Cynthia Thurlow Cruver: Hello! Welcome back to another exciting episode of Cosmic Soup. I’m Cynthia Thurlow Cruver and today we’re going to turn things upside down. Our guest has spent years in the food industry in a number of capacities as a chef, a general manager, a caterer, an event coordinator, and even an instructor. On top of that, he spent over a decade leading retail teams to top-tier results and has become known in both industries as a fixer and an innovator. You might recognize him as the voice of Cosmic Soup. Say hello to executive chef and podcast guru Mike Peacock. Well, hello, Mike.
Mike Peacock: [Laughter] Hey. How’s it going, Cyn?
Cynthia: It’s great. Welcome to the other side of the cosmos.
Mike: I know, right?
Cynthia: How does it feel to be in the hot seat?
Mike: It’s backward. Everything is backward. I’m in the alternate universe and I’m trying to wrap my head around this. On Stranger Things I think they call it, we’re in the upside-down.
Cynthia: [Laughter] We are in the upside-down. Is the soup smelling? What’s the soup doing?
Mike: I know, right.
Cynthia: Let’s just get started. I have a lot of questions to ask you.
Cynthia: First, for the audience, I have to tell them and I think we’ve said this on another episode, but Mike and I used to work together when I owned a restaurant. It was a casual, upscale bistro called Café Destino and Mike was the restaurant manager and the chef.
He’s an amazing chef. The favorite dish, my favorite dish, Mike—I wanted to tell you this—was amatriciana. You introduced me to that recipe and that dish.
I never quit my day job. I would come back from the agency and I would dine at the restaurant. I probably gained 20 pounds I think.
Mike: [Laughter] That’s the downside of working in the food business, as I have now found, myself coming back to the business, that I probably need to exercise a little more. But that’s really cool.
Yeah, I absolutely loved that period of time in my life. I’m very nostalgic about that. That entire experience was pretty mind-blowing, all the cool stuff we did.
The fact that you remember that particular dish is epic to me because that’s one of my favorite dishes and it’s not a very well-known dish. It’s kind of one of those really eclectic, only certain people really know about it. It’s a very traditional dish that has pancetta, kalamata olives, tomatoes, a wine reduction, and your pasta. It’s really, really cool and very rustic.
Some people, I think, have a hard time getting it right. As you and I were talking about, there are a lot of places out there that might give it a shot. I feel like it has a 50/50 success rate of when I go out and order it.
But the fact that you like that particular dish, to me, is just awesome. Thank you. That’s so cool.
Cynthia: Well, I’ve never forgotten it and that’s been like 20 years. [Laughter]
Mike: I know, right. Man, that’s – I just feel super old now.
Cynthia: A long time. [Laughter]
You have such a diverse background, not only in the restaurant business but also in retail. How did you move from restaurants into retail and then now you’re back in the culinary field? Do you want to talk about that?
Mike: Yeah, that’s a very long story but the cliff notes version is that when I had to move away from Destino, I took another job at a restaurant that I shall not name but that I absolutely hated so bad – such a terrible place. It was very hectic and, at that time, my now wife Marsha, whom you know, when we decided to get married we were both working in the restaurant business.
As you know, the hours in that industry can be pretty nuts. I think at that time, I was pulling 60-, 70-hour weeks running a kitchen at another place. Marsha was working in restaurants as well, doing front of the house managing and working 50-, 60-hour weeks.
We just decided that we really needed to kind of take a break from that industry just so that we could enjoy some time, get married, and have “real people lives,” as we try to say. Then we found out that we both still are just busy people and we don’t stop. Our brains don’t stop. There’s always something in motion, so there really never was any kind of a time to relax and enjoy things. We just kind of, I guess, had already forged that path in our blood.
A friend of mine was running a retail store and it was a store that I used to shop at. This was a guy that I used to cook with when I was first learning how to cook. I was in the store one day and he’d mentioned that he was getting a different job. He had heard, somehow, and I don’t know because I’d never told him that I was looking to make some changes. He got me an interview with his district manager and it was a very short interview process. They brought me on almost immediately. That was a 14-year project in the making there.
