Food Woolf Posts

July 15 / Business

When you open a new restaurant in Los AngelesI recently received an email from a business student who wanted to know how most restaurant consultants get into the industry. Though I may not have the official statistics on restaurant consulting at my finger tips, I do know my own story. I’m happy to share my perspective on the business of restaurant consulting with you.

How do restaurant consultants get into the industry? 

For me, I started young. I was a teenager when I got my first restaurant job. I worked in the 110 degree kitchen making milkshakes at a fried seafood shack. My intention getting into restaurants at that time was to make some spending money. I never imagined the food and beverage industry would be where I would make my profession.

I became a waitress and bartender in my twenties. I enjoyed taking care of people and found comfort in the camaraderie I felt with my co-workers.  I knew I had a unique talent for service and my entrepreneurial spirit helped kept me rolling in the tip money.

From Part time to Full Time

I went from dabbling in restaurants to taking things a lot more seriously when I started managing restaurants in my 30’s.

The more I poured myself into my job, the more I discovered that the work I did in restaurants fulfilled me in a way that writing never could. I enjoyed building a community, being of service to others, and getting passionate about the products we sold. I saw how leading others not only helped transform their lives, but also mine.

It was also around this time that I began to see that restaurant work was an honorable profession. It was a job I was learning to enjoy from the inside out.

Then, after six years of thriving as a restaurant General Manager, I went to work for Nancy Silverton, Joe Bastianch, and Mario Batali as part of the service team of Pizzeria Mozza and later, Osteria Mozza. It was there I honed and developed a service vocabulary and systems.  I became a trusted leader in the dining room — in sales and in happy, return guests. Then, after more than four years of putting my service theories to the test through personal research and development, I felt ready to begin my work as a Service Consultant.

June 16 / coffee
June 5 / Business

cranberry date juice blend

If you’ve even played around with the idea of opening a juice bar, you’re not alone. Lots of people–about one in ten new restaurant owners today–want to invest time and money into turning fruits and vegetables into liquid gold. I work as a restaurant consultant in the city of Los Angeles and in a few city blocks there are at least one or two juice bars and there are more on their way. Fresh juice bars are a $5 billion dollar business that’s projected to grow from 4% to 8% a year.

So why is a fresh juice bar such a popular idea? Well, if you think running a juice bar is easy, think again. There is no such thing as easy in the business of food.

Search the internet for suggestions of how to start your own juice bar, and you’ll find advice that suggests that location is the most important thing to figure out first. After that, they say, come up with a business plan, and then come up with a concept.

As someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for over two decades, I humbly suggest you consider something else first: is running a juice bar something you want to do for the next five years?

Freshly pressed juices are the newest food fad. Lots of people want to get in on a business that promotes a healthy, on-the-go lifestyle for health conscious people who want to take care of their bodies in a fast and efficient way.

Juice, my friends, is the new cupcake.

May 19 / Service 101
April 26 / Non-Alcoholic
April 15 / Writing
March 18 / Business
dear company X
To Whom It May Concern

Got an email yesterday from an internet promotional firm, Company X* today. The first line hit me like a shot of fear, pulled straight from the freezer.  “A website is only as good as the kind of traffic it has,” the email read.  The only measurement of my writing, the email’s author suggested, was in the number of visitors who come to my site. The email wasn’t done there. If I really cared about the perceived value of my blog I would invest in Company X’s services to boost my organic page ranking on Google. I would email right away to sign up for specialized SEO improvements and program for other B2B thingamabobs.

Rather than write a vengeful response, I hit delete. It was the kindest thing to do for everyone involved. Because there’s no point in getting upset, angry, or hurtful.  This little blog isn’t trying to compete with Corporate America or The Number One Website in America. What that salesman was selling doesn’t apply here. My writing is quiet industry, not big business.

Now I’ll be honest with you. I hear plenty that sometimes makes me wonder about this stance. There are plenty of sources that are quick to remind me that if I don’t stay ahead of SEO/Marketing/or traffic rate monitoring I’m already too far behind to catch up. But I know in the center of my being that the only way for me to truly succeed is to think differently.

