Jason Hammel opened Lula Cafe in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood back in 1999. More than 20 years later, the award-winning farm-to-table institution is one of the city's most celebrated restaurants. For an industry with a high rate of first-year closures, Lula Cafe's longevity is a testament to what Hammel calls a youthful mindset. He joined us on the Pre-Shift Podcast to chat about the keys to Lula Cafe's longevity, how they changed after the pandemic, and how the industry has changed since they opened 24 years ago.
"I mean, I think about this all the time as I'm hoping to do another 25 maybe, or at least another five or 10. So what are the conditions that allow a restaurant to last as long as it does? I think we have a long history in the neighborhood that even predates us. We inherited a space and a lot of goodwill. I think really focusing on the foundations of our origin, which is being young, and being interested in community, and connections between people. Really focusing on that on a daily basis is what has kept us young and fresh into our 20s. I mean, I think staying open to change and having a youthful mindset, a beginner's mindset is one of the reasons why we made it this far. Keeping that will be, hopefully, the reason we keep going."
That youthful mindset permeates through everything from menu to the team experience.
"There is an element to that in the cooking. Meaning, we're willing to try new dishes and new ideas in the food. Not repeat dishes, not just recycle things that we've done in the past. I mean, that's a lot easier, but we've never done that because it creates a new, 'A-ha,' moment in a restaurant. I also think it's really respecting the paths of the young people who work for us. We're trying to work with them on what they want to do with their lives, and being engaged with that. I have a lot of great people who are studying to be psychologists, or in bands, and doing a lot of creative work. I like really being engaged with them, and allowing them to thrive in the space also keeps you open to change and maintains that beginner's mindset."
Lula has also been able to maintain many long-standing employees by recognizing that restaurants can be a career, and recognizing the role that a restaurant job can have in someone's life.
"I mean, Natalie Sternberg is our director of hospitality. She's been there since day one. Kendall Cost is a server who's been there over 15 years. My executive chef's been over there for over 10. So a lot of people."
What about the restaurant has enabled people to stay around for that long? I mean, nowadays, it's rare for people to stay at a restaurant for three months, six months, let alone 10 years. What have you done to create an environment where people are making it a career?
"I mean, I certainly think the restaurant industry has always been a career for certain folks. I want to emphasize that, that's very possible for people. Especially when they also have other pursuits that could work. Whether it's raising a family, or doing that kind of thing, or it's creative pursuits. I think that those sort of paths can cohabitate well.
That said, I think why they stay, I think because ... I mean, I hope that they're treated with respect, and compensated fairly, and that they like the team, and that being part of this team is something that's important to them in their lives, and that they ... They contribute a whole lot, and it would not be what it is without those people.
We had more previous to the pandemic. I had a really ... Staff that had been there for a really long time. I certainly felt the pain of losing some long-term employees. Not to other restaurants, but just to the industry in general when the pandemic happened and we came back. The ones that have stayed are even more special, more integrals to the space and the place. People come looking for them, and want to talk to them. They're as much a part of Lula as I am."
On Lula Cafe's website, they list their mission and values, which include creating joyful moments for the community, and promoting care, respect, integrity, safety, and transparency. Something that caught my eye when reading them while prepping for my chat with Jason, was that they were revised on June 8th, 2021. I wanted to understand why and what went into that revision.
"The pandemic gave us, as with many people, time to reflect. And obviously, the industry has a lot of reflecting to do. We just wanted to formalize the reflection process, so we set up a weekly meeting. There were only ... I think there were eight or 10 of us at that point, and we were not open for business, regular business. We were just doing takeout. We did that for a really long time.
And we met every week to sort of say, 'Well, what are we about? What do we want to be about once the imagined return to business actually happens? Let's list a number of values that we had pre-pandemic and some aspirational values, and meet to discuss that.' And we continue to have ... Well, we have a meeting scheduled tomorrow with the management team to continue to talk about the mission and vision of the restaurant. I think it's important to recognize that reflection and thoughtfulness about who you are, and what you want to be, and how you want to live is important. But then, you have to operationalize the ambitions you have ethically. And if you want to live a value-oriented and value-first business, it's not just about writing it down. It's about performing it and behaving it every day. That's where the hard part comes."
Totally. What were some of the things that changed when you went in and reworked that vision?
"Sure. I mean, the obvious one that a lot of people talk about is that we took on a service fee model and changed to minimum wage, which we had been using previously. To do what we could to rectify the historic imbalance between the front and the back of the house in terms of compensation. We made a lot of progress toward that. It's not a perfect situation by any means. Tipping and restaurant compensation in the United States is really fraught with complexities and difficulties. But we made a stab at it and we're sticking with it. It's working for us, and it did have an impact for the better on a lot of people's lives.
We also added some benefits that are ... We had always had 401K and health insurance as benefits, but we did add parental leave. We also have a better than industry standard PTO policy. Also vacation pay for people who have stuck with us for a while. The longer you work, the more paid time off that you will get. I do have people who can take vacations now, paid vacations."
One of the biggest changes that Hammel made was a shift from paying the tipped minimum wage, or a subminimum wage, to paying above the minimum wage. After decades of running the old model, the transition wasn't the smoothest, but it did lead to positive changes for the business, including better staff wellbeing, better attention, and little issues hiring.
