Aim for Taste: Collaboration in the Restaurant Business

Gilboa Herb Farm

Gilboa Herb Farm – a collaboratively run restaurant

John and Jane (fictitious names), brother and sister, run a hotel in a small tourist town, featuring farm-to-table organic food and a commitment to environmental considerations entirely unfamiliar in their region. They’ve been aiming for some time to move away from top-down decision-making and shift toward a more collaborative culture. Because of distance and budget, I only have two hours a month with them. On our second call, I hear their discouragement and fatigue: instead of more collaboration and commitment, they see mostly a rise in chaos, including losing their key manager in the kitchen because she lost her base of authority with the introduction of certain practices. They want to know what they can do. They are almost ready to give up their experiment, though it’s clear that would be a loss for them, because they feel called to the visionary potential of a cooperative world.

Let me start by saying: there’s no magic collaboration pill. In fully collaborative, self-managing organizations like those described in Frederick Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations, leaders stop relying on command-and-control structures to create order and coherence – and that transition doesn’t come easily or overnight. It’s no accident that Zappos lost about 25% of their workforce when they announced their intention to embrace self-management and offered people a package if they wanted to leave. Once an imposed order is no longer present, something else is needed to provide coherence. In its absence, returning to the previous order continues to appeal.

Collaborative restaurants face a particularly intense challenge here, so I find it valuable to look closely at their solutions while reflecting on this transition. Most food establishments lean heavily on traditional hierarchies, as do other industries that depend on people doing physical labor. There’s a pervasive notion that manual workers need not and cannot be expected to think for themselves, to make decisions, or to adapt their actions to changing circumstances. Roles tend to be strictly divided – the person who washes the dishes, generally speaking, will not be cooking, and vice versa – and each has their tasks defined. Looking at restaurants that successfully break away from these norms, I see lessons for all organizations that want more adaptive, creative, and committed teams.

Purpose as a Source of Coherence

John and Jane, like many others, found it easy enough to dismantle the authority-based order, and are still struggling with how to create the foundation for the alternative. True enough, collaboration moves away from an expectation of compliance with managers’ decisions. When individuals are empowered to make decisions throughout the organization, coherence has to be generated from other sources. These include clarity of purpose and values, along with principles and agreements that people can orient towards and against which they can measure their actions.

To be able to make those assessments, individuals in all positions need to be far more engaged and invested than they are in traditional organizations. Fully collaborative organizations ask every individual to become, in some sense, a “co-owner” even when they are not technically co-owners as in a worker-owner cooperative.

Odles small

Israel Odles in the Gilboa Herb Farm kitchen

This is the key ingredient at places like the Gilboa Herb Farm, one of my favorite restaurants in the whole world. Every time I visit my sister in Israel, this restaurant is a place of pilgrimage for us. We take the more-than-an-hour trip north to the small mountain on which the farm overlooks a fertile valley. This year, my sister and I had our second stunning conversation with the person who runs the kitchen, Israel Odles. Odles has been at the restaurant for a mere eighteen months, and the culture is completely changed.

He doesn’t call himself a chef, though his culinary sensibilities align with any image that I could have about what a chef is; he refers to himself as the “leader of taste” or “master of taste” (no translation of the Hebrew works sufficiently). Aiming for taste, one of his mottos, is different from following recipes. When using local, fresh ingredients, flavors and consistencies change, he says, and you cannot achieve the same taste without varying the recipe.

All the staff, including himself, participates in cooking, cleanup, and all other activities. The atmosphere of trust and focus was palpable to me when walking in the kitchen. Odles is unquestionably the authority, and it’s a different kind of authority. It’s the authority of vision, purpose, passion, and some deep principles; not of rules and fear of punishment.

A $60m Anarchist Deli?

Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of the well-known Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, also challenges the accepted norms. In a recent radio interview, he refers to himself as a “lapsed anarchist,” or not so lapsed, claiming that anarchism provides an approach to building a business, to leadership, and much more. Organization, he explains, functions to “help people get to greatness” when “it is freely chosen and … it’s not forced on people.”

It is neither order, nor structure, nor change that people resist; only imposed order, imposed structure, or imposed change. As I was listening to the interview, it became clear that at Zingerman’s, imposition isn’t the norm; generosity, trust, and respect are. Here is Weinzweig again: “When you, from the heart, treat people like intelligent human beings and give them the chance to have a say in what’s going on, then great things come from that. I mean, it could be harder in the moment, there’s something easier about just telling people what to do, but I don’t think it’s healthy or sustainable and it’s not natural.”

zingermans-deli-our-story-historyThe concept is simple and radical: give people responsibility, respect, and a say in shaping the outcome, and they respond by giving their all. As one worker who was also interviewed said, it becomes a community, not just a workplace. This worker, whose daughter is four years old, is planning to be with the company until she is out of high school.

