JASON HILL – BENEFITS TO MAKING FOOD A STRONGER PRIORITY AT WORK – EP. 60
This episode and next week’s episode are both experiments I did a while back with Think Like an Owner when I was considering launching a new podcast series. The aim for these was to have short, 20-30 minute episodes on specific ideas and challenges operating small companies. I may eventually launch the new series, but I have other projects I’m excited about and want to invest more time into. Let me know what you think of these next two episodes and if you want to see more episodes with a similar format.
This first one is with Jason Hill. Jason appeared in episode 50 to share his learnings acquiring and growing his father-in-law’s countertop business. In this episode, we talk all about food at the office and some of the benefits to making food a stronger priority at work. Jason has done a lot including adding coffee machines, more microwaves, and even doing company pig roasts at his house. I’d advise listening to this episode on your lunch break, it’ll probably make you hungry.
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Well, thanks for coming on the podcast again, Jason. I’m excited to chat about food this time and hear a little bit about what your office food situation is like. We were talking about barbecuing earlier, and this whole thing is making me hungry. So I’m curious, what did the food situation just at the office look like prior to you making any changes? So when you took over the business from your father-in-law, what did things look like?
So really, when I started, I think the biggest shock was we didn’t really eat. It’s like we were working a lot, we were sitting in the office, we never went out for lunch, we wouldn’t really bring lunch in. You know, a lot of times we would just grab something from the gas station if you had to run up there. So I mean, it really was somewhat absent. We had a small break room with a coffee pot in there and one fridge, but in the office we never really ate, and out back the guys kind of ate by themselves during lunch. So there really wasn’t a big presence at the beginning.
So you also talked a little bit before we started recording about a vending machine that you found in the office. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, so I would say the first instance… When I started, things were slow. You know, still kind of during, I would say the bad times. We were trying to clean some stuff out, and there was two vending machines in the office that, for years, no one can get ahold of the people. So they were never getting refilled, there’s nothing in them at that point. They were just kind of in the way taking up space. I mean, we tried it as many times as we could to get in touch with who we thought owned them at the time and we couldn’t, and so we just decided we’re going to crack them open, get everything out, and then just put them on Craigslist to have someone take them away for free.
So I think when we broke it open, there was, you know, $16 in there. So I said, “Hey, we’re just going to take this, run down to the local pizza shop, get some pizzas. Everyone can split it.” You know, in some degree, it was their money that was in there anyway, because they were the guys buying the stuff. So we did that, and everyone loved it. And you look back and it was like, we had so few guys at the time, it probably cost 20 bucks to get a couple of pizzas and then get two 12-packs of Coke or something and feed everyone. And it was kind of the first time that we fed the entire shop, and it gives everyone time to break and eat together, whereas on a normal day, everyone kind of does their own thing and eats by themselves and things like that.
So was this one of the first times that you were starting to understand that maybe food could play a role in your office? And from there, where did your thinking go?
Yeah. I think it was surprising how much people enjoyed it, because it was just a cheap $5 pizza, but I think for us, a lot of the guys in the shop, English isn’t their first language. You know, there’s not a lot in common. I was young at the time, a lot of those guys have four or five kids. A lot of them weren’t born in the United States. Everything is very different, our lives from theirs, and something so simple that everyone loved it. We’ve gone through different iterations of like, “Oh, the guys really don’t like this type of food,” or things like that, or we did tacos one time and you realize not a lot of the guys out back eat flour tortillas. Like, that’s very much more popular in Tex-Mex and things like that. So there’s been some learning curves, but it was just something simple that everyone enjoyed. It gives everyone time to break and hang out together in just a very relaxing environment.
How did you begin to incorporate food more and more into the office?
So as we added more people to the office, the discussion’s like, “Oh, what do you want to do? You know, do we want to grab something or…” We enjoy cooking. We said, “Oh, it’d be nice if we could cook burgers for everyone,” so I’ll bring a grill to the office. And then as we grew, we had more guys in the office, so we were like, “Oh, it’d be nice to add a second fridge so that you could have drinks, so if customers come in, there’s drinks there.” So we put a fridge in the showroom where previously we didn’t have one. And then we actually expanded and moved the break room and built it on the second level, so we were building it from scratch.