Cynthia: I was just going to say that, in retail and the restaurant business, you’ve been a fixer in both industries. Did you see a similarity between them? Fixing operations and management in a restaurant versus a retail store, what’s the difference?
Mike: That’s a great question. I think, really, when it comes down to operations and management, there is a ton of crossover. A lot of the philosophies are kind of the same.
What I noticed a lot was, moving out of restaurants and getting into retail management, you run into a lot of the same things. For instance, there are challenges with schedules. There are challenges with staffing and onboarding. There are challenges with cleanliness, organization, training, and all that kind of stuff. All the skills that you learn in the restaurant business, that directly translated to the retail sector. I had no issues whatsoever adapting to that.
There are different products that you deal with but in the sense of, like, customer service – How do you talk to people? How do you talk to your employees? How do you go about planning your day? How do you hold people accountable? How do you put things in motion? – other than the product being different, the process as far as managing goes was nearly identical. I just wasn’t working 70-hour weeks.
Cynthia: [Laughter] Well, here’s my kudos for you. Mike Peacock, you are the master of staying calm in a crisis.
Cynthia: I’ve seen it time and again, being patient, and you’re really good at teaching people how to do things. I think that makes you a stellar manager of any kind.
Mike: Thank you. That’s a huge compliment. I will be the first to admit that it wasn’t always that way. [Laughter] I do come from the background that I was trained by a guy that was very similar to the Gordon Ramsey mentality where he was a yeller. He was a screamer. He did cuss at you, throw things, and make you feel about two inches tall.
Early on in my career, I think that I found myself somehow adapting that and then, at one point, I said, “Whoa! We’ve got to put the brakes on this. This is not how things are done.”
Then I made it a conscious effort to say, “Listen. There’s a better way to do things.” Yeah, so I adopted really more of a calm, almost passive technique. There are still ways to do that and make sure things happen without scaring people into submission.
Cynthia: Yeah, I find that when people are scared, they just don’t do their best work.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely. You get so intimidated; you actually are making it worse.
Cynthia: Exactly. If you think back to the retail days, your restaurant days, and then I would even say currently in your current role as a culinary coach in senior living communities, are there common trouble areas that you find across all industries?
Mike: I really do. I keep going back to this but, first and foremost, staff morale. I think, really, when I go into a place and the first thing I do is I take a look at, what are the employees like and what’s the management like? If your morale is low, your people are unmotivated. They’re not performing.
It’s usually not a capability issue. It’s usually either a morale issue or a motivational issue. Then usually if it’s a morale or a motivational issue, it really has to do with probably poor management. That’s rampant probably in all industries. Then it comes down to also lack of training.
A lot of these places use labor as the first course of expense cutting, and that just drives me absolutely nuts. “Oh, hey, look. We’re going above budget,” or we’re doing this or we’re doing that. Let’s just cut the labor pool. Then, all of a sudden, you run short-staffed and your people are freaking out. Your customers are getting terrible service.
I see that all the time. Then your managers don’t have time to actually manage because now they’re job coding and they’re running around like crazy. Now they’re working 60-, 70-hour weeks. You run into that. That always seems to be a thing.
The similarities with writing schedules, task management, cleanliness, maintenance, expectations, coaching, onboarding, inventory, all that stuff is so similar. You run into, when they start to fall behind on stuff, the similarities just go from there.
I have a thing with people not managing effectively, poor communication, high turnover, inefficient workflow. In my opinion, in a lot of industries, in restaurants and retail, I think there’s way too much emphasis on the process and not enough on developing and training. I think that’s really where the root of the bulk of the problems lie.
Cynthia: Yeah, I agree with that. I think also there’s a heavy emphasis on the process but maybe not the results so much.
Cynthia: I think it’s awesome to work backward, like, what is the result? If it’s creating a happy customer who is satisfied, that’s the result we’re looking for.
Mike: Yeah. Right.
Cynthia: There might be a hundred different ways to get there and you should feel, as an employee, to be empowered to get there however you can without breaking the rules, right?
