Love and inclusion and fostering community are all great aspects of restaurant hospitality. But as restaurant titans fall around us, that's all still easier said than done.
— Erika Adams
“I fell in love with restaurant people,” Patrick O’Connell, an industry veteran who has run The Inn at Little Washington for the past four decades, said with a smile. “They always seemed to be paying a debt they didn’t owe.”
The sentiment drew applause from the crowd of hospitality industry people gathered this week at Welcome, the annual hospitality conference hosted by Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara, Brian Canlis from Canlis Restaurant in Seattle, and Co.Create‘s Anthony Rudolf.
The conversations revolved around this year’s theme, “Restoration,” which translated broadly into ideas around thinking differently about hospitality. Although the speakers ranged from Alan Mullaly, the former CEO of both Ford and Boeing Commercial Airlines, to Blue Hill’s Dan Barber to Seth Meyers, the talks brought up similar concepts of investing in relationships, creating the right community, and ultimately learning how to bring out the best in people.
“This was, essentially, a room of strangers,” said Alaina Webber, a conference attendee who is the general manager of Brew Gentlemen, a brewery in Pittsburgh. “Yet, the stories of both on-stage speakers and fellow attendees brought clarity to my own journey, questions we’re actively discussing at Brew Gentlemen, and the problems we’re looking to solve.”
A handful of the ideas that were presented are collected below, and the full livestream of the talks can be found here.
Problems are gems to be mined.
Alan Mullaly, who is credited with turning around Ford in the middle of the U.S. recession, said that empowering people to feel comfortable with failure at Ford was a huge asset. “If you had a red item, you didn’t bring it up until you had a solution, which is the way it was in most companies,” Mullaly explained. “[Teams] don’t really share the whole plan. The leaders can’t really stand a red item because they think that reflects on them as a failure as opposed to thinking about those red items as gems, because you can actually manage the issues.”
Mullaly followed with a great anecdote on implementing that idea. Initially, only one person on his management team was brave enough to show up at the company-wide weekly meeting with an issue that he didn’t have a solution for. “We’re going through green chart, green chart, green chart,” Mullaly said. “All of a sudden, we get to Mark, and up comes this chart. It’s red, red, and red. I mean, all of the air disappeared out of this room. […] Everybody around the world is watching this one chart.”
“They’re looking at Mark, and they’re looking at me. And Mark said, ‘We have this issue and we don’t have a solution, but we’re working on it.’ So, I started to clap. And you could see it in their eyes. [They thought] the two doors behind me were going to open up, two very large humans were going to come in, and they were going to extract Mark from the meeting. [Laughs.] Well, the doors didn’t open up, and I said to the team, ‘Is there anything we can do to help Mark out right away?'” It took a couple of weeks of repeating that support for Mark, but eventually, the team stopped showing up to the meetings with only green charts.
In reckoning with the #MeToo movement, we’re asking the wrong questions.
Director and producer Lara Silverbush pushed for a new perspective on changing workplace culture in the wake of #MeToo. “Here we are today, asking, ‘What’s the solution for restoration? What are the new guidelines for taking and for giving? Where is the line in the sand?'” Silverbush said. “People, I think that is the wrong question. We don’t need new guidelines for how we treat people. We need new guidelines for how we see people. We have to train our eyes to see in that neck-down way, through the lens of our hearts and our guts, not our minds.” She argued that our minds muddle our actions through the filter of whatever baggage and personal perception we carry, while a heart-to-heart interaction can remove that stickiness.
Making the right decisions takes a lot of effort, and it’s worth it.
The Boka Restaurant Group opened restaurant after restaurant in the blur that was 2017, and co-founder Kevin Boehm was honest about how — although no one regretted any of the openings — the pace ran the team ragged. “We sat and brainstormed and we were able to trace back months of pain, stress, and countless hours of unnecessary work to a connected group of three bad decisions,” Boehm said. “Three bad decisions we perceived to be a shortcut. Not a shortcut of quality product or of quality design, but a shortcut in decision-making. The right answer for us had always been a distillation process where many opinions are boiled down to find the right answer. We always, as a company, understood the power of collective intelligence. But in 2017, just getting the team in one room to make a decision seemed too burdensome.”
The power of community matters.
Cultivating a strong sense of community is a well-trod idea. However, Blue Hill chef Dan Barber argues that in this technology-obsessed age, restaurants are uniquely positioned to offer a place of sanctuary in a time where It’s increasingly difficult to find ways to live in the moment.
“We don’t need to create the solution, we are the solution,” Barber said. “I mean, who does this? What institution, what group of people, encourages this kind of engagement in a context of delight and pleasure and hedonism every single service that satisfies this hardwired craving for real community and real connection?” (He pauses here for a well-timed joke about choosing not to tie in a plug for small farmers and local, sustainable supply chains. “What do you think this is?” he deadpanned. “A fucking meal at Blue Hill?”)
Barber drove the point home in his last couple of minutes on stage. “Our jobs really are to get away from this idea of restaurants as an escape from our hectic lives, and use our power, our work, to help mold them back into their original intent: Restaurants as places of connection.”