After ten days of sheltering in place, I finally started to clean out my home office and found this letter I had written back in 2016. I am still trying to remember what was happening at that time and why I was inspired to write this. Regardless, it seems appropriate to share this again now. I was feeling awkward for setting up a GoFundMe for the FigFamily since the restaurant is temporarily closed and we have had to lay off 95% of them with the hopes that we will reopen and hire them back. But by rereading this essay, I hope that any of our guests that we have touched over the past 22 years will consider donating — it would be a blessing to be able to write them each a check to help them get through this!
November 16, 2016
In this letter about community, I’ll share with you the two communities I serve — our guests and our staff. They are intertwined, they need each other; they are grapes & wine, milk & cheese, farmers & the land. Without one, there is not the other. So in that vein, I will tell you about my philosophy in service. I endeavor to please and to serve — to give happiness.
I constantly tell the staff that we have one main purpose during our time at the girl & the fig, and that is to make our guests happy. Authentically happy, eye to eye happy, silly laughter happy, or leave them alone happy. What happiness looks like in a restaurant setting means different things to different people, but, for my training purposes, I want the staff to be sure our guests know that we really care that they’re dining with us. I know they could be at any one of the other fantastic restaurants in our town, but they chose us — and we have a responsibility to make their experience special, memorable, satisfying and, sometimes, just to sate their hunger.
To do this, I want the service staff to be attentive to our guests’ needs, and if possible, to anticipate what they need even before they know it themselves. I want them to watch guests’ body language and look for signs of pleasure, oohs and aahs (or, sometimes frowns and scowls — ALERT — GET A MANAGER — FIX THIS NOW!)
Because Sonoma is a destination our guests come from all over, and so we need to decipher the level of conversation they may want during their meal. Should it be directional, educational, robotic or psychiatric? Of course, it is my pleasure for our staff to be Ambassadors of Sonoma, bragging about our history, the landscape, amazing wineries, open bottle policy on the Plaza, the farmers market (yes, even without the fig rig), places to see, hike, and, of course, my friends’ restaurants!
We are all part-time concierges in Sonoma, each of us with our own favorites and eager to share. For our “locals,” or Sonoma community, we need to welcome these guests back, and pick up where we left off the last time they visited, find out what is new with them and update them as to what is new with us.
When I began in Glen Ellen in 1997, we did this one table at a time, one day at a time, and this is how we built our business.
In the kitchen, this training in passing on happiness translates to COOK WITH LOVE, COOK WITH AMORE! Some of the guys think I am nuts or LOCO, but that’s okay — deep down they understand me and know that I am right.
Over the past 6 years (though it really started 19 years ago, but in a much bigger way 6 years ago) — we took Cooking with Love to a new level for us, and that was the beginning of the farm project.
John headed up the 3-acre farm, and we gathered a deeper understanding of the earth, the weather and the preciousness of “you reap what you sow”. We opened the farm to our staff — whomever has the desire to help, we want them to experience what it takes, the hard work and the joy.
The transformation from “farm to table” is certainly another ingredient to happiness, especially if you are experiencing it firsthand. Allowing our service staff to experience and then share with our guests the transition of a green tomato into a juicy red one; and then, how that pairs with watermelon & feta, might just be too much conversation for some — but for others, it’s what excites them about being in Sonoma.
The ways in which our food translates into happiness might take different paths; for some it will take them back to a childhood memory, or evoke a pleasant thought of an old friend, gathering or family member. For some, a meal will remind them of travel or a special occasion. Food for so many of us is just comforting to our soul — when we say — “That hit the spot!” I would venture to guess we aren’t talking about our hips.
As a creative making happiness for others, nothing is more rewarding than creating an incredible food/drink experience that will enhance a memory of its own, one that will last and will eventually be triggered by other things in the days and months ahead. Whether it be a cheese discovery, a new wine varietal, the chef’s special of the day — the flavors just right, the perfect seat on the patio, the smile from the busboy, or wedding food that your guests remember for years, a special bottle of wine shared with a special person — these are the things I live for.
I want your experience with the girl & the fig to create a lasting, joyful memory which will entice you to return time and time again, to tell your friends that they must visit and be part of our extended ‘fig family’.
This journey has been a cycle of give and take from the guests, the staff, the ego and the bank balance. We continue to learn something everyday in this business — nothing stays the same — we are in constant motion.
Fast Forward from 1997 and a staff of 17 to over 200 employees today — this is our community, or what I refer to as our ‘fig family’. We are a force of folks from all over the world, with many talents; a group of people who probably didn’t think they would be working at a restaurant called the girl & the fig in Sonoma to support their families or their next dream. Yet, each of their skills, whether natural or taught, are integral to the operation, as our restaurants cannot succeed as a team of one.
Building a strong leadership team begins with knowing how to combine talents and skills to create a balanced core. I love surrounding myself specifically with people whose skills and talents will teach me a thing or two. Yet in the end, it still goes back to the basics — Are we making our guests happy?
WAIT! Am I making my staff happy? What does it take to make the ‘fig family’ happy?
Of course a fair wage — that goes without saying. But what else does it take? How do we create a culture of people who want to serve, work hard, make others happy?
We are constantly learning how to answer this, because, like our guests, there is not a cookie cutter answer; also, like our guests, we try to have some variety and to take into consideration the different needs of different people -
I will start with RESPECT. Our staff deserves respect, clear communication, fairness and equality. FUN — We need laughter. Sometimes that is difficult in a busy restaurant, when you have to pay attention to not making a mistake, but LAUGHTER is contagious and I try to be silly and a goofball whenever I can just to shake things up. REWARD — our “fig rewards” recognize staff who go above and beyond. The staff can also nominate other staff members for these awards as — so they have to opportunity to recognize each other’s hard work, and it doesn’t just come from the top down.
Also, a PERSONAL touch — but not too personal. I care that our employees have a life outside of their job and we need to respect that. We also need to be there for them in times of strife. One of the biggest joys that I personally have in my business is getting to meet the staff’s’ children. When I look at them, I get to see a little more of who they are, and what their world is like. Finally — FOOD — a staff meal. We work in the food business — at the very least, I am going to feed the crew!
Will these things make them happy? I hope so! The ones who have been with us for 3 years, 8 years, 11 years, 14 years, 17 years — I guess we are doing alright for them. But we will always keep trying; it isn’t like us to settle for just okay or maybe!
So, there you have it. I am probably just scratching the surface, because I haven’t even begun to tell you about our fisherman, the resident artist, neighborhood fig growers, gardeners; our landlords, event planners, seed providers, grape growers, wine label designer … our community is quite large, and if I have anything to say about it, it will continue to grow!