Cooking with passion Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2009

Fedele Bauccio was absolutely disgusted.

The food served on college campuses and in corporate cafeterias in the mid-1980s made him cringe.

“The industry was this industry that when you went to college, you had mystery meat,” Bauccio says. “There was cafeteria fare in lots of corporations. You had menu cycles and recipe boxes. I thought, ‘This is horrible what we’re feeding America.’”

So he decided to create his own customized restaurant company, Bon Appétit Management Co.

“There was a lot of competition in the marketplace in 1986, so I wanted to create a culture that would challenge this status quo in the industry with a very focused, intense passion that would create some innovation and fun for people. I needed a brand that would be a signplace in a cluttered marketplace,” he says.

His mission — what he refers to as the dream — was for the business to stand out by being known for its culinary excellence and expertise by providing fresh, flavorful and quality food.

“One of the things I recognized early on was if we were going to be a company that had not only a great product but try to come up with some differentiation, we really needed people who had an intense passion and commitment to great food,” the CEO says.

Finding these people was a challenge. For every 20 people he and his team interviewed, they hired one. With that kind of time invested in hiring, if he wanted to achieve his mission, he had to find a way to not only attract but also keep people in his company, despite being a high turnover industry.

“I wanted to create a culture that would allow people to have fun, and in order to get this passion and commitment that I wanted, I needed to make sure they felt like owners in every location.”

Create emotional attachment

Think about the best company for which you’ve ever worked. Why was it so great? Maybe you had great leadership, or maybe it rewarded employees well. Perhaps you had complete autonomy, or maybe the organization was committed to a greater philanthropic or social cause.

Whatever your reasons, you had an emotional attachment to that company, and that’s what Bauccio knew his employees needed in order to retain talent and achieve his mission.

“You have to create something in your value system that has an emotional attachment by your people, so they say, ‘We have the best product,’ or, ‘We have a product nobody else has, and we’re so damn proud of it,’” he says.

Start by looking at your products and services and see what’s unique about them as compared to the competition. There has to be something unique that differentiates you in the marketplace. Bauccio knew that his differentiator was serving fresh, quality food from scratch.

“Start with the product or service and know that you have something unique,” he says. “Then it’s a matter of saying to yourself as the leader, ‘How do I guarantee that promise? How do I get recognition in the marketplace?’ We work in a cluttered marketplace, no matter what industry you’re in, all the time, so what you want to do is break out, and the only way you’re going to break out, in my view, is create a sense of belonging to that product or that differential for your employees. That means this emotional attachment.”

For him, it meant refraining from serving frozen foods and, as much as possible, buying from local farmers and artisans instead of flying food in from 3,000 miles away.

Focus on that differentiation and stay consistent with it.

“A CEO of a company … the most important thing that they can do is stay very focused and stay consistent in their message,” he says. “If I wasn’t consistent and I was all over in terms of what I believed in and what I was trying to accomplish, it would be watered down.”

Maintaining your focus may also lead to other initiatives that create emotional attachments. For example, about 10 years ago, Bauccio’s chefs began noticing that a lot of food looked great but tasted like cardboard because of chemical additives. So he began implementing higher standards to ensure quality food by requiring antibiotic-free meat and cage-free eggs. These and other initiatives have increased employees’ passion and emotional attachment for the brand and differentiated the business in the marketplace.

“The critical decisions of this brand stewardship of the company should be very tightly focused, and it should be highly centralized,” Bauccio says. “ … I’ve kept that stewardship at my level and because I’ve done that, I’ve been able to communicate it each and every day — that dream — and continue to reinforce it all the time, and somehow, it’s worked its way down into the organization so that everyone from a vice president to a dishwasher gets it and understands it — it’s part of the culture now.”

Build a sandbox

Bauccio doesn’t care what his chefs serve in Bon Appétit’s 400 locations.

It’s not that he’s not interested, but he prefers to empower them to create their own menus based on what’s in season and best appeals to customers in their local regions.

While the mission is very centralized, how his people work toward achieving it is highly decentralized.

“You have to allow people to have freedom to innovate, and you’ve got to say, ‘Go run with your idea, and it’s OK if you make a mistake or fail. Don’t worry about it — at least I know you’re trying to innovate,’” he says. “I think that’s how people can get emotional attachment to a company.”

Bauccio likens it to a sandbox. You can make it as large or as deep as you want. You can fill it with lots of different buckets, tools and toys for them to play with inside. And you can tell someone that they can do whatever they want with those tools and toys, as long as they stay inside the boundaries of the sandbox.

