction work well as a team, so it is important that they learn the value of chipping in when needed, even if  “it’s not my job”. (and teach them NEVER to use that phrase!)
  • Expectations: From the get-go, let the newbie know exactly what will be expected of them.  As part of your company’s training protocol, create a list of clear expectations for all employees, and ones that are specific to positions. For example, servers are expected to know the menu and wine list. (seems obvious but some newbies may not take this very seriously). When someone doesn’t have a clear idea of what is expected of them, they end up doing what they THINK is expected of them, and you may have very different ideas about that.
  • Giving them room to ask questions and make some mistakes: Everyone should feel that questions are welcome, and questions should be taken seriously and handled in a timely manner. So for example, if the employee has a question about their paycheck, pay attention, answer it or get them to someone who can.  (I am not a millennial, but I understand this is one work quality of this generation…they want to know “why”) When mistakes are made (and they will be), set some time aside to discuss it with them in a constructive way. Use words like, “tell me what happened” and “what do you think you could have done better“, and “how do you think we can avoid this in the future?” Give them a chance to talk. Yelling and scolding does nothing to improve anything; it fosters fear and secrecy. Unless this person does something repeatedly that you have told them repeatedly not to do, there is no point in raising your voice.
  • Listening skills: Constantly check in with your employees, new or old, and encourage them to be frank with you about their concerns. I think some employers believe that this gives the employee the mistaken  impression that they have some power or say. Work is not a democracy, but this conversation allows you to explain your policies and why you do things the way you do. This is your chance to strengthen your culture, to hone it and understand how it is being lived out everyday. And for the employee: it helps them to understand how they fit in the work equation.
  • Logistics of Getting Paid:
    •  I am shocked as a payroll manager how many people have NO understanding of the W4 or how this document  affects your pay.  And when it come to benefits, it’s the same thing.  It would be an amazing gift to a newly employed individual who has never seen this document before to have someone sit down and explain it in detail. I know, you just want to leave them alone with the new-hire paperwork for 15 minutes so you can get back to the kitchen, be done with it and get them working. Right?  This is the way so many employers handle new hire paperwork, I know. I’ve seen it. The long range effect of this: an individual who has no idea how their pay is being taxed or why, who has no idea whether the health plan they signed up for will be adequate, has no understanding of premiums or co-pays or deductibles. They work 100 hours in a pay period, look at their check and have no idea why it is so much less than they expected and they blame you.
    •  Help a newbie understand the deductions on their check and what they are for: I’ve had people come to me with questions about the MED (medicare) deduction on their check, wanting to know why we were deducting for medical but they weren’t covered.  I’ve had people complaining that our payroll company took out too much in social security and they wanted me to reimburse them. People should be versed in the lingo of their paycheck and how it works. If you can teach them this, they will be better off for the rest of their working life. They may even become better citizens.
    • Direct deposit or live checks: If you offer direct deposit, explain to them the convenience of this, and the possibility of setting up more than one account for direct deposit so they can start saving. Also let them know that if they close the account, they have to let you know well in advance.
    • Make sure they understand they need to look at their check stub each pay period and if there are any problems, they should let you know immediately. They should feel that they can come to you with any problem they have.

Imagine the implications of being someone’s first employer. Pretty heavy, huh? You may not take that too seriously, but if you do, image the impact you could have on someone’s life. Like your amazing history teacher in high school who made you love history for the rest of your life. This employee could come to remember the great leadership skills you taught him or her and become a great employer too.  Just a piece of my mind…

xavieralopez loop woman head eating

The Minimum Wage discussion….

San Francisco voters recently passed a measure, as several cities around the country are starting to do, which will raise the minimum wage to $15/hour by July 2018. Its a steady ramp-up, one dollar per year, and, frankly at the rate that everything is becoming more expensive here, I don’t know that $15 will look so great in three years.  I’m very happy that the discussion has started and that we’re on our way to giving hourly employees a better wage.

