Blending Quality of Life and Fresh, Seasonal Food

alicewaterspicI stumbled upon an old issue of Fortune Small Business the other day and found a very inspiring story about how Alice Waters started Chez Panisse. It talked about the challenges she had back in 1971 when she first opened in her place in Berkeley, California.

“In no time I had 50 employees, and I didn’t know how to manage any of them. I lost $40,000 in the first three months. We were open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m., serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was too much. We were hemorrhaging money. I had to lay off half of my staff, and we stopped serving breakfast and closed on Sundays.”

The Force was definitely with her as she eventually found a business person who could help. Gene Opton, who owned a cookware store in Berkeley, eventually became an investor in the restaurant. A glowing review in Gourmet magazine in 1975 really ignited things. To Waters’ dismay, people were coming to her restaurant for the wrong reason — They wanted to be seen there.

To Waters, it had to be about the food. She said she wanted Chez Panisse to be “a simple, homey place where people could eat wonderful food.”

Some of the things she implemented are fantastic!

“Part of my philosophy is to try to give employees a great quality of life. My guiding principle is to put myself in their place and ask what I would find desirable in a job. That’s why the waiters’ changing room is just as beautiful as the Chez Panisse kitchen and bathrooms. I also feel that it’s impossible for a chef to work productively six days a week. Chez Panisse chefs work three and are paid for five. This way they have a day to go to the market and get inspired to cook. It also gives them time to have dinners at home with their families.”

I never tell the chefs what to cook. That’s up to them. I’m here to taste. I love walking into the restaurant and being surprised. They work within certain parameters, of course. For example, we’re driven by fresh, seasonal food that we buy at farmers’ markets. From the very beginning we have worked to develop relationships with farmers. And we’re Mediterranean in spirit in that Chez Panisse was inspired by my travels throughout that region. But you will also find Indian and Middle Eastern dishes on our menu because we love those cuisines as well.”

Another thing I found interesting is that Waters only owns an eighth of the business. She had formed a corporation with several key employees and, in an effort to keep burned-out staffers, gave key workers shares in the company.

Very cool approach!


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