Mike: Yeah. Absolutely.
Cynthia: What’s your approach to fixing those issues when you go into a business? What is your philosophy on that? How do you fix these problems?
Mike: Well, you’ve got to work with the people. That’s really what it comes down to. I believe in, I guess you’d call it, a four-tiered approach. You have to demonstrate what needs to happen.
Well, first, you have to explain it, right? Here’s what we have to do. Then you have to show people how it’s done. That also reinstates that you can do the stuff that you’re asking them to do.
Then you watch them do it. Then you give them feedback. It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t have to be that difficult, but you have to set the tone.
You have to show people that you’re willing to get in the trenches and do the stuff that you’re asking them to do, and you have to be able to do it yourself. That’s an important step to not overlook. When people that are asking you to do things aren’t capable of doing things, if you’re working directly with them, it definitely leads to a respect gap and it also leads to, how do you solve the problem if you can’t be a part of the solution?
You also have to explain the “why.” It’s important that people understand why they’re doing things, especially if there are some major changes. You know as well as anybody that I hate the phrase, “But we’ve always done it that way.”
I’ve talked about this a million times. I despise that phrase just about more than any other phrase in the lexicon of forever, “We’ve always done it that way.” Well, you’ve always done it wrong. [Laughter] That’s usually my comeback.
You have to explain to people, “Hey, we’re going to do it like this because this is the effect on this and this makes things more easy. You’ll find that you have more time. You’re going to put out better stuff.” You have to tell them why you’re asking them to do things and you have to be tactful. You have to be honest. People want to know where they are. You have to explain to them if they’re not doing a good job.
Today’s culture tells you that you’re not allowed to tell people they’re not doing well. I get the fact that you don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. But, at the same time, I myself have always been, “Hey, listen. If I need to fix something, let me know now. Don’t tell me a year later when I get a review that I’ve been screwing up the entire year and I had no idea.” Right?
Mike: That’s very common. I think people don’t get feedback. It’s not enough to tell somebody that you’re not doing good enough, but then you will turn around and walk away and not offer them any assistance.
You have to celebrate the wins. When somebody does something awesome, you need to let them know, “Dude, that was killer! Great job!” But you have to be able to say, “Listen, this is where we need to be. This is where we currently are. Let me show you how to get there.” Then you have to commit to doing that.
Working on fixing issues, that’s always my approach and it always has been my approach. I don’t see that changing. It’s really about the people and it’s about the leadership. I think if you get people on your side rather than make them afraid of you, they’re more likely to work with you. Your turnover is going to be less. Your results are going to be better.
When people have pride in their work, they just do a better job. You’ll find that they’ll ask for more. “Hey, let me do this. Let me take this on. I’d like to try this.” Awesome. That’s a win.
Cynthia: That’s true because you’re respecting their intelligence, number one. Then, number two, you’re being honest. I think when people feel comfortable like they can trust the word of their manager, then they’re way more likely to continue to try and ask more questions and continue to improve. The feedback loop is huge.
Cynthia: When this started, as you know, at our company talking about radical candor, and there are methods to give people feedback. You give people a couple of pieces of positive feedback and then you say, “However, I think you could be doing this better.”
Cynthia: That is definitely helpful for coaching, which brings us around to the subject of coaching.
Cynthia: That’s what we’re talking about here is coaching and mentoring. Now you’re back in the foodservice industry working as a culinary coach. You’re fairly new to the industry and have been learning, with Shawn, the ins and outs of communities. Coming from a long break of food service, did you find anything that surprised you in senior living? We try not use the word “senior” but sometimes we just have to.
Cynthia: In retirement communities or communities for older adults.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, I would say that there were quite a bit of surprises. I think the first thing I noticed, especially in the first community, was like, oh, my gosh. Look how huge these kitchens are. They’re epic. Some of them are really nice. There are tons of potential.
But you know what I realized? I went into this place, huge facilities, tons of equipment, really outdated ideas, everything from food ideas, production, presentation. I did notice; I was surprised by how many people were there that were kind of going about their own ways with no guidance. They were just kind of doing it like robots.