Being an entrepreneur or blogger today doesn’t mean following the same rules as big business. We gotta work small to go big.

Outside of Industrialist Thinking

Seth Godin — an entrepreneur, marketing guru, and best-selling author of over a dozen books — proposes that successful entrepreneurs of today need to avoid the industrialist mindset and be creative in our approach to business.  Unlike the olden days of success measured by the millions, the entrepreneur of today can’t expect to win over the entire world. The modern businesswoman must figure out how to deeply impact a thoughtful few.

If we create something special that can inspire or profoundly move just ten people, Godin suggests, those individuals gush to a handful of friends about the great thing they just found. Those friends will tell ten people, and if you move that group too, you’ll watch as your work creates a fully vested, heart and soul marketing campaign for your unusual website/brand/product. By working small and thoughtfully, you can grow big from the bottom up. Momentum builds.

March 11 / Business

comarades in arms

Living the life of an entrepreneur is exciting and rewarding. Especially when it isn’t harrowing and daunting. Being a consultant, an artist, or a specialist for hire means you have to be uniquely talented, work hard, and be patient for the next right job to come in. Never having a set schedule is a benefit, but freelancing requires a strong belief in one’s self and trust that you’ll get through difficult stretches between jobs. In short, we gotta have a lot of faith.

Faith as a business model?

Yes, operating from an intuitive place isn’t a concept that works for everyone. It’s an idea that can make most people’s skin crawl, especially those who rely on market trends, data, and poll results. But for people like me who work from the gut, intuition as a business model is something that requires practice and a lot of vulnerability. For every gutsy move or courageous jump, there are plenty of uncertain moments that cause white-knuckle indecision and fear.

Being isolated and working in a way that’s opposite of how most mainstream business people operate can make for some truly uncomfortable moments. That’s where having like-minded friends comes in.

We need others who share the same business challenges and have a similar mindset to run big ideas by. When we’re feeling crazy, fearful, and generally uncertain of ourselves, it can really help to have like-minded people who know what you’re going through to share their insights, advice, and good will. When the going gets rough, it’s good to know there’s someone else out there who knows exactly what we’re going through.

One of my freelance cheerleaders is Vivien Kooper, an LA-based ghost writer who makes a living helping ordinary and extraordinary people tell their life stories in book form. My friend is funny, smart, and shares a common language for the big, esoteric ideas.

What I value most about Vivien’s friendship is how common her un-common language is to me. Her language of faith, fear, and a willingness to surrender over to a higher power is part of her daily language. “I’m just staying in faith that I’ll be taken care of,” Vivian said to me after a particularly lean couple of weeks. It was exactly what I needed to hear. “I just know that the right job is going to come in when it’s supposed to.” Faithful words like that comfort me and offer a sense of relief.  She reminds me it’s okay to believe that one of my job requirements is to surrender to the unknown.

That’s certainly not the kind of feedback I get from every business contact I make.

March 8 / Business
Who is the weakest link in your business?
Who is the weakest link in your business?

Regardless of what business you’re in, every line of work has its share of archetypes. You may make your living in a dining room, in the middle of a retail showroom, under stage lights, or in the center of cubicles. Where doesn’t matter. Just like a movie with predictable characters, we all encounter common personality types in the workplace.

Heroes vs Foes

Boilerplate people we want on our team are types like the fearless leader, the go-getter, the quiet workhorse, the inspirational force, and the problem solver. But no matter how great your workplace is, there always seems to be a few pernicious characters. You know the bunch. They’re the complainer, the drama queen, the liar, or even the Friendly Incompetent.

Business Archetype: The Friendly Incompetent

I recently witnessed the most astounding version of the Friendly Incompetent, a negative business archetype, at a bookstore in Pasadena.The book shop employee was a tall, good looking guy with a nice smile. I noticed him right away as he said hello to customers as they walked into the store. Just as I was taking mental note of his good service instincts, however, I began to notice a pattern of neglect. Every time he’d say hello to a new customer, he’d turn his back on them just moments after they crossed the threshold.