And in the previous break room, the coffee was always running out, there’s only one coffee pot. Everyone was trying to heat up lunches and there was too many microwaves for the circuits. So you were always popping the microwave, and if you didn’t notice it, you might’ve popped the circuit that the fridge was on. So when we built the new one, we built it so we maintain the fridge in the showroom, and then added two fridges in the break room for the guys so everyone could have their food in there and not have space issues. And then we, across the countertop, put five different runs of outlets in so that you can run two coffee pots, four different microwaves, everything at the same time. Every fridge, every microwave, every coffee pot was on a separate circuit, so you didn’t have the issues of like, if someone wanted to use, they brought in a hot plate to heat tortillas, you don’t have to worry about just the day-to-day hassles of…
You know, there was guys that had microwaves plugged in down by the toolboxes because they knew that was on a different circuit, it just seemed like something of… Because we had the benefit of designing from the ground up, it’s kind of just going through the process of doing things that make their lives more enjoyable. You know, that isn’t a big deal to us. It was easy to add all the different circuits because we were building from scratch. So that was kind of a blessing, having to move the break room, because we could do something that they enjoyed.
They appreciated having the extra fridge space. They appreciated that the microwaves were all in the break room. They weren’t scattered out through extension cords and all through the shop. I think that’s kind of what it circles back to, it was just making sure the employees know that you appreciate the work they do for you. And that’s kind of where food comes in, it’s like small things you can do that shows to them that you care, because you do, and you want them to know that.
Yeah, I agree. Food has a really community building factor to it. I’m curious what kind of unintended positive and negative consequences have come with adding more food to the office and more coffee pots and fridges. Anything that come to mind?
I think if you’re not careful, it’s real easy to let time get away. There’s some times where it’s like, “Oh, it’d be great to cook this meal for the guys in the office and for everyone,” and you don’t think ahead and you pick something that’s real complicated and realize it takes three hours of prep and then three hours to cook, and all of a sudden, there’s probably a lot more stuff you should be doing, but instead you spent six hours preparing a meal for the guys. So the lesson there is we try to do stuff that’s very easy on our time now, because we’re still a pretty small shop. And I wish I had six hours every day to think about what we’re going to do for lunch for everyone, but there’s a lot of other stuff that’s got to get done.
So I mean, that’s probably one of the negatives. It’s very easy to let that time just get drawn away. But some of the positives are, I mean, one, a lot of our guys come from either Honduras or Guatemala, that work in the shop. So some of our guys or their wives have started… You know, they’ll say, “Hey, on Friday my wife’s making tamales for everyone.” So they’ll just come in with a cooler of handmade, fresh tamales, and (inaudible) from that is in, I would say the American culture, at least the United States, if you’re going to serve a tamale or something that’s fully wrapped with the leaves and everything, you would assume there’s no bones in it.
Because in the United States, you would never serve something like a burger or anything where something inside of there is going to have bones. But that’s not true a lot of places. Most places, if they cook the thigh, they cook with the bone in, or if they cook the leg and everything, it’s the bone in. So I started chewing, like biting the tamale, and there’s bones in the center. But you know, everyone laughed, it was a good time.
But yeah, a lot of the guys have either started to either offer to bring stuff in, or they’ll say, “Hey, there’s a baleada shop,” which is maybe like a Honduran breakfast quesadilla, so it’ll be like a homemade, more of a flat bread than the tortilla, and then like eggs, steak, cheese, avocado kind of made until like a quesadilla. And they’re like, “Hey, can we order this food from this place?” And things you would never try, or have never even heard of. They’re incredible. And so it’s cool to see kind of stuff that they enjoy or that they’ve had or kind of stuff that comes more from their culture. We’re happy to do it, because we’re not picky. We’ll eat almost anything.
But you know, that’s, like you said, it’s a very communal thing. So they bring some stuff that they know we’ve probably never heard of, or I mean, really, we’ve never have the opportunity. You know, there’s not a lot of Honduran restaurants around. So they know someone whose wife cooks or something, and they