I was also surprised to see how much food was prefab, stuff that was just being brought in versus scratch production considering how these facilities are laid out. Stuff that was really blowing my mind were things like foods that are cheap to buy fresh, things like carrots and potatoes, really shelf-stable items were also being brought in frozen. I’m like, “Why would you buy frozen potatoes?” other than hash browns for breakfast or something. What’s the point? You’re not saving any money and you’re not saving any time.
Frozen carrots, you can buy fresh baby carrots. Frozen baby carrots, I don’t understand. What’s the point?
Mike: You’re spending more money to portion out these bags of frozen carrots than you would be if you bought an entire case of fresh. Yeah, so stuff like that.
Cynthia: Well, kid you not, I’ve seen freeze-dried hash browns in a carton.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. My dad used to buy those when we were a kid and we’d go camping, so I always call those the camping browns.
Mike: Yeah, and I was also surprised at how much old stuff was floating around, stuff that clearly hadn’t been used in I’m talking years, things with expiration dates from like years ago because, again, these places are so huge. Possibly menus changed and leadership changed. Stuff just gets lost or crammed in a corner somewhere and then buried behind other stuff. Yeah, there were tons of surprises.
I think it just really came down to, I expected it to operate more like a restaurant and, clearly, that’s not the case. You have this restaurant-style mentality that I talked to Cecil about a while back, but not actual restaurant production. I guess that’s kind of what I expected, this idea of institutional cooking I thought was gone and it’s kind of still there in a lot of capacities.
Cynthia: Yeah, it really is. You know what’s surprising? The same thing for me. As you know, I came into this from the branding and marketing side. My first couple times being around a kitchen and seeing how it was working, after having owned a restaurant, what surprised me the most too was that it’s completely predictable. You know exactly how many people you’re going to have, practically, for each meal.
Cynthia: It’s not like a restaurant where you have to kind of guess and you have to have enough dishes, this and that. You have almost complete control of your inventory, the timing, the prep, and it surprised me that there was so much reliance on the pre-prepped foods that you were just talking about.
Mike: Yep. Yeah.
Mike: You have all this data at your command, at your disposal, and you have every possible piece of information that you could possibly want to make it be a totally epic service, right? Then it would just fail. Some places are having a hard time making it happen.
Again, I just think it all comes back to nobody is guiding them. It’s just kind of turning people lose and here you go.
Cynthia: From the residents’ perspective, they’re the customer. Certainly, during your times at communities, you’ve heard some things from residents. What kinds of things are you hearing or did you hear?
Mike: Yeah, I heard a lot of stuff and I just want to illustrate how important it is to actually talk to the residents. I know a lot of people are just like, “All they’re going to do is complain. They’re going to tell me this sucks or this is bad, blah-blah-blah. They’re going to tell me a story about their childhood. I don’t want to talk to them.”
You hear that a lot from people and it’s just like, but these are the people that are paying to be here. They deserve to have quality stuff.
I would say the biggest things that I heard from residents was how repetitive a lot of stuff had become. It’s the same old stuff over and over and over again. Really unimaginative food, bland.
It does get challenging because I would hear from one sector of people, “Oh, my god. The food is too salty.” Then I’d hear from another sector of people, “Man, this food is really bland,” which tells me that there are probably either recipes not being followed in the kitchen, like one guy has a really heavy salt hand and one guy doesn’t season anything because they all have these perceptions of what residents want. Really, the residents are saying, “Well, nobody has really ever asked us exactly what kind of stuff we want.”
I know that with 3rdThird and Culinary Coach, we’re really big on focus groups and surveys. You get that feedback. I know that a lot of these places have received this feedback but they’re either not paying attention to it or they just don’t know how to approach it.
The reality is you can’t make every single person happy 100% of the time. You’re always going to get that one person or those two people who just, no matter what you do, even if they like you, they’re going to pretend like they don’t. That’s just how people are sometimes.
