Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ 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

Real Eats at Eat Real

BBQ Pig Truck

A fitting motto for the Eat Real Festival

Doing something out of the ordinary seemed like the thing to do this past Saturday.  Rather than spend the day running the usual round of errands, I packed up the car with a water bottle and a few snacks, and drove to Oakland to attend the second annual Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square.  Eat Real is the brainchild of my friend and colleague Anya Fernald.  After cutting her teeth on the inaugural Slow Food Nation, she decided to take good food to the streets, literally.  Eat Real brings a multitude of food trucks, artisan producers, restaurants, and food stands to the Oakland waterfront.  The festival itself is free.  It pays its way through sponsorships and sale of beverage tickets.  The food vendors are paid cash by the patrons, and nothing cost more than $6!  How can I lose?  I parked the car in the underground garage, stuffed my pockets with about $30 in cash, and ventured into the already busy street.

First stop was the event office, to trade in my VIP pass for a logo Mason jar and six drink tickets.  I received an invitation to attend a tour and coffee “cupping” at the popular Blue Bottle Coffee Company, a block and a half up the hill from the festival itself.  I had a few minutes to spare before the noon start time, so I wandered over to the “Wine Barn,” where my friends from Mendocino County were setting up.  The prior day’s tastings had been well received, and the group was gearing up for the second day of the three day festival.  With a promise to return later in the afternoon, I wandered off to the south end of the grounds in search of my favorite 4505 Chicharrones.  I found the stand, immediately recognizable by the fluttering paper pig cutouts, strung across the front of the service counter.  Three dollars would buy me a small bag of the delectable savory bits of fried pork skins, and I asked the girl for a bag.  “Only one” she asked.  “Two then” I replied, as no one could possibly eat just one.  Munching on a handful of the sweet, spicy and salty puffs, I wandered up the street to Blue Bottle.

It turns out that “cupping” is exactly what it sounds like.  Freshly roasted and ground coffee is carefully measured into a cup, and topped with steaming water, heated to a specific temperature.  The idea is to replicate the exact same brewing conditions for each batch of beans to be evaluated.  The first of three cups remains dry in order to allow you to inhale the aroma of the freshly ground coffee.  The second cup steeps for four minutes, and then a spoon is used to break the foam crust on the coffee and inhale the first whiffs of the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee.  After that, the foam is removed from the second and third cups, and the coffee is actually tasted with a clean spoon.  The coffee is tasted just like wine or olive oil, drawing air in across your palate with your mouth open in order to experience the flavor and the aroma combined.  Who knew that coffee could be as interesting as wine?  After the “cupping,” we were served another batch of the same coffee, brewed in a Chemex, for drinking this time.

Returning to the festival grounds, munching on the second bag of chicharrones, I realized I was finally hungry enough to brave the lines for some real food.  The smells were amazing.  Behind Chop Barn’s stall, a row of Caja China grills were set up with whole pigs roasting over the coals and flatbreads toasting on the grill above.  Unable to resist, I joined the line and handed over another $6.  In exchange, I received a warm flatbread, topped with both moist and crispy bits of pulled pork.  On the adjacent table, I had a choice of freshly grilled peach salsa, watermelon rind pickle, tomatillo salsa or chili oil with orange peels.  After dressing the pork with peaches and the orange chili oil, I took my first bite.  Belatedly remembering the camera, I found a concrete wall to sit on, and snapped a quick picture before polishing off the entire thing.

Pork from Chop Bar

Roast Pork Flatbread from Chop Bar

After surveying the long lines at the more popular taco trucks (traditional Mexican, Salvadorian, Philipino and Korean), I chose a piroshky stand.  Three beautiful young Russian women were heating and serving a choice of chicken, beef and onion, or vegetarian spinach and cheese.  Being the unabashed carnivore that I am, I opted for the traditional beef and onion.  The crust was golden and flaky, and the filling almost hot enough to burn my tongue.  Once again, the photograph was an afterthought, as I captured the image with a bite taken out of it.  Since I was close to the Wine Barn, I swung by and picked up a glass of Navarro gewürztraminer.  It was perfectly chilled, and the fruity spiciness was a perfect counterpoint to the rich piroshky.