"Transparency was difficult. We didn't do well in the beginning. It took us time to really figure things out. That said, we were committed to it in terms of a value. So we stuck with it during some rougher moments. And now we feel like we're in a good place with it. That was simultaneous to coming back, and we had limited seating. There were the whole fight over vaccinations, and just the whole turmoil of the pandemic. It wasn't a fair playing field in terms of trying a new model out, of course, and it did take time to settle into it. But yeah, it's certainly different. There's a lot of conversation around it. I haven't found it necessarily good for the business, but it's great for a lot of people on the team. And if you're only profit-minded, it's not the best choice for a lot of people. But if you're trying to take care of folks, and level out the playing field, it could be a good choice for some folks."
Now, it's one thing, of course, to write down and codify your core values, but as we've covered on The Pre-Shift Podcast a few times, you do have to put them into practice. It's different for every restaurant, every leadership team, every business. But the way that Hammel tackles this is through training and providing opportunities for education.
"I mean, one of the things that I think is lacking in restaurants is leadership training for management. We're trying to get there. It's really difficult to do when you're busy all day long every day. I think if a value is education, and you're having your staff meetings, and you're doing wine tastings, and you're teaching cooks how to cook. And it's all about teaching people who do not know something, that something so that they grow. And then they grow, and then they become managers, and then just everything stops.
You know what I mean? That's a huge problem. It's very endemic in the industry that learning stops at the manager stage. You become a sous chef and then you're like, 'Okay, I got to do the orders, and clean at the end of the night, and check people out,' and there's no development. That's something we're trying to work on. So operationalizing that means providing opportunities for people to grow, and educate. Even if they're managers.
Respecting folks' identity is something that is a value. Really paying attention to their needs, their life needs. Whether it's a scheduling situation, or a communication identity situation. Really respecting that in your language and in your behavior. That can be operationalized.
I mean, there are many examples like that, but the biggest one is really giving healthy feedback on a more regular basis, which does not happen enough in our industry, and does not happen enough in my restaurant. That's one of the top things that we're trying to focus on now, is giving constructive, helpful feedback in a timely manner so that people can grow, rather than punitive or controlling feedback once there's a problem. That's another way that we can operationalize that, by scheduling this and making sure my managers meet with team members on a regular basis, et cetera."
The communication transparency and education that Jason talks about, tells the story of how the restaurant industry has evolved, and not just since 2019. Having owned and operated Lula since 1999, Jason has a unique lens as to how the industry has changed.
"The resources to do their jobs effectively, means really listening and then responding to needs and requests. I think what's different now is I spend a lot less time doing. Like a lot less time cooking, or being on the line. And a lot more time trying to process how to be a better communicator as an organization. Like what parts of the organizations are not communicating in the most effective way, and which ones need more support to be able to communicate better. And then, less trying to listen to ... Listen in empathetic and active ways so that I can make the changes. Because restaurants are all about change. I mean, it's constantly about adapting, and change, and working on your feet. I think that employees expect a lot of transparency and communication, and they deserve that. And those are the standards we're trying to meet."
Absolutely. Maybe that's the biggest change, I think, overall ... They say the employees now are not the ones of 10 years ago, or there's a lot of talk about that kind of stuff, and this new generation wants different things. But I think at the very core of it, they just want to be communicated with in a clear and concise way that's not leaving people in the dark.
"For sure. And there was a lot of exploitation of people. Not in every restaurant, but in many. People are rightfully aware of that, and have learned to set boundaries for themselves, and that is 100% the direction we need to go."
Another piece of that puzzle is technology. When Lula opened online ordering, scheduling software, and kitchen display systems did not exist. But while Hammel recognizes their utility, he also knows that there are just some things that tech cannot replace.
"I think it's very helpful. I mean, certainly, scheduling software is incredibly, incredibly helpful when you have a team of 100 people needing to switch shifts, and communicate with each other. That's been a really helpful change, to adapt to that. I think that there are parts of my job, frankly, that I'm all about AI taking over. You know what I mean? Like expediting a 600-person brunch. I mean, looking at that, all those tickets and my 51-year-old brain processing how many of certain items are on fire at what time, and when to fire the next batch. A computer could definitely do a better job than me. I don't think that the computer would be very good at motivating the folks that are on the line to cook well when they're dealing with that. So I would love a system (and 7shifts, anybody, hear me out) that would process the information that's coming in, in a way that would better suit the line in terms of expediting.
I think that technology is probably going to come sooner than later, and I would love to use it. I don't think that would change the fact that I want to stand in front of them and say, 'That egg, I'd like you to not use that egg, and use that one, and this is why. Because that one looks better than this one, and this is why.' And the cooking technique can be changed to produce the better quality.
Or just to joke with them and be like ... When it's busy like that, you need some comradery. You need to feel like we're having fun at what we're doing, and not just getting beat up. That's going to still be my role, and to try to inspire and teach. My role does not need to be counting how many modified plates there are in a hundred-person pickup. Technology could do that better. So yeah, there's some things that human touch will never be replaced by."
As Lula Cafe enters their third decade of operations, Hammel and his team are looking to continue to evolve and keep that curious mindset that's kept them going throughout the years.
"I do want to advocate in the industry to continue leading with values of care and kindness. That's going to continue to develop in our space. And I want to develop people who want to grow on our team. I have a number of people who want to keep learning, and do new things. I'd like to be part of that process with them. I don't know where that's going to lead, but I've got great, great people on my team that want to grow. My next 25 years or whatever are going to be about supporting those people and their growth, and continuing to provide a community space that's kind, and generous, and thoughtful.
So that's just business as usual, but also nothing's usual in restaurants. It's a tough road and a challenge. I'm sure that there'll be some surprises down the road. And we have exciting things. We have a cookbook coming out in October, and we're looking forward to supporting that in some fun ways. And there's going to be a lot of fun things on the horizon."
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