I would hear a lot about that, you know, it’s too bland or it’s too salty or it’s too boring or it’s too fancy. You get that a lot too. Sometimes, chefs have a tendency to try to out-chef everybody and they make things really fancy. You can’t pronounce the words and residents don’t want to order stuff that they don’t know what the heck it is. [Laughter]
As a chef myself, that’s a painful lesson to learn. You have to make things in a fashion that people know what it is. You can make something fancy, but just watch out what you call it. Don’t put a bunch of foreign words in there that people can’t pronounce.
A lot of people express frustration at that. Some of the specials would have crazy things. What’s a demi gloss? You’d have to explain to them what a demi gloss is. What’s a … (indiscernible, 00:22:52) or what’s this or what’s that? You’d realize, “Oh, okay. Yeah, it’s too fancy of words.”
I could make you an awesome brown sauce or, hell, call it gravy. [Laughter] Whatever. Just be careful of what you put out there, I think.
I heard a lot of complaints about that and so, if people don’t understand it, they’re not going to want to try it. You’ll end up with a ton of waste.
Also, the dining room, was it cleaned? Was it organized? People would say things like, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing here. Am I supposed to wait for somebody to seat me?”
There are just a lot of things that people just didn’t get asked. They didn’t understand the whole process.
Mike: How do you address is it is to take surveys. Comment cards—big deal—make sure that people fill out a comment card. People feel like they don’t have enough choices and they don’t understand what’s going on. That was the biggest feedback that I got. Things were too limited. They were concerned about, “Man, when can I get some new stuff?” But then if you put out the new stuff, they didn’t know what it was.
Cynthia: Yeah, I think one of the things that we’ve also seen is residents won’t always be honest to management or even some of the staff because they don’t want to be pegged as being a complainer.
Cynthia: They also don’t want to feel nervous, even though this is absolutely not the case. It would never happen.
Cynthia: I have no idea why residents feel that this would ever happen because it doesn’t.
Cynthia: They feel worried like, “Oh, am I going to get bad service or have retribution if I complain about something, you know, the food?” Anonymous focus groups and surveys are huge to get to the root of what residents are really thinking.
Cynthia: Let’s see. There are things in the restaurant industry that are standard. When you think about the restaurant industry and then you look at senior living community kitchens and dining programs, what do you notice might be missing? Really, it is a restaurant. It’s just a predictable restaurant that has complete control of every service every day. What’s missing?
Mike: I think what’s missing is a battle plan. I think people go into their days and they’re so used to their systems that they’re not prepared for any kind of adversity. They’re not prepared for something to throw a wrench in their day if somebody calls in sick or whatever.
I think that there’s really nothing that’s been written down. Servers aren’t really getting assigned sections or stations. Side work isn’t being assigned. Cleaning duties aren’t being assigned. Anything from prep lists not being filled out.
There’s a community that I know of where, every day, they don’t have a schedule, which I don’t even understand how that works just from the legal point of view. Then they didn’t have a prep list. People would just show up when they showed up and figured out themselves what they were going to be doing. I just can’t wrap my head around that.
I think the other thing that’s really missing is there is, I guess, free seating. The idea of having to have meals at a specific time because your schedule dictates that to me is completely backward, this time-based seating. We have breakfast from this time to this time and lunch from this time to this time and dinner from this time to this time. I get that there are schedules in place, but if you have a full dining establishment with a full kitchen and a full crew, I fail to see why you couldn’t just go eat whenever you want. I think that that causes a lot of problems and that leads to people feeling rushed when they go to eat, which was another complaint that I heard quite a bit.
Cynthia: Oh, my gosh. That’s so crazy. Any community that has those really strict rules, and of course they all don’t, but the communities. You’ll have 50 people at the door waiting for the door to open and then they all sit down at exactly the same time. Then the service is rushed and people are stressed. It’s just terrible.
Mike: You know it’s terrible and the reality is, you’re not necessarily dealing with professional service employees in a lot of cases. They’re not prepared to deal with getting sat 50 people at once or 100 people at once, in the case of this last place that we were at.
