Archive for the ‘Country life’ Category



The value of good service.


I have recently been put in the position of assessing value. Not necessarily dollar value, but the value of intangible benefits like service, honesty, loyalty, fairness, empathy and commitment. Is it any wonder that these attributes are often referred to as a person’s or a company’s values?

After over fifty years of life, if there is one thing I have learned. There is great value in being true to your values. I have seen mentors and colleagues, competitors and rivals come and go, but the sole constant has been those people who have embraced their values and remained aligned with them, no matter the cost in dollars. I have seen many exchange personal values for the value of a dollar, the value of celebrity, the value of “winning,” often with unanticipated longer term costs. Today, I choose not to alter our core values for the sake of today’s fashion.

When I chose to leave the security of a traditional job and found a company, the calculation of intangible social values was part of the business planning process. Call it idealistic, but I wanted to run a company that valued people over profit. Not to say that profit is not essential. We define the three E’s of sustainability as Environment, social Equity and Economics. Without all three being in balance, nothing is being sustained. The economy is the value “ceiling” I am bumping my head up against today. I have found that the personal and social values of my company compete with our economic value. Competition in our industry is harsh; the price tag for what we do is high. The emotional quotient of what we provide is often off the charts for many of our customers. Buying decisions are sometimes based on little or no information about the person with whom you will be doing business. Competitors will use every trick in the book to win the business, and I must ask myself if I want to let them define the rules of engagement. Am I satisfied with what business comes my way based on our company’s core values? Is the business economically sustainable if I continue to rank our core values higher than the need to compete? Do our customers and potential customer share our core values and are they important enough to them to be part of their buying decision? Tough questions without easy answers, and yet they must be addressed.

It is much easier to speak of our core values. The value of service; in our industry, it is essential. Yet who defines good service? We are traditionalists. If a customer barely notices our staff’s role in their successful event, then we have provided exceptional service. Exceptional service does not mean saying “yes” to everything. When we receive a gratuity for our service, we know we have delivered on our promise. Some competitors take the decision out of the customers’ hands and add a “service charge” to their proposal. We believe that it is essential that this feedback mechanism remain in the hands of the customer, and not be assumed as rightful compensation. Yet for those customers who do not share this value, our position is confusing at best and an opportunity to bypass an additional cost at worst. In spite of this, we value our staff and pay a wage that takes this into consideration, sometimes adding a gratuity for their efforts from our own pockets.

The value of honesty is intrinsically tied to the value of service. We are often placed in a position where we have to tell a customer “no,” sometimes when the customer does not want to hear that response. We will not directly or indirectly withhold the truth from a customer or potential customer in order to influence their buying decision. We bring up potential issues with a customer in the beginning of the process, knowing that if we do not, they will inevitably surface at a later time, rendering us unable to fulfill the customers’ expectations. We also do not subscribe to the industry-wide practice of soliciting testimonials. This is not to say we do not maintain or value references and praise from our happy customers. But we do not “encourage” them to publicly proclaim our virtue. The quality of our work must stand on its own right. This also often puts us at a disadvantage when our potential customers look to public forums for feedback on our work.

Loyalty is a value we hold high. When we commit to working with a customer, that customer is assured that they receive 100% of our time and attention while we are working on their event. Despite the temptation to book multiple events in a single weekend or even a single day, we remain true to our commitment to the customer who booked with us first. My grandmother used to say, “…dance with who you brung (sic)…” and this holds true. Each event we do is an ongoing relationship with that customer, and it is extremely important for that customer to trust that we are there for them, even when the going gets rough. This is a value we have found to be important to many of our customers, and it has paid us back time and time again. Our desire to exceed our customers’ expectations means we cannot allow ourselves to be spread too thin. Our customers’ expectation is that we are committed to their event, and only their event, and it is important to us to honor that commitment.

Fairness and commitment are also tied to loyalty. Decisions in our company are based on the principle of considering all stakeholders; be they customers, staff, colleagues or our family members. Most importantly, these decisions are also based on what is fair and equitable in terms of our own quality of life. If we chose to, we could be booked with multiple events over all fifty-two weekends of the calendar year. However, this is not the reason I abandoned the corporate catering business and founded our company here on the Mendocino Coast. After over twenty-five years in the business world, I choose to value my own time and quality of life. Do my customers understand and embrace this? Likely they do not, nor do I expect them to do so. However, if I am stressed, exhausted, frantic or otherwise out of balance in my personal life, I cannot deliver exceptional service to my customers, and in the end the business suffers. As a sole proprietor, like it or not, I am my businesses’ most valuable asset. It would be irresponsible to treat a key employee in this way; so why would it be acceptable to treat myself this way?

Commitment to our staff and our community are also important to us. Our team is not just hourly contract workers, but a valued asset of our company. We mentor them, educate and train them, invest in their knowledge and expertise. We donate our time and expertise to our greater community in a variety of ways, including mentoring new colleagues rather than considering them to be future competitors. Fairness, honesty, dignity and professionalism come first.

