How Kwini Reed Makes Intentional Restaurants at Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed

How Kwini Reed Makes Intentional Restaurants at Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed
D. J. Costantino

By D. J. Costantino

Kwini Reed fell into the restaurant industry by accident. She met her now husband and business partner, chef Michael Reed when he worked at Poppy + Rose in downtown LA. She now co-owns Poppy + Rose, Poppy & Seed, and Root of all Food, an LA-based catering company. She joined us on The Pre-Shift Podcast to discuss her philosophy on managing a team, including how she coaches managers. But first, Reed recounts how she followed her husband into restaurants.

"I kind of did it out of a self-serving type of thing where I was like, I never see him. At that time he was owning Poppy + Rose along with his other business partners until I came along and bought them out. And then he had the catering company and then he was also a consultant at several other different restaurants and hotels. So I was like, I never get to see him, so either I might as well join him, or I might as well just chalk this relationship up to the game. Right. So that was my introduction. I started doing private catering events with Michael and then that grew into us wanting to buy out the other partners of Poppy + Rose. We bought those people out, and then we ran straight into the pandemic. So basically I joined the ownership structure in September of 2019. March 16th, 2020, we were in the pandemic, kind of rested a little bit, and then we decided to open up Poppy & Seed in 2021."

The challenge of opening a new restaurant and taking over an existing one was met head-on with the pandemic, which gave Kwini and Michael the opportunity to decide what kind of business they wanted to run and decided to make it an intentional one.

"Well, that kind of really grew out of the pandemic time honestly. When I joined the team, Poppy + Rose was just Poppy + Rose. It served a purpose. It was cute for brunch, but because it didn't grow out of, like you were saying, a business model, we never had to really think about what we stood for or who we were or what we wanted to leave on our mark as far as the restaurant industry. And so during the pandemic, it gave us time, one, to slow down and kind of figure out what we wanted to do just as the business. Because at this point my idea was like, oh, okay, Poppy's a brunch restaurant. I seen the books. I really don't need to be there. I can continue working my own job, right, which I was a controller at that time. Before I entered in with Michael, I was a controller for a fashion brand.

So I had my own kind of career path and I didn't realize it was going to be a lot more work than trying to do two and then having a baby. So at that time I told him, I said, this is too much. I have to do one or the other and it doesn't make sense to hire someone at Poppy + Rose when I can do this. And so once I quit, it gave me time to really start to think about, okay, now I'm not on the career path that I was on before. What are we going to do? Right. Because Poppy + Rose is cute, but you're not a brunch chef. You're classically trained. You did that out of necessity. This is not what you want to be known for. So what do you want to do? And so when we started to think about our growth, we started to have to think and prioritize how do we get there? Right.


And so I told him, I was like, well, during the pandemic we had to kind of really jump into community because that was the only thing that was keeping us alive. It really touched me when the doors closed and our people were like, we'll come and work for free. We need for this to stay and we're here and we're in it together. And then that allowed us to start giving back and really think about our employees and the community. But then when we started to come out of the pandemic, right, because when we were in the pandemic, it was like, ah, it's crazy. And everybody was just going, just trying to float. But then when we had to reset and when we started hiring for Poppy & Seed, that's when it really became apparent that we really needed to start focusing on our employees' type of, like their health.

And then I started to reflect on how it felt for me. Remember I said I never saw him, I never saw Michael. I had to either join him or just let this go. Right. And so I started taking a kind of view from where I was when I was just the chef's wife and how that made me feel, as to, he's overworked. By the time he gets home, he doesn't have anything to give to us. So in that, I was granted and was honored to be a part of the Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership Program for James Beard. And in that, one of our electives in Cornell was strategic marketing. And in that strategic marketing, they had a portion that was on internal marketing.

And so we started to really prioritize that not only, because we're doing all the good things on the outside. When you walk through Poppy + Rose, we had affirmations and we were doing the community outreach and feeding the homeless and everything like that, but we weren't really thinking about how mentally straining it was during the pandemic and then how before the pandemic, the restaurant industry was toxic and the way that they handled their employees. And so once I got out of that program, I told Michael, I said, we really have to start focusing on and being intentional with our employees because we want them to be whole human beings. We want them to be able to go out and invest in what they like to do because they're not just the server, they're not just the line cook. They're not just the host, they're not just the kitchen manager. They're people outside of here.