He would ignore needing glances and check his iPhone or push a stack of books from one side of the counter to another, like a child pushing blocks for no reason. When an inquisitive book-buyer made her way to the front desk, the tall smiling guy exited the counter in order to adjust a coffee cup display just before she could reach him. Seconds later, I watched as another co-worker noticed the neglected customer and  jumped to her aid with a great sense of urgency.

Later, the Friendly Incompetent complained loudly about the colors of the bookstore’s carpets and how disappointed he was in the state of the book-selling business. When customers asked for information about a particular item, he pointed them to a faraway shelf, rather than walk the person to the stack of books himself.

After just one hour of observing this man, I calculated he not only lost the business several hundred dollars in lost sales opportunities, he also reduced efficiency in his co-workers. In addition, he created such an uncomfortable setting of bad customer service, I had to leave.

February 28 / Writing
"Loco" A wire sculpture by Brooke Burton
“Loco” A wire sculpture by Brooke Burton

Ever feel like your creative well has run dry?  Sometimes wonder if your artistic muse has packed her bags and high tailed it to a town far away?

If you’ve ever worried you might never have another great idea in you, I’ve discovered a sure-fire solution to a blocked creative process: Give up reading and social media for a week.

Get Quiet

Julia Cameron, the author of The Artist Way–a twelve week program that mends the artist and their process–suggests that the best way to get your creative ju-ju back is to detoxify from our modern day information overload. Unplug the TV, step away from the internet, put down the magazines, and stop reading other people’s words for seven whole days.

Though the idea of giving up reading and social media may seem impossible, I’m here to tell you that it is achievable and–once you get through the first wave of detoxification–incredibly rewarding. After just a day of getting away from my usual media inputs, I began to see immediate results. The mental space once dedicated to Twitter messages, Facebook status updates, or obsessive internet surfing–became free real estate for creativity. Inspiration flowed through me without interruption.

February 14 / Business
February 6 / Breakfast Food
February 1 / Breakfast Food

pressed juicery greens

I was in the deli meat section of Whole Foods when my husband asked if I’d be interested in joining him on a three-day juice cleanse. An answer came swiftly.  “No way,” I said. “Not interested.”

He tried again by the salad bar.

“Come on. It’s just for three days,” he said. “I’ll go to the Pressed Juicery tomorrow and get all the juices we need.”

He pushed the grocery cart past the display of pre-made soups and a barricade of kombucha.

“No, thanks. Not my jam,” I said.

I slipped four of my favorite chocolate bars into our cart. I could not encourage an idea that had me going without dark chocolate and coffee for three days. Hadn’t I given up enough already?

Hans was quiet through the frozen food section. He held his tongue as we waited in line behind two chatty Asian women with a small basket of food. They stopped talking long enough to eye our grocery items. They want what we have, I thought. They think a juice cleanse was a bad idea, too.

The cashier waved us over. I unloaded kale, red quinoa, sweet potatoes, and low-fat yogurt onto the conveyor belt. My healthy choices edged towards to the glass of the bar code reader. My ego welled up and banged against fear.  I live a rather healthy life. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. So why on earth would I need a cleanse?

My husband gave one final pitch. “You have the week off. This is a perfect time.”

I pulled a five-pound turkey breast wrapped in butcher paper from the cart. “What about this turkey,” I said, running scenarios, dates, and health code statistics through my mind. There was a lot at stake here. I had plans and recipes. I couldn’t give up eating for THREE days!

“What about the turkey?” he said.  “We’ll freeze it. Come on. It’ll be good for us.”

It was in that moment that I heard the sound. It was the kind and gentle tone my husband can get sometimes when he knows something about me that I don’t. Deep in there between the consonants and vowels was something good and important. Patience. Wisdom. Insight.

Love conquers fear

This moment was familiar. Wasn’t it just a few years ago when my husband suggested an idea so outside of my comfort zone, I automatically said no to it then, too? Wasn’t it just a few years ago when my life was upside down and needing some direction and my husband asked if I was willing to give up drinking with him for just one day at a time? Hadn’t my life been transformed by uttering the word, Yes?

