Heart. People. Hard work. That’s the model of the Farmers Restaurant Group (FRG) and it’s paid dividends–but not just monetarily.
Consumers are directing their dollars toward businesses with a purpose, whether that purpose is to create a better environment or to grow employees into a better version of themselves. It’s not uncommon for business owners to waive off the pressure to pursue purpose because, well, “purpose” doesn’t exactly pay the bills. However, the people who believe in purpose do, because they’re the ones you attain, train and retain to sustain pursuing that purpose–which translates into dollars.
Dan Simons, owner of FRG, shared his thoughts about growing an ethical business from the ground up, and why doing so is critical to a sustainable competitive advantage. “The seed from which a business grows will forever define it, so choosing and assembling the DNA requires mindfulness from the start,” says Simons. “For us, this creates the fertile ground our company culture grows from, more than one initiative or another. All of our work, from our management structure to our martinis, is driven by who we are and what we believe.”
I know, powerful stuff.
Here are four best-yet leadership practices from Simons on growing and sustaining an ethical and successful business:
1. Home Is Where The Heart Is
Building a successful business, no matter what kind, starts at home, with what matters to its people, its owners, managers, and staff. So many of the great businesses we all know and love—from Zappos to Method to Apple— work because they have heart. Their people believe in what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. So does the Farmers Restaurant Group, which was inspired and backed by the American family farmers led by Mark Watne of the North Dakota Farmers Union. FRG currently operates five restaurants in the DC area, including the popular Founding Farmers. Known for scratch-made, source-matters menus, FRG also works to keep their prices reasonable and bring more of the food dollar back to the people who grow it in an effort they call “unbundling the industrial food chain.”
“The reason we are what we are is because of why we began,” Simons claims. “It all started with the family farmers, 42,000 of them who majority own the business either as individual investors or through the NDFU. Our model comes from them—the family and the farm. Our employees call the company the Farmily; they know the work they do puts money in their own pockets, but also in the pockets of our Farmer-Owners and that provides a lot of the heart–working collaboratively to make something sustainable and worthwhile.”
2. People Matter And People Contribute
Founding Farmers along with its sibling restaurants, including the newly opened Farmers & Distillers, are a growing business with more of a focus on being great than on being big. They employ over 1,000 people and serve an estimated 100,000 guests per month. Yet within the company, it operates like a family. The management and staff are connected and they believe relationships are foundational. The company runs a quarterly school for employees, teaching everything from time management to food safety to emotional intelligence and relationship building. They have a company “constitution,” which includes a clear set of governing rules and requires learning company history, language, and culture. This constitution also serves as a tool that encourages self reflection, asking questions, and holding oneself and one’s team accountable.
“Our people matter to us. From our farmers to our bartenders, we make sure that everyone who is involved in our business has a voice that can be heard. It makes us better. And it makes what we do, and what we all care about, part of the business,” says Simons. “I can’t possibly know everything I need to know to run a really great company on all levels; I’d be nowhere without my restaurateur partner Michael Vucurevich, and our Farmer Partners, and the immensely talented members of our team. People are smart and innovative. They need to be trusted, encouraged, developed, and inspired and then they bloom, sometimes to greater heights than they realized they could. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Simons works hand in hand with many of the employees and other owners, building the company and their careers. With this comes a lot of information about who they are and what they care about, which continues to influence the company daily. For example, sustainability has mattered from the beginning because it matters to family farmers, but it also resonates with many of the young employees in the restaurant business. According to Simons, “Our restaurants and the environment benefit thanks to our employees who care about their work and the world–at the same time–and with a careful eye for consistency and integrity.”
It’s these invested staff who work their way up the company ladder. Whenever possible, Simons says their leadership and managers are home-grown, some starting as servers, some part of the 6-month Managers in Training program that fully immerses staff in all aspects of the restaurant while paying a competitive salary. Both create loyalty and institutional memory. FRG has built their management approach to be a tactile experience for everyone who walks into their restaurant.
By making investments in people and long-term sustainable initiatives, the goal is that a guest will feel these investments during their experience, whether directly or indirectly. When you generally enjoy your work environment it shows naturally–from the way the team engages with a guest to having a strong depth of knowledge about the food and its sources, the energy efficient lighting and equipment, LEED certification, Green Restaurant Association certification, and recycling programs. Everything matters. Everything contributes to the experience.
3. Work Hard First, Then Shine And Share
When Simons talks about their company it isn’t all easy, happy days. He doesn’t shy away from hard work or asking his employees to do the same. The restaurant business is labor intensive, and each day brings new challenges. Insert sustainability and an ethically-run enterprise, and it gets more complicated. However, this doesn’t always mean more work. It just warrants smarter work.
Simons expects the best of everyone who works there, including himself. That is also part of the brand. “We work hard, and some of our process is visible, but most often, it’s the work behind the scenes that makes something great. This may be a little different than current culture where every moment is tweeted or snap-chatted while it is happening, but in this way, our company is a bit old school. I like to think of practicing for a piano recital or preparing for game day. It’s that constant, steady, detailed preparation that leads to the awesome result you want to share with the world, like a new dish or a more sustainable practice. As transparent as we are, most of our work is unseen. Our guests want delicious food and drink, good service, and value—and they want that all the while trusting that we’re aligned with their principles. They don’t always have to know everything we’re doing behind the scenes like searching for months and months for an American maker for our custom plateware, but I’m happy to tell them if they’re interested.”
4. Success Grown Aith Care
FRG’s flagship DC Founding Farmers is the most geo-tagged DC restaurant on Instagram and continues to be OpenTable’s most booked restaurant in the country. No. Big. Deal. Given the current cultural landscape, the spending habits of millennials reflect a commitment to positive social and environmental impact. Nielsen cites that 75% of millenials are willing to pay more for sustainable offerings while 66% are willing to pay for products and services that come from companies aligned with their (millennials’) values.
Running an ethical company is smart business, which, for Simons and FRG, is great news.
However, it’s also well-deserved.
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