I may be in the minority, but I have always felt, and often promoted, that restaurants can and occasionally do serve a higher purpose. Since those early days as an apprentice and maybe even before as a 16-year-old dishwasher, I saw something special in restaurant life. Yes, life – since those who find that higher purpose will likely invest a significant amount of time in a restaurant kitchen, not because they must, but rather because they want to. The purpose to them involves a connection to the underlying soul of the operation; a soul that highlights history, tradition, a sense of family, respect and appreciation, and an inspiring story. Is this poetic nonsense or is there truth in this idea of soul?
Soul is likely more evident in single unit proprietorships or small multi-unit operations that are family operated, and less evident in the larger chains simply because larger creates challenges to the feel of a restaurant and a loss of on-site control over that higher purpose. I don’t have anything against the larger chains, there are some whose mission is built around trying to protect that purpose, but it’s exponentially harder to build and hold onto that soul when hundreds of miles separate units.
Whether speaking from a spiritual standpoint, referencing soul music, soul food, or the soul of a restaurant – it is clear that each of these can “transform the moments in our day and bring us closer to living life from a place that sits well with who we are at our core”1. In other words, something goes beyond what is apparent on the surface: personality, sound, food, or service. “Who we are” is the foundation of our existence that includes our heritage, who we want to be, and who others believe we are and what we represent. Soul is the definition of you and the pursuit of this will always be our most important goal in life. Now, this is getting heavy, but bear in mind that it can and should be fulfilling and exciting.
When we listen to authentic soul music, we can feel the musician’s pain and joy. The music is designed to open the listener up to the performer’s life and story. When we eat authentic soul food we are transported to the environment where the cook matured, where he or she connected with ingredients, and how their socio-economic condition impacted what and how those ingredients were prepared. We not only taste soul food; we feel it. The same can be true in a restaurant. Expressing this, building a team around it, and telling that story is what I refer to as that higher purpose.
As a cook or chef, we are drawn to those operations where punching a clock is replaced with joining the energy that a restaurant exudes. Have you worked in an operation like this? Have you walked through the door with the typical knot in your stomach being overpowered by positive anticipation? Okay, maybe not every day, but most. Are you excited to see the people you work with; touch the fresh ingredients delivered by farmers, fish mongers, and ranchers who are passionate about their work; and taking in the smells, sounds, and flavors of honest cooking happening all around? If you answer yes, then you have been touched by the restaurant’s soul.
Does the place where you work have a story that everyone knows and feels; a story that resonates with every employee, owner, and guest? Does that story take people back in time and allow them to think about the impact the place, building, people, and food had on who they are today? If so, then the restaurant has linked with its higher purpose.
When this happens, magic occurs. The employees work from the heart, not just a prep sheet. When this happens, the owners feel a sense of responsibility to protect that soul. When this happens, guests find that their anticipation and actual experience become memorable and at some level, inspiring.
Sometimes the purpose of a restaurant gets lost in the noise of defining success. Look around in your community and you will be able to pick out those restaurants with soul and special purpose that are part of that success formula as well as those that tend to forget why they exist. Financially successful restaurant will come and go if they fail to connect to their soul where those that have the order correct may continue to exist for generations. That small, family-owned Italian restaurant on the corner of your neighborhood; the one that has been there for 75years, undoubtedly has soul. There is a story there that everyone understands from the host to the dishwasher and each one respects their role in perpetuating that higher purpose.
I was reminded of this important differentiation today through a shared article about Chef Sean Sherman’s Owamni restaurant in Minneapolis (Thanks Chef Tim Hardiman). The James Beard Foundation recognized this indigenous operation as the Best New Restaurant in America.
Sean’s approach is to tell the story of the Lakota people through food and in doing so he has defined the restaurant’s soul. This higher purpose is felt by all stakeholders in the operation; a purpose that goes beyond the food, it makes a connection to history, traditions, struggles, and perseverance.
The same has been true of operations like Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Lombardi’s pizzeria in Brooklyn, Fore Street in Portland, Maine, Berghoff’s in Chicago, Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, The Union Oyster House in Boston, The Tadich Grill in San Francisco, The White Horse Tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, and thousands of other neighborhood restaurants that live their higher purpose.
When purpose is defined, when teams are built with this in mind, and when the soul of the operation is evident to all, then financial success will come as well. This is how the great restaurants are defined and where generational longevity is a result.
Note: 1 – From the movie “Soul”
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Does your restaurant have soul?
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