I smiled as I handed the butcher’s bundle to the cashier. “Would it be okay if we didn’t get this turkey breast? I changed my mind,” I said. “Looks like I’m going to be doing a juice cleanse after all.”

There were no applause or sudden dancing. Just a grin of knowing from the man I love.

“Yes. No problem,” the cashier said. No hesitation was offered with her response.

January 19 / Service 101

home health inspection check list

Food lovers enjoy cooking. But how knowledgeable are we when it comes to safe food handling and cooking techniques?

I always put my customers’ health and satisfaction first at every restaurant I work at.  I’m grateful for my ServSafe manager certification training and educate my staff on good health safety and proper food handling protocols. My kitchens do multiple health inspections a day in order to maintain and uphold their “A” letter grades.  My staff know me as a stickler for finer points and am always pushing them to do better.

But the truth is, I wasn’t always food safety knowledgeable. Back in the early days of my restaurant work, I was what I call “a walking health code violation.”

Small Town Violations

More than twenty years ago I got my start at a fried seafood joint in a small town in Massachusetts. It was the Bon Jovi 80’s and I was a naive, teenage kitchen worker.  I microwaved chowders, mixed thousands of milkshakes and frappes on a stainless steel mixer, and grilled the occasional meat patty at a fried seafood shack without ever being educated on any aspect of food safety. The husband and wife team who owned the fried seafood stand, chain-smoked throughout the shift as they cooked and plated leaning towers of fried seafood.

The owners didn’t mind our big 80‘s hair and rock and roll radio we danced to as we worked over the fried clams. They almost certainly didn’t concern themselves with teaching any of their staff how to maintain a spotless kitchen. I washed my hands once a shift and used the same (un-sanitized) rag to clean counters and my equipment for the entire shift. We used sky blue Windex to wipe down the wood counters and stainless cooking equipment. Even when the kitchen reached temperatures above 110 degrees on hot summer days, the thick cream and milk mixture the raw seafood was dipped into was never refrigerated (once we pulled it from the walk-in). I don’t recall ever seeing a thermometer used to check holding temperatures. That’s a culinary memory I’d rather forget.

I discovered much about the food industry back then, but none of what I learned had anything to do with food safety.

Little City Oversights

Later, in the mid 90’s when I began tending bar at a family eatery outside of Boston, I learned very little about safe food handling standards. I was told to taste juices for spoilage and put out vinegar soaked sponges to catch fruit flies, but that was about it. The chef was constantly hung over and he had other things to worry about.  The kitchen’s cleanliness reflected his work ethic. We served frozen foods deep-fried in oil that I never saw changed and monster nacho plates that were heated up in a dirty microwave.  Vegetarian chili, creamy soups, and sauces were made from scratch and reused until they started to smell bad.

I was food poisoned more than once and frequently got sick.

Upholding an A

It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles in the late 90‘s that I was introduced to a more stringent health code with letter grades. Once I started working in LA restaurants and watched my first thorough health inspection, I quickly learned about cross-contamination, internal temperatures for cooked proteins (165º), date labeling, proper cooling techniques, and the danger of ice scoops in ice machines. I became aware of the importance of frequent hand washing, sanitized rags, proper food storage (cold foods must be held at 40º or less), cooling techniques for hot foods, and proper internal temperatures of refrigerators (40 or less).

The more I learned at work, the more clean and safe my home kitchen became.  I realized in time how hazardous my own cooking techniques were. I learned to never cut raw meat on the same cutting surface as vegetables. I stopped using the dish sponge to clean the counter top. I began looking at expiration dates on dry and frozen foods. I found that using a thermometer in my oven and to test the internal temperatures of the foods I cooked made an immediate impact on the quality (and safety) of my meals.

January 11 / Italian

sauteed chicken livers 1I stopped eating meat at seventeen. The bloody grease on the flat-top grill of my summer job was the initial motivator for my abstinence. Then a documentary about the abuse of our planet and suffering of feed animals sealed the commitment. I didn’t cook or eat meat for fifteen years after teenage resolution.