And if we want to start to see our restaurant and our industry come back, we're going to have to start doing the work and making sure that we are treating people like people and giving them time to be good human beings. It made no sense to me that people were working you to death and then say, 'But I need for you to be at top of your game'. That's stupid. The whole time. Right. Meanwhile, I'm over here cracking, but I'm looking at them and I'm just like, okay, we can't do this. We have to treat them, we have to walk it, like we talk it. I started, when me and Michael got together, I told him, I said, it's important that we take vacations for our mental health. Being a creative, you need to reset. And the way that you do that is getting out of the place that you're in right now.

So that you're able to level yourself. And so I was like, we have to foster that with our employees. And that's what I mean about being intentional. We think about their wellbeing. Some things are out of our control. Okay. When you get short-staffed, like well, you're going to have to work six days this week. That's out of my control. Right. But I can do things like make sure that we're doing weekly or monthly check-ins with them just to see how they're doing as people. You okay? You all right in there? Also giving them space to be able to exercise mental health. So I give them books and things like that to read.

Also giving them the time off that they need and also trying to make sure that they're scheduled to have two days off consecutively together. Just those types of things. Making sure that we're not working 90 or 100 hours in a two-week work period. That should be 80 hours. Just those types of things that we can control. And then making sure that we're ingesting positivity in them. So that even comes with our standups and how our managers interact."


It's important to recognize what goes into creating an intentional restaurant. It doesn't go from being written out and planned to existing seamlessly in the real world. It's constantly being worked on and iterated. But where Reed has found success is by focusing on her people.

"I mean, it's a little bit of both. Right. So you have to start with the intent. And it was like, this is the company that we need to be. Right. We're a for-the-people company. That means that we're for-people on the side of what's happening socially, economically, and also what's happening inside of our restaurant because they're people too. Right. And so then the second step was Michael and I are only, we're only two people. Right. And so now we have to find managers that are going to articulate what we're saying. So I started, and I do this on a basis. So podcasts like these, I send them to my managers so they can hear me talk and they can hear the passion coming out of me and they can start understanding how I see it. And then I give them books to read like Conscious Capitalism. Right. We need to be conscious and then Conscious Leadership.

So that one, we need to be conscious with our money. So when you're out there looking for places and people that we can partner with for our donations, we also need to be conscious about our leadership and how we're leading people. Right. Because I think about everything all in its totality. Like right now we're in a mental crisis in the world. Right. It's not just in the restaurant industry, it's everywhere. Right. You just walking down the street, people just start fighting and because somebody bumped up next to them at the park, like just weird things. And now we're having all these gun violence and mass shootings and all these things, and this all boils down to the mental health and how we feel about ourselves. So training the managers, and now I'm at the part where it was like, okay, now we need to articulate this in words and put it in a training manual and make sure that our training manual and our SOPs are speaking the way that we're embodying this brand.

And so it's a little bit of both. We had to start with the intention is like, this is the way we're going, if you can't get with this. So even when I'm interviewing our managers, and the hardest part is that our managers are a lot older than a lot of the service part, the front of the house and stuff like that. And so they're very used to the old way. Right. And so even though they didn't like it, that's just what they're used to. That's how they know how to manage. And so it's also about dismantling what they believe is management. Right. And retraining them on, okay, it's kind almost like gentle parenting. Right.

So you had authoritative parenting and now it's like, let's do the gentle parenting and we have to retrain parents how to parent with the people that we have now and the situation and where the mental health is right now. And so it's adding, subtracting, starting with the intent, kind of always evolving, looking for new things and new systems that I can put in place to add towards that. Perks, time for them to build on their comradery, to connect to each other. So I'm constantly always rebuilding and re-tweaking. But it started with the initial intent of this is where I wanted to see not just our business, but the totality of the industry."


Now Kwini and Michael are just two people with two restaurants and a catering company. They can't be in as many places at the time as they'd like to be. So they have to rely on their general managers to maintain the culture while they're not there. And that all begins with hiring the right people. And once they're on board, engaging in constant communication with them and finding out what they need.

"It starts in the interview process. So I ask specific questions. I will ask, I ask triggering questions honestly, to kind of see and social questions. So I'll be like, well, how do you feel about LGBTQ+IA? Do you respect people's pronouns? I start from there. How do you feel about the social things that are happening within the world? If there's one thing that you can change about your experience as a server or manager or whatever your role was into the hospitality industry, what would that be? What is your most important thing that you're looking at with your employees? So I look at that thing. If you come and tell me, well, I want to know how much they're earning. I'm kind of like, that's a part of it. But in order for you to earn, because the floor is a stage, you have to be in the right frame of mind.