An article appeared in the Huffington Post last May about the effect the new minimum wage has had on the community of Seatac in Washington. They aren’t going the gradual route…they just upped the wage in one fell-swoop. The impact? One worker could actually quit one of his full-time  (40 hours a week) jobs to concentrate on his other full-time job and spend more time with his family. And start exercising.

Another worker decided he could start saving (What a concept!?) So when his car breaks down, he won’t have to scramble to make it one month.

Another CEO in Washington decided to raise the minimum wage of his workers to $70K/year. The average employee in this company was making $48K/year.  Wow. Imagine what the buying power that CEO just released! What would you do if you had an extra $22K/year? Buy a car? Send a kid to college? Save for college? Travel and spend? I read that this CEO has met with some resistance, from within his company as well as from outside.

As an employer, this may appear at first to put a huge strain on your ability to make money. After all, the food industry is probably the #1 employer of folks on minimum wage (I have no idea if this is true…it just seems like it is!). New York State recently created a mandatory minimum wage of $15/hour for fast food workers. Interestingly enough, this proves problematic as it begins to pull folks away from really important low paying jobs, like child care, towards jobs at McDonalds and Burger King. Economists have said that minimum wage works to raise the folks on the edge of the middle class up into the middle class, but only if it is across the board.

I realized this was an issue that needed to be addressed when I was sitting in a management meeting at a restaurant where I worked. The ballot measure for raising the minimum wage was coming up for a vote. The owner,  talking to all the managers, kitchen and front-of-the-house,  told us to tell all our team to vote against the ballot measure as it could mean the restaurant would have to cut back on staff to stay in business. Really? What planet did you come from? Who is going to turn down a raise?  If making $15/hour means that you only need to have one job to make ends meet, that you could spend more time with your family, tuck your children into bed at night, or take a Sunday drive to the country…why wouldn’t you vote for that?

Let’s face it: no one gets rich on $15/hour. The point is to shrink the income inequality gap, which can only be good for everyone. The question really is, how does it effect your business plan? How does it effect your decision making? Raise your prices? Limit your menu to reduce the need for labor? Make a smaller profit? Eliminate tips?

In the next few blog posts, I want to explore this issue further. This is an issue with so many people weighing in. There is conflicting perspectives that a high minimum wage boost unemployment figures and is bad for business and that is reduces unemployment and is good for business. I want to hear from restaurateurs about what has worked for them, how you have adjusted your business labor model to account for these changes…

 

 

Accounts Payable tools

If you are a business owner who is deeply immersed in the daily functioning of your business, there are probably important areas of running your business that don’t get your full attention. Not that you don’t want to give those areas attention; you know they are crucial. What ends up happening when you turn your attention away from one area to handle another? Sometimes you end up being reactive and not proactive in the management of your business.

Being reactive is what most of us are when we first start out. It’s about putting out fires (hopefully not literal ones!) and keeping the costs down as much as possible. You may be thinking that doing things yourself is one way to keep costs down, and it is. But you can only spread yourself so thin before things start to fall through the cracks. The invoices are missed, deliveries are held up because an invoice is due, you have to run down to the gas company to pay your bill because you forgot and they are about to shut off the power. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to you. And you certainly can’t move forward in any proactive way when these things are happening all the time.

When it comes to paying bills and managing costs you want to:

  1. get your bills paid on time and manage your cashflow
  2. minimize the time-suck that is data entry
  3. be able to see how what you are spending compares to your revenue

In this wonderful age of technology and the internet, a few really powerful solutions have been developed to help you with this. A few years ago I was introduced to an early player in this field of AP management, bill.com. It eliminated the hassle of filing (one of my pain points…HATE IT…such a waste of time), it helped with managing payments and approvals, integrated well with the accounting system. But I still had to code the invoices and it didn’t have the ability to create any sort of useful report from the information.

