First Zeal Blog – checking in at the 100 day mark

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zeal_food_lightedsignMore highs than lows which makes for a promising start in our young life at Zeal. The smiles on peoples faces, the positive feedback and appreciation of the food and the atmosphere have all been amazing and rewarding. The people of Boulder have been gracious and I feel really fortunate to have made new friends and connected with so many conscientious, warm and generous locals. Food, as has been my experience, is something that opens sharing and communication. The act of eating wakes up the senses and can alter your state of mind (even without the wine). But this doesn’t happen with much of the heavily processed foods we often find in front of us. I know my senses come alive more when I delve into a bowl of vibrant food that was picked fresh, handled with care and served with love.  And that’s why I wanted to bring Zeal to life – I call it food for enthusiasts.

There have been a few lows. It was tough, particularly that first month, getting to a consistent meal and service level. Everyone worked hard logging beastly long hours, and we all grew short. One day a couple of vegans who had ordered take out brought it back claiming their vege bowls were tainted with meat. I fielded this complaint with all the grace of a three legged bull and asked the two fellas if they realized that those organic vegetables were grown in manure…”where do you draw the line?” I snooted. That didn’t go over well.

Then there was the time one of our managers, tired and cranky, actually told a table full of young women to “move it along”.  He was in table turning mode but failed to realize that a) we had no one waiting for a table, and b) the ladies were only still there because the server was struggling to add up the check correctly. Whoops.

But probably the biggest challenge of the first three months has been keeping everyone positive and mindful of the reason we are here: to share a passion for eating really good food and carry this enthusiasm out in a warm and inviting setting with a dash of cool that makes it a place you want to see and be seen.  It started out very positive as we introduced all of our new job applicants to the story of Zeal, to our mission to bring about change in casual dining and to our vision of a future with multiple restaurants serving organic cold pressed juice and hand prepared food using the freshest and best ingredients possible.  But somewhere in these first few months that story has been shadowed over by the realities of things like: working 90 hours a week, tip pool sharing, job pay by position, schedule assignments, wardrobe and uniforms, company meals, employee discounts, not breaking every plate and glass, and probably a few others that I’m forgetting.

 Wait, what about my perfect Zeal utopia…where all the guests are happy and flood our dining room daily, all the food is delicious and fairly priced, and all the employees are fully engaged and love the work they perform?  Ah, not so easy to execute I discovered.  The lesson that comes back over and over is that communication is so important to maintaining unity and helping everyone feel like they are valued and essential.  Take the tip pool as a case study in the importance of constant and open communication.  In February I was looking at potential revolt by the front of house crew and a looming walk out.  The communication started out well and during interviews and orientation we educated the staff about the plan to pool all gratuities and share them.  The point of tip pooling has merit, imagine a system that encourages a cooperative culture of teamwork and gives everyone the upside of earning tips to increase the value of their time worked. The idea is that employees in positions which normally do not interact much with guests are encouraged to jump in and help make the guest experience exceptional.  But this system broke down as those who were working the hardest to earn the tips felt like they were disproportionately compensated.  To make things worse, they didnt have any transparency into how the tips were being allocated and it was a bit of a surprise each pay period when they learned their pay.  Anyone that has worked in the service industry can appreciate that this is anathema to what normally occurs, and tips are usually taken home the same day they are earned.  So not only were the tips delayed, but they were a total mystery!

 To everyone except me, the man paying out the tips every two weeks.  So I had to make some adjustments and be up front with everyone about how the tips are divided and why pooling the tips is essential for the health of the restaurant and the philisophy of Zeal on an organizational level.  This meant explaining that one of the uses of the tip pool is to help out labor costs by offsetting wages.  Part of the business planning for Zeal involved accepting higher than normal food costs in order to source all of this high quality product, like organic and non-gmo vegetables, grains and fruits; local grass fed beef, local pastured organic pork and chickens, organic spirits, organic beer, organic nuts and milks, and so on.  Restaurant economics are simple, and the model is proven that if you can keep food and labor at about 30% a piece, then you can eek out some profit after you pay rent, utilities, and other operating costs.  But since organic costs so much more, I estimated our food costs at about 36%, which meant that labor had to offset it.  The way this could be accomplished was to pay a lower employee wage and make it up to everyone using the house gratuities.  Only, I never actually shared all this backstory this with everyone, and certainly not in enough detail that they knew what to expect.  So I apologized for neglecting to do this and gave everyone a complete description of the plan and the theory behind it.  We have lost a few people here and there, but I think overall the family is sticking together and while many of our servers would otherwise still prefer to keep their own tips, the pay is actually pretty good and the busier we are the more everyone takes home.

zeal_food_patio_earlyspringEveryone is looking forward to the warm weather and opening up the Zeal to Pearl St.  As part of the remodel of the space we occupy at 1710 Pearl St., we installed two eight-foot wide garage doors smack in the center of the front wall and can’t wait to have these open on a regular basis as warm weather sets in this Spring.  On Sunday March 9th I posted a picture on our Instagram page of what’s to come: it was a 70 degree day and a day full of sunshine and Pearl Street was alive with activity.  At about 1:00pm, and for the very first time, we opened both doors all the way up and they stayed wide open for about 3 or 4 hours.  It was a real scene to be proud of as the owner of this beautiful new restaurant, and people filled our outdoor patio, filled the restaurant, and even occupied the sidewalk outside of the patio talking to friends who were inside the railing.  Ah, it was a coming of age moment for this place.  Bring it on!

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