Now, your kitchen is taxed. Your servers are taxed. Is it doable? Yeah, it’s doable. There are places that can pull it off pretty well. But I see the challenge in that and it’s so avoidable that it just makes me wonder why we are still sticking with that model in a lot of places.
Cynthia: I was going to ask you, then financially and from a management standpoint, what do you think would be a perfect model for a dining situation to prevent that from happening?
Mike: Well, I would say that we’re probably going to get a little deeper onto this topic that I had planned on but, really, the solution is to approach it like a restaurant. Your dining room is open from this time to this time. Here is your menu. Order what you want. Have some breakfast items. Have some lunch items. Have some dinner items. You’ve got a regular menu.
Then you’ve also probably got your cycle menus or your daily specials or whatever. Maybe certain foods can be available like, okay, we’ll serve these items from this time to this time. But the idea that you should just go and, “I’m hungry. I want to have lunch now. It’s 11 o’clock. I want to eat my lunch at 11 o’clock. I don’t want to eat my lunch at 12:00.” Or, “I want to eat my dinner at 7:00. I don’t want to eat my dinner at 4:30.”
I fail to see the reasons why people can’t just go and have food when they want to have their food. I think it creates a situation where now you’re kind of programming people and it leads to situations where it taxes the service. Getting 100 tickets at one time versus getting a couple of dozen tickets at one time is a huge difference in the quality of production and the quality of food and the quality of service people get.
I don’t see it as being a hugely different financial outpouring of staff. There are ways. If we really want to dig into the meat and bones of it, I think, down the road that we’re going to have a topic where we talk about how to staff appropriately according to your model. We could do an entire episode just on that. We won’t go down that rabbit hole too deep. Yeah, I think, really, just having a restaurant as your model is key versus having restaurant-style dining that’s based off a timeline.
Cynthia: Yeah. I know we’re going to move on from this topic, but it’s a meaty one.
Mike: Yeah, it’s a beefy one.
Cynthia: It’s huge, but that is one of the challenges is that C-level executives and executive teams are not restaurant managers, and so they don’t always know that it’s very normal in a restaurant kitchen. You’ve got a cook who is putting food out but they’re not putting food out every minute of their shift.
Cynthia: They’re doing prep work here. They’re getting the sauces ready. They’re chopping. They’re working and then, whoops, an order comes in. I’m going to get that order out. Now I’m going back to the prep work.
Cynthia: It’s a multitasking job. It’s not, everybody shows up and does production kind of conveyor belt style work.
Mike: Yeah, and I think, getting back to finish up the original question, which was things that we see lacking in this industry, and I think this all comes also down to pride. I think that some people look at their jobs in this industry as not being as exciting as a restaurant. You don’t have a cook in a retirement community saying, “Man, I’m so stoked that I cook in this industry!” versus a chef at a fancy restaurant who says, “Yeah, I’m a chef at a four-star restaurant,” or the servers are like, “Yeah, I’m a professional server at this senior living community.” You don’t really have that, so I think that that leads to, I’m going to do the bare minimum just to get by because I know that I’m going to be allowed to do that.
That’s, I think, really what we need to change is that perception that you can put out absolutely epic food with epic service and treat it as if you’re working at a four-star resort. We’ll get back into that later. Then once you change that perception and people feel like they can put out awesome stuff, your results are going to be better just from the morale standpoint, just from the workplace pride standpoint.
Cynthia: Yeah, the sheer delight of the customer, too. I remember that from the restaurant, Café Destino. We would have a senior group come in for lunch sometimes. Remember that? There’d be like 12 or 16 people.
Cynthia: I was serving a table. I think it was on a Saturday. We served beet salad. I remember the residents; these customers were beaming. They were like, “Oh, my god. I love this beet salad.”
Cynthia: “It reminds me of my childhood. I love it so much.” That’s the reward too.
Mike: Absolutely. I think what we’re going to do right now, Cynthia, is we’re going to take a break. We’re going to have this be Part 1. Then we’re going to come back. We’re going to have a Part 2. We will get into some more of your questions that I can answer for you.
Thanks for joining us on Part 1. We’ll be back with Part 2 in just a moment.