More than a decade after I swore off meat, I was hired to be part of the opening team at steak house in Los Angeles. During training, I decided to taste meat again for the first time in fifteen years. I put a thimble-sized morsel of dry aged steak in my mouth and felt my body chemistry change almost instantaneously. The warm and juicy meat, the aroma of smoke and earthiness, the fully rounded flavors of the steak made me tingle. I felt my face flush. I felt alive. I began to feel I needed to look past my politics and chew.

It took me some time to figure out my carnivorous stance, but thanks to a greater understanding of my role in the food chain, how to balance my consumption and be responsible and informed, I am able to make educated and ethical decisions at the butcher’s counter.

Mindful Meat Eating

My diet isn’t focused on meats–I eat mostly vegetables and grains–but when I do purchase chicken, beef, lamb, or pork, I purchase the meat from trusted sources.

I do my very best to maintain the same political and ecological views of my vegetarian years by seeking out humanely raised, free-range animals fed on a healthy and appropriate diet by small producers. I shop local butchers (Lindy and Grundy are a pair of bad-ass female butchers in Los Angeles who foster close relationships with their local purveyors) and, whenever possible, I buy directly from the people who raise the animals and slaughter them. I want to know as much about what I’m eating and what impact that purchase has on my local economy and planet.

December 31 / Desserts
December 29 / Service 101
December 24 / Mindfulness

coffee shop coffee on foodwoolf

I owe a debt of gratitude to a woman who verbally attacked a young cashier the other day. It was a small act of cruelty that lingered with me for days. I couldn’t shake it until I could find a positive solution to my pain.

I was at my local coffee shop, the day after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The sun had just come up. Sleep and sorrow wrapped around me like a fuzzy scarf. The vexed woman spoke with the cashier in a disappointed tone.

“What do you mean you’re out?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier said. “We are out of the green tea powder right now. May I get you something else?”

The customer seethed.

“I can’t believe you don’t have my drink,” the woman said.  She ranted about professionalism, disappointment with the cashier, and dismay at the coffee shop’s business practices.

A manager stepped in and offered apologies.  A free beverage was proposed.

“I came here specifically for that drink,” she said.

The manager packaged up a complimentary bagel and a beverage for the woman. She offered it with a smile and a sincere apology.

The red-faced woman snapped the bag from the manager’s hand and stormed out of the shop without a word.

It was just barely seven in the morning.

86 Happiness

I couldn’t fathom the source of her outburst. How a missing green tea powder could inspire such venom so early in the morning was incomprehensible. Pain and anger felt for lost children I could understand. And yet, for this woman on this particular day, an 86’d green tea powder really cut her to the core.

A few hours later, I noticed I was still thinking about the coffee shop melt down. Rather than move past the incident, I replayed the events in my mind’s eye over and over again. I started to embellish the memory. I added fictional speeches in which I would express the need for compassion and gratitude in a broken world. I became anxious for the staff’s well-being, worried they were traumatized. I concentrated on her angular gestures, the tone of her voice, and the way she carried herself as she moved past the barista station.  Honestly, I was kind of obsessing over the whole thing.

I shared with my husband how torn up I was over the coffee shop blow out. Rather than belittle my caffeinated fixation, he kindly suggested that I take more time to explore the root cause of what had me so upset.

A walk around the block helped calm my thinking. By the time I returned to my apartment’s gated door, I realized I shared a trait with the ill-tempered customer. I, too, felt a disproportionate amount of emotion over a minor thing. I had what the unhappy woman had: an amplifying mind. I magnified the coffee shop mistake and transformed it into a grave injustice.

Seeking a solution, I reached out to a dear friend. My companion grinned as she prescribed a set of contrary actions to alleviate my condition. She suggested I do five to ten unselfish acts of kindness for the next few weeks, making sure that no one noticed. The goal of my work, she expained, was to spread joy to others and keep the whole business to myself.

“These mitzvahs,” she said, “are only for you and God to know about. No one else.”