Just like at the Herb Farm, people’s involvement is always bigger than their “job”. Instead of having people make coffee and focus only on that, they are taught the larger context of coffee in the world, they are given full access to the open books which are a company policy, and they are taught how to solve problems the Zingerman way. “When you teach other people how to lead and how to think, the burden on you is way lower. The hierarchical model depends on the leader pulling everyone together, which is exhausting.”

Investing in People

Both at the Herb Farm and at Zingerman’s, the training of workers is highly unusual. At the Herb Farm, as Odles told us, the main deciding factor for hiring new people is whether they see themselves as having a future in cooking. If they don’t, this is not the place for them. When they join, they go through three days of just orientation and learning, without much instruction, supervision, or expectation. Then, for a month, they get a deeper orientation and training. After that period of time, the new hire has a conversation with Odles about their strengths, what needs to be cultivated, and how to become a cook.

The Herb Farm is a very small place compared to Zingerman’s, still in process of transforming into the new culture. Many people left after Odles began managing the kitchen, because the level of self-responsibility and commitment was not what they came for. Odles is clear: The Herb Farm is not a place for getting a salary; it’s a place for building a future together. People can make more money and have fewer demands elsewhere. And yet, month by month, more and more people flock to the lesser pay because they love the vision. One young man started at the restaurant a little over a year ago as a high school dropout, on the condition that he will continue for his high school diploma. Soon, he went to a chef school in a nearby town and finished as first in his class. He is now just about ready to complete high school and is training two new hires who went to chef school with him. Seeing him, it’s clear that he is living life as he wants it.

At Zingerman’s, there is also investment in training and education. As I understand it, Zingerman’s is now part of the University of Michigan and offers courses for both workers and others at the deli. Workers also learn by being asked to help solve business problems. Weinzweig gave the example of what happens if suddenly there is an increase in butter prices. How to handle it? Would the prices of sandwiches go up, or not? “The old model is the bosses retreat to the back room and try to figure it out. We don’t really know what we’re doing either, but we’re supposed to know what we’re doing, so we retreat to the back room and then come back and announce some big decision, which inevitably is flawed because there is no perfect decision. Then everyone else goes into reactive contortions over what’s wrong with it.” Zingerman’s owners recognize that the decision affects the workers, so why not give them a say?

Steps towards a Different Future

Zingerman’s was created with an alternative vision, and Odles had a very small staff to transition to his approach. John and Jane, on the other hand, have been struggling for over a year with a larger staff and a legacy that isn’t likely to go away overnight. Both around them and within themselves, there is clearly ambivalence and overwhelm. In a situation like this, I focus clients on slowing down and integrating every little bit of change before moving to the next step.

For example, John and Jane have long wanted to be free from the practice of punishing workers who don’t perform as expected. They are aware of what author Dan Pink discovered: that humans are not ultimately motivated by reward and punishment. Though it may contribute to compliance in the short term, the cost is simply too high: alienation and disengagement, compliance when “watched” and quick return to less compliance.

Yet as long as the hotel doesn’t have a sufficient alternative to punishment, if they just stop punishing they can only get chaos. That alternative needs to be constructed carefully, step by step. Together, we outlined their first few shifts:

Shared purpose at all levels. Purpose grounds the team in the “why” of everything. Each action, each meeting, each procedure must, in some way, be connected to this why. While purpose, like values, is important in every organization, it becomes indispensable as a foundation for coherence in a collaborative organization. First, everyone needs to know and own the purpose for the entire organization, and feel connected with it. Then, in addition, each unit within the organization creates its own statement of shared purpose, which is, essentially, its own specific way of contributing to the larger purpose.

Values. Organizational values provide the “how,” guiding everyone to carry out each action, meeting, and procedure in a manner consistent with the values. The true values of an organization are often discovered more than legislated. Most people know what really guides decisions and operations, regardless of what the official values are that decorate the walls of the main office.

feedback workshopFeedback and learning. The third and final building block for beginning the collaborative move without losing coherence and authority is establishing feedback mechanisms for learning. It’s no wonder that Zingerman’s has an extraordinarily strong focus on handling customer complaints. It’s not only about customer service; it’s also about learning, coming to understand what works and what doesn’t, so that there can be continual improvement based on information everyone understands. Fully operational feedback systems include feedback within and between teams, not only from the public. When people give and receive feedback with honesty, clarity, and care, they can learn at a different level, not having to overcome shame or fear. As “co-owners”, they want to know and do better, and are motivated to learn from feedback given without blame or criticism.

For John and Jane’s hotel, the journey is beginning. For the next period, their only task is to focus on purpose, the very foundation of any change. Dan Pink reminds us of what we all secretly knew all along, and what shows up so clearly among the employees of innovators like Odles and Zingerman’s: it’s only meaning and purpose that can truly hold our hearts and minds for the long haul.

Image credits: Israel Odles by Arnina Kashtan, by permission. Gilboa Herb Farm and Zingerman’s from their websites.