“The boundaries are really the key elements of the dream or the key elements of the brand,” he says. “But it’s your sandbox, so you can make anything you want within it. You can create the castles or whatever you do, as long as you stay within the box — or the rules.”

For example, Bauccio doesn’t care what kind of soup his chefs serve. But he does care that all soups start with a simple ingredient — homemade stock. Anytime he walks into a kitchen, one of the first things he’ll check is if the chef has a stock pot going because it helps achieve the mission of fresh food.

“The boundaries have to do with the original values of what you’re trying to accomplish, so that you can continue to create distinctiveness in the marketplace,” he says.

A sandbox has few boundaries — each side and the bottom. Similarly, don’t put too many boundaries on your people.

“Throw the rules out the window, for the most part, with the exception of, ‘This is our focus and our brand, and these are the things that are critically important,’” Bauccio says. “Talk about the things that are critically important. Everything in between that, go do your thing.”

Sometimes people will stray outside of the sandbox.

“Try to bring them back and make them understand why they have to come back, but if they continue to go out, they don’t belong,” he says.

How many chances they get really depends on the situation.

& #x201C;Sometimes you want to give people two, three, four, five chances,” he says. “It depends on what they did when they went out of the box. There are times when they go outside the box once that you have to deal with ethical or integrity situations that you won’t tolerate, and those you just cut them loose.”

For example, if someone was stealing food or money, taking kickbacks from suppliers, or sexually discriminating against people, he would let them go. This sends a message that you don’t want ethical issues jeopardizing your company. But there are other situations that you can give people a second chance.

“Those kinds of things are intolerable,” he says. “Making a mistake by not having the stock pot in for a couple days, we can tolerate that.”

Move people up

Today’s dishwasher is tomorrow’s executive chef at Bon Appétit.

Instead of siloing people to their job description, Bauccio wants his people to learn, so if you’re a dishwasher, instead of shooting the breeze during downtime, the chef may show you how to properly cut vegetables or ask you to assist in the bakery.

“Their eyes light up, and they start to learn different skills,” Bauccio says. “You can see it in their eyes that they want to do more.”

Another element to achieving his mission and having the best people is giving them opportunities. Many of his chefs started as the low man on the totem pole, washing dishes, but learning and looking for opportunities.

“Cross-train and move people and allow them to do other tasks other than just hire them for one thing,” he says.

When you do this, it’s important to show employees how to do things and work with them instead of just telling them what to do or who to talk to.

“It’s important that managers need to connect with the people they supervise,” Bauccio says. “By connect, I mean they have to be close to them in terms of they can’t be aloof. Sometimes people put a manager’s title on people, and they think they’re better than everybody else. Managers should be able to work side by side with their people, and if they do that, they’ll start to see who can be developed and who can’t be developed. But if they sit in an office and they’re not engaged with their employees or the people they supervise, they’re making a huge mistake.”

The more you work with your employees, the more approachable you are, and they’ll be able to voice their goals so you can better meet them.

“It all goes back to communications, does it not?” Bauccio says. “To be able to tell your people, ‘I’m here to develop you, and I’m here for you, so that you can have a better quality of life. We want you to stay with the company. What else can I do as a supervisor or manager to help you grow?’ If we spend time with our people, we’ll know those answers, and if we ask the right questions, we’ll get the answers.”

As a result, people who started as dishwashers are now executive chefs.

“Now they feel, ‘Gee, I can grow within this company. I don’t have to go to another company to grow,’” he says.

When people stay with your organization, it’s because they’ve made those emotional attachments and seen something different. Over the years, all of Bauccio’s efforts have paid off.

“People actually seek us,” he says. “We have more resumes coming in than we can use. People want to work for us because they hear it from other people, because they hear that this isn’t only a place where you can be innovative and have fun, but it’s a place where you can grow. All of the things I’ve talked about have helped us recruit and not really dig to find the right people.”

He also doesn’t have the turnover issues so often associated with the restaurant industry.

“Because the brand is so strong and the culture is so strong, our employees attract other employees that really want to be here, so our hit rate of success, in terms of hires, is stronger today,” he says.

He’s now got more than 10,000 passionate people and a clearly differentiated business, which earned more than $500 million in 2008 revenue — mission accomplished.

“It took [on] a life of its own,” Bauccio says. “Even though I worry about the brand more than I worry about anything, it has taken [on] a life. I couldn’t stop the dream if I wanted to now. They get it, they understand it, they’ve bought in to it.”

How to reach: Bon Appétit Management Co., (650) 798-8000 or