Right. That's kind of hard to be like, okay, I'm supposed to be going out here making these people happy, and my world is crumbling. So I ask those questions just to see how they think. I ask them questions like, okay, if an employee comes to you and tells you that they want to kill themselves, what would be your response? That's happened to me. I didn't know what to do. Right. So it's like, or how do you deal with someone who's having a tough time on the floor because somebody, I go to the extreme, right, because if we can imagine the worst things that's happening and you handle it like that everything in between will be a piece of cake. So what if somebody's really dealing with their sexuality and it's showing, you can tell that they're really dealing with coming out or wanting to change their gender.

How do you deal with that? If somebody comes into you and says, 'Hey, I feel like I was just racially profiled because I'm Black', because you are with Black owners. How do you react to that? What do you think is, and so I asked them triggering questions like that just so I can see how their brain works and how they actually even care about people. Right. If you have a disgruntled customer and he's cussing people out, how do you deal with that person? Right. Do you deal with it as just hopping up and wanting to call the cops? Or do you take a stance of compassion? Which I would like for you to take the stance of compassion. Right. And I'm not asking you to put yourselves in harm's way. Now if somebody's acting crazy, please call the police. But how about you just go ask them to leave first? Then if there's a problem, then you call the police. Because I want to always make sure everyone is safe.


So in the interviewing process, I ask those things. I also ask them, how do you deal with pressure and stress in your own life? I'm looking for them to say, I meditate, I take a walk, I hike, I like to cook. So that I understand that they understand how to decompress. I also ask, do you take vacations, staycations, right? Because that needs to be a priority to them so that when someone comes and asks for a week off or four days, they're not like, oh my God, the restaurant needs you. They're figuring it out, how to give that person that week off because that's what that person needs. Right. And so from there, once they're hired on, like I said, every time I do like this podcast, I'll send it to them so that if I'm saying things that I haven't said to them before, they're able to capture it and then I give them books.

And so what I'm starting now, because now I have two really good, I'm at the position where we have two really good GMs. And so what I did previously is that I give them a book. So we're going to start with Conscious Leadership. I read it every single time. So this will be my third time reading it. And we read chapter by chapter, and then we have a monthly manager's meeting where we talk about the book. And so it gives them a month to read the chapter because Lord knows we're all busy. And half the time when I come home, it's like giving homework. It's like, now you going to give me homework? I've already been at work all day. Right. So it's like, but at least you can finish a chapter in a month. Right. And so that gives us time to reflect and kind of talk about, and then I'm able to hear ideas because I want them to think about how they treat their employees.

And I want them to come up with more avenues and more ways to foster that relationship. And then I do the check-ins that I expect for them to have with their employees. So I'm actually going to have one today. 'Hey, how are you doing? How are you doing? Let's not talk about work, but just how are you doing? Are you okay?' Then we'll go into, 'Okay, so how's the job for you? Is there anything that I'm missing that I can help you with? Is there anything that you've asked me for that I haven't given you? Because hey, I haven't, look I'm not at the place where I need to have an assistant yet, so I might drop the ball. So I'm only human too. I get stressed out, I get overwhelmed and sometimes I drop the ball'. And so I do check-ins with them like that.

And then I ask, have you checked in with your employees? Is there anyone that we need to just slide a note to and say, 'I see you. Here's a gift card. I appreciate you'. Is there someone that needs a pep talk? Because I'm really good at doing that. If they let me know, then I'll sit in. That personal time with talking to the owner is big for them. They look at me as mom, so do I need to go mother somebody for a second? Like kind of let me know where I can interject to help keep your team mentally sound. And that's kind of what that looks like. It's kind of like, it's always an open dialogue. I want them to have autonomy over their positions and for them to kind of lead it. I don't always want to have to lead it and I have to give them that space.

So on their weekly check-ins and their weekly, I'm always asking them, okay, employee retention, do you have any ideas for? Any more KPIs that we can be paying attention to? Any more rewards that we can be giving and building in to let our employees know that they're appreciated, to make them feel good about coming to work? And then also having an open communication with you guys so that we can always be there as an aid. Now we're not trying to take the part of being their therapist or anything like that, but it doesn't take a lot from someone just to ask you how are you doing? And then if they respond and say, 'I'm struggling', then you can say, 'Well, hey, you know what we can see about maybe helping you get therapy if you're interested in that'. Because what I found is that you can give employee benefits and they're not using it.

And so now we're paying monthly for these benefits, right, which is a waste of money and they're not using it. But we do one-offs. So if someone is really hurt, someone fell. It wasn't even on our dime. They were drunk on their own time on the weekend having a good time and fell off the curb and twisted her ankle. Right. And I knew that she didn't have medical insurance, but I went to her and I was like, 'I know that this is going to be a strain. How can we help?' I was like, 'Do you have a doctor?' She's like, 'I don't have a doctor'. I said, 'Okay. So the first thing we're going to do is we're going to put you on Teladoc. Yeah. I'm going to need you on Teladoc. Let's see what the doctor says on there'. Right.