Of course, after all this discourse, we must return to the question of economic value. How do we monetize our core values, and communicate that to our customers? We are a boutique service provider that prides ourselves on a level of personal service and quality that is rapidly disappearing in our industry. Size matters in pure economic terms, and our commitment to remaining “right sized” does impact our ability to compete. Our competitors, in most cases do not share our values. Our industry colleagues often do not understand or appreciate our values. We do believe that money comes and goes, but reputation and values endure.

Post by Julia Conway on April 3rd, 2012

Is Junk Food Taking Over the World?

FoodBuzz Screen Shot

Sweet snacks on my FoodBuzz

As I return to the office after a long season of bidding, planning, preparing, serving and cleaning up after events, I renew my interest in blogging on a regular basis in order to connect with the food community at large. I logged back into FoodBuzz after a long hiatus, noting that my last post was something along the lines of “….too busy to even check in, much less blog and share…” dated somewhere south of last May. As I plowed through the 200+ messages from fellow “Foodies” on the site, I noticed an alarming trend. Recipe after recipe was for gooey, sweet, elaborate baked goods! Are the cookie makers, cake bakers, pie aficionados taking over the world? I searched in vain for a savory recipe, finally working my way down the list to someone’s mother’s wonton soup. Have the food bloggers of America and beyond run out of ideas for delicious foods that are not breakfast pastries, snacks or desserts? Or is something more sinister afoot? Could this be the hand of corporate America, gently guiding the thought processes of these bloggers and cooks by sponsoring bake-off’s, dessert recipe contests and the like? Is this the result of companies giving away sets of baking pans, stand mixers and convection ovens?

A friend of mine recently posted a recipe from CHOW for, of all things, a Thanksgiving Turkey Cake. The recipe calls for baking seasoned ground turkey in cake pans, which is then layered with stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pureed sweet potatoes, all “frosted” with more mashed potatoes and topped with toasted baby marshmallows. The entire dish has the appearance of an oversized layer cake with a strangely matte finish. Are we Americans so jaded that we have to turn even our holiday meals into something else?

Now I am all for the elevation of food and eating above the singular status of fuel for our bodies. The joys of sharing the table with family and friends are a big part of what I teach when instructing my cooking students or clients on reclaiming their culinary heritage. I do, however, find the trend toward obesity amongst my fellow foodies disturbing. In subscribing to various food-related news sources, I am bombarded with stories about new and exciting prepared foods, chock full of unpronounceable ingredients and dubious preservatives, all wrapped up in visually appealing packaging. As I prepare to attend the annual Fancy Food Show in San Francisco this January, I continue to be overwhelmed by the increasing number of these types of foods; all are laden with empty calories, but designed to entice volume consumption.

Today’s food scene has become a microcosm of our American economy. We are harangued daily to buy and consume, buy and consume; or face the next Great Depression. Most experts agree that in order to avoid obesity and the associated health risks, we must reduced our overall caloric intake, especially the engineered fats, carbohydrates and sugars that form the foundation of these prepared foods. Yet I see very few food bloggers or celebrity chefs touting the virtues of a perfect whole roast chicken, accompanied by a few artfully prepared seasonal vegetables. Where are the simple preparations that depend solely on the quality ingredients? The other night, my husband and I shared a single small T-bone steak, seared in a cast iron skillet, topped with caramelized sweet yellow onion and served with fresh steamed Yukon gold potatoes mashed with a little bit of truffle butter. The entire dinner took less than half an hour to prepare and cost less then $10 for the two of us, yet was as flavorful and satisfying as any expensive restaurant meal. The added value was that I knew exactly what we ate; a 4-6 ounce portion of lean protein, about ½ cup each of the potatoes and one large onion. The “additives” consisted of salt and pepper to taste, a tablespoon of truffle butter (ingredients: white truffle shavings and sweet butter) and a couple of tablespoons of whole milk. The meal featured simple ingredients, simple preparations; and was a whole lot healthier than the “convenient” prepackaged alternatives.

Our food community must take a more responsible, and albeit frugal view of what we promote. A life of consuming snacks and desserts, accompanied by the latest cocktail concoctions is certainly sexier, absolutely more exciting and promotes the illusion of economic and physical health through excess. A life of balanced, thoughtful consumption is much more mundane and ordinary. I personally promote eating and cooking with all of our senses, and perhaps we should add our common sense as well. I’d love to see my fellow food advocates debate the merits of extra-virgin olive oils, or explore innovative ways to serve locally produced meats and vegetables. The food community has enormous reach, via television, the internet and print media. Imagine what we could do if we use that influence to improve the foods that our fans and readers consume every day. It is not about the next contest we can run to drive a specific number of “clicks” to our websites. It is not about how many “likes” we can collect. It is not even about attracting advertising underwriters to our blogs or selling our concepts to cookbook publishers or the Food Network. It is about being endowed with the gift of influence, communicated by the written word and by images, to impact the health and well-being of those who look to us for guidance.

Post by Julia Conway on November 11th, 2010