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A few weeks ago, I was introduced to another AP management solution that has been developed exclusively for restaurants. Its called Sourcery and one of the developers, Adam Ferris, led me through a demo. Restaurants present a whole different beast when it comes to vendor management. We are highly transactional. And the product we purchase today will most likely be sold within the next day or so. You need to know that the product you bought today is being paid for with dollars you make in the next few days. Sourcery has this reports page that allows you to input a sales number for the week, and it gives you, based on your invoices, your food spend for the week.  Then it breaks it down by category so you can see how much you’ve spent on meat, produce, etc. as a percentage of revenue. It’s great to be able to bring sales information into the accounts payable equation and that is just one of the things I like about Sourcery.

Another thing that is really attractive: they input and code the invoices for you.They function as your AP manager! . After sending the invoices to Sourcery, they appear on your online account already coded. You still can edit the way the invoices are coded, but essentially this frees you up to do other things.  You also can set the system up to pay invoices when they are due or have more control over when the payments go out.

In any case, it is still important to monitor cash flow…bill.com has a cash flow functionality as it connects with your bank to upload deposits so it tells the system how much money you have to spend on paying bills. Sourcery tallies your payment batch in a field on the top of the screen, so you need to know how much you want to pay out.

Accounts Payable management systems make so much sense for the small business owner. They function as a partner in your business. They must have great customer service because you have choices.

It is also my firm belief that keeping certain functions separate from your accounting system makes sense.  Your accounting system, I believe, should be for producing financials. By separating the operational pieces, you are technically creating different departments that can be run by experts. And these AP management solutions are like separate departments of your business.

Collecting the Information You Need…let’s start with Sales

The first restaurant we opened had it’s own cash register. I can’t even remember now if I could call it a point-of-sale because it didn’t even vaguely resemble the devices we use today. This was 1998. I think I had just bought my first cell phone. The cash register was a primitive thing that held cash and made change. This is what it those things looked like:

It couldn’t tell me much about what we sold, just how much money we were supposed to have at the end of the night. The credit card machine wasn’t attached to the cash register, I think you could swipe the card, you didn’t have to call a number for an authorization code, but we were barely beyond those days.

But I digress…we are now in the 21st century and all that is thankfully behind us. Transactions are smooth and fast, traveling at lightening speeds across wifi connections. And one of the most beautiful inventions for the retail world is the new-and-improved point-of-sale, aka the POS.

Without going through the amazing growth in this industry, I will start by saying that as late as 5 years ago, if you wanted to purchase a POS that would give you more agility than a cash register would give you, you needed to purchase a very expense system. It had monitors, printers, and back office CPU, cords and wires coming out everywhere. It was a huge investment but it made it possible for restaurant owners to track everything. How much of each dish was being sold, which server was selling what, what time of day was slow, etc. With a regular cash register, you could enter in dollar amounts, and maybe the receipt might have had a time of day on it.

When figuring out how my restaurant was going to make money, I realized also that I needed to be able to complete a certain number of transactions in an hour. Those old cash registers…well, the world operated at a much slower pace.

In addition, if like me, you wanted to have your finger on the pulse of your business without pouring over receipts and spreadsheets all day, you invested $10-$20K in a system. Lots of hardware to break. And it did. In the middle of service. On Christmas eve.

Today, it is a completely different story. Thank God…I guess. I haven’t decided yet, but I think it’s a very good thing for new business owners. Transactions are so seamless and fast. However, as a bookkeeper, I have found some issues.

Today many POS systems are cloud-based. All you need is a tablet, costing less than $1K, and a subscription to a service and you are in business. Square, Revel, breadcrumb are a few that I have had clients use. And they are always evolving so when you read this, things may have changed. Where I found these systems suffer is in the reporting functions. These systems are excellent information gatherers. But the important thing is how that information comes out so it can be used.

I can’t stress enough how important these reports are. The reports are important on two levels.

The Compliance Level and The Strategic Level….more on this in my next post.