'And then if not, if they say, you need to go to urgent care, we'll send you urgent care. We'll pay for the urgent care bill, right, just to aid, because we can do that'. And so those are the things that kind of like, the follow-through and how we try to be again, intentional with making sure that that's top of mind and that we're doing check-ins that way."


With Kwini's front of house and Michael's back of house working well, they've turned their attention to making sure both teams work together cohesively, which has proved difficult in the past. The all-too-common division between both sides of the restaurant is still apparent. And Kwini's worked to solve it by making everyone walk in another shoes for a little bit.

"The back of the house has kind of been like, Poppy + Rose, they've been together for a minute. They've been together starting from the pandemic. So they're a very, very close-knit team. Now the task is to get the front of the house there now that we have managers that have been there longer than four or five months. And then the next step would be to make it extremely cohesive from the front of the house to the back of the house. So that's my next step because the divisiveness between the front of the house and the back of the house is crazy to me. It's like, it's a competition, like who's better. And it's like, okay guys, we're all working for one concerted effort, which is the guest. So let's kind of like, it's not, well, the front of the house isn't doing this and the back of the house is... So we're trying to bridge, yeah, kind of bridge that gap. And how we're doing that is through training.

So the front of the house actually spends a week in the kitchen, and then the kitchen staff actually comes out. They run, they do expo, especially at Poppy & Seed, the back of the house runs the food to the table. So we train them in that so that they can have an appreciation for what each other does. And then they can understand how to work together more as a cohesive team."

So the front of the house works in the kitchen for a week?


Like on prep or?

"Yeah. So they start in the dish pit. They do like, and it's a couple of hours a day. So it's not the whole shift. What they going to do back there. They don't know how to cook, but it changes.

But at least, because I was blown away when, like I had never worked in a restaurant before Poppy + Rose, and then Poppy & Seed was my first dinner restaurant. So it's amazing to me what it takes to work on the line. Too much. Couldn't do it. When I spent an hour and a half on a busy brunch service, I was like, first of all, I need to go take a walk and smoke a cigarette. And I don't even smoke cigarettes because I'm overwhelmed. That was a lot. I don't understand how you guys do it. It's too much for me. My heart is racing still and the tickets are gone. So it gave me, and then when I had to wash dishes one day in the dish pit, I was like, 'Oh, okay, this is serious. This is a lot. This is too much'.

It gave me a different appreciation for the kitchen hands down. So I think that it's important that they stand there. They stand on the side of the hotline, ask questions. Well, why are you doing that? Because that's what I do to them. Well, what's that? Well, what's that right there? Why are you doing it like that? Because we don't know. They don't know what confit means. They don't know what sous vide means. They don't know what emulsion means. They don't... So it's like with those types of things it allows them to one, they start to learn and know the back of the house. They start to build rapport with each other. And then two, they're understanding what it takes when that ticket comes in, what it takes to get that plate on the table. Then also when you mess up tickets, what happens to the line and why your food is taking a little bit longer. So all of those dynamics, I feel, adds to a better type of team environment."

@poppyandrosela No because the brunch grind is non stop 😮‍💨😍 #fyp #brunchtok #lafood #laeats #socalfood #losangelesfood ♬ original sound - Jayrad

And then what does the back of house do. Do they do stuff at the front of house?

"So they come out and they polish. This is more for Poppy & Seed. Because Poppy + Rose are so fast that everybody's busy all the time. Right. But for Poppy & Seed, they come out, they polish, they help set the table, they set up the dining room with them, and then they run food to the table. So they're getting feedback from the guests because I feel like, honestly, it's like the songwriters. Right. I look at it this way because I come from entertainment. Right. So the songwriters never really get to see or feel how their song is being received from the person, Beyonce singing it or whoever's singing it. And then the crowd is giving her the response and she's on stage and she's feeling all of what the crowd's response to the song that they wrote. That's kind of like the back of the house. Right. So the front of the house comes out, they didn't create the menu, they didn't cook it, but they're out there selling it, making it sound good.

And they're hearing everything that this is amazing. Oh my God, the way that it's plated. It's so beautiful, the flavors, but the back of the house never gets to hear that because they're on the line. They don't get to see the vibe and they don't get to feel that. So we wanted them to start running the food to the table so that they can be a part of the experience too, so that they can hear the guests say that, 'Oh my God, this looks beautiful' when they drop it on the table. Those types of things.