Beef and Onion Piroshky

A friend was finished with her shift at the Meet the Winemaker booth, so we struck out to further peruse the food offerings.  Her goal was the Beer Shed, at the far south end of the festival grounds.  On the way, we passed by what had to be the largest paella pan I have seen to date.  The vendor had several staff members tending the over 8’ diameter pan, with its specially-constructed gas burners that allowed the paella to cook slowly and evenly.  The line wound around the booth and up the aisle, so we deferred, pushing on through the crowd.


Custom Paella Trailer

Our next stop was the falafel truck, where we purchased a “sampler” cone of two falafels, hot from the deep fryer served with tahini and a fresh herb puree.  Biting through the crisp crust, I encountered a creamy yet toothsome center, owing to the fact they were made with freshly cooked favas and chickpeas, rather than the ubiquitous ground mix.  They were vegetal and savory, and went perfectly with the microbrew beers procured when we finally reached the Beer Shed.


Falafel Cone

We couldn’t leave that end of the festival until we sampled the marvelous pork and beans served by Rancho Gordo New World Beans and Boccalone.  The huge and tender cannellini beans were stewed with nduja, a soft Calabrian pork sausage and favorite of local chefs who frequent Boccalone’s stand in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market.  The creaminess of the beans offset the spicy bite of the sausage, which literally melted into the sauce.  On the way back, I also sampled a sweet potato-Thai tea popsicle from Fat Face, and an incredible spoonful of pistachio sorbet.  Even though I was trying to avoid the multitude of sweets, I succumbed to temptation for these two, which were worth the splurge.

Returning to the main square, we entered Bocanova, the restaurant hosting the VIP reception and cocktail hour.  More delectable goodies awaited us, along with a great selection of our favorite Mendocino County wines.  I was able to sample a variety of empanadas, meatball sliders, olive-oil confit pork on a crostini, and incredible deep-fried Japanese mini peppers.  They literally burst in your mouth, with a balance of heat from the pepper and heat from the frying, with a slightly salty finish.  I couldn’t resist popping several more into my mouth, even when warned that eventually, I would encounter a spicy one.  When I finally rolled down the stairs of the parking garage to the car, I was surprised that I could even fasten the seatbelt.  I was stuffed, and yet, had not even begun to taste everything available at the festival.  Even if I had attended all three days, I doubt I could have tried all the dishes.  Some of what I missed, I circled for next year; artisan dim sum, Philippine Sisig tacos, lobster rolls, and a miscellany of dessert items.



Mendocino Wines

Our favorite Mendocino Wines

In retrospect, examining whether this flavorful mélange of food offerings served to encourage patrons to “eat real” is the point around which the entire concept revolves.  Truthfully, many of the food cultures represented support a tradition of artisan or hand-made foods.  In addition, these traditions are not always well known to the average American.  By broadening the patrons’ horizons a bit, new possibilities are explored.  In reality, it takes a truly adventurous home cook to attempt to replicate some of these dishes.  However, food trucks and stalls bring variety and breadth to the urban eating experience, and offer real alternatives to American fast food.  Here in Mendocino County, where even Mexican taco trucks are not widespread, it presents somewhat of an insurmountable challenge.  My departure was somewhat bittersweet, knowing that if I wanted to experience these dishes again, I would either need to duplicate the recipes at home, or return on a regular basis to the San Francisco Bay area to stalk the food trucks.  I was particularly impressed by the demographic diversity of the attendees, and the presence of so many young families.  This next generation is the foundation of fundamental change in our food system, and will become the evangelists that carry the message beyond the urban landscape.

Post by Julia Conway on September 3rd, 2010