And so it also allows them to talk to the guests. They have to know kind of what pairs well with the dish, because somebody would ask them, 'Hey, do you guys have a wine that can go with this?' So, instead of, we don't want them to be like, 'Let me get your server'. They should be able to like, 'Hey, yes, we have a wonderful red blend of blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That'll go great with that. I'll let your server know. Would you like that glass or a bottle?' Go back to the server and tell them, 'Hey, blah, blah, blah'. So now they're working as a cohesive team."

Another tactic that Reed uses to keep open communication is an open book policy, which allows employees to look into the restaurant's numbers and how the role affects the bottom line. That sounds like a wild idea to you. You're not alone and Reed understands it, but they have figured out a way to share just enough information to have a positive impact.

"I didn't want to, at first, honestly. I'm really, because I'm a controller, it's personal to me. Right. I don't want anybody to look at my books and be like, 'Well what? I thought that we were doing more than what we were doing'. And kind of get a connotation. Yeah, and then it's like first of all, you don't know what I had to do to do that, sir. You know what I'm saying? Now I have an attitude and now everybody's upset. But what I realized is that I need them to understand how everything works and when they make decisions, what that affects. Right. And so it's like when you start to understand money that way and reading the P&L, not only am I the one looking at how to cut expenses and very, it's on my radar and very, it's right in my face, but then they'll be looking at ways to make sure that they're controlling costs.

But then also, I can't hold them to KPIs or a standard and saying that you need to control costs if they don't know what the hell the costs are, right? So it's like I'm saying that you need to control costs here, but they're not seeing everything else that plays into that. So it's not setting them up for success, it's setting them up for failure if I keep the books from them. Right. So what I did was I started a system called Craftable, which there's several out there, got Craftable, MarginEdge, xtraCHEF that goes with Toast. They're the same type of platforms. And what that allows, one is that it holds basically all your money that's basically happening through the restaurant. And then 7shifts is optimizing the labor. Right. And so now we have the labor tool and we have Craftable tool. It brings it all together.

And then in Craftable there is a side of it called analytics, which allows them to see their labor and then their costs, also their operational costs, because I have them put all of the invoicing in, so I don't have to necessarily open QuickBooks because that's what a lot of people are afraid of. Like a lot of restaurateurs are like 'I don't want you to know how much debt I'm carrying because that's my debt. Right. I don't need for you to know that we took out a loan' and that's what people feel like they don't want people to know, which is fine. Your general managers and all that, they don't need to know that. They don't need to know how much it took to get the restaurant there. Right. They don't need to know how much debt. All they need to know are the things that they are controlling. And so with analytics, since they're putting all the invoicing, that's even non-inventory items like the security invoices, anything like that, Cintas, okay, they're putting that all there.


So it's bringing in all the costs from everywhere. The only thing that it's not going through is like LADWP, that type of stuff. So they're able to see the health and what they have on Craftable is a heartbeat. And so every week when we're in our meetings, we go and we look at that. You can see what the comps and voids ratios are, what your sales versus labor is, what you're trending, the forecast. So you can kind of plan. And all of that is working together. And what I found is that it allows them to be better managers and control costs. And now it's not so much a burden on me. Now, I don't have to constantly, always scrubbing, always scrubbing, always scrubbing. They're actually doing a part of the work too.

And now you have a system of controls. Right. So how being a controller works is that you have all these different systems of control, and that means that there's different eyes on this one function. Right. So now it's just not my eyes, and now I don't feel as overwhelmed. So now all I can pay attention to is ding, ding, ding, what I didn't want them to see. And that's the debt."

With two successful restaurants and catering company, Kwini and Michael have turned their sights on restaurant number three. It's yet to be named, but we have a good guess it'll start with Poppy. In the meantime they have a ton of exciting events, but I'll let Kwini tell you about it.

"On the horizon now, what we're gearing up towards, is our new build, which will be in West Harbor, which is opening in hopefully like September of 2024. So that's on the horizon. We have a lot of programming that's going to be happening with Poppy + Rose and Poppy & Seed. So look out for that. Like special wine dinners, beer dinners, collabs, those types of things. And then we're always doing a lot of community outreach. So constantly, just always check our Instagrams @poppyandrosela for Poppy + Rose and @poppyandseedoc for Poppy & Seed. My Instagram is @kwiniland. And Michael's is @chefmichaelreed. And you can always keep up with the new things that's always popping up for us."

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D. J. Costantino
D. J. Costantino

Hi! I'm D.J., 7shifts' resident Content Writer. I come from a family of chefs and have a background in food journalism. I'm always looking for ways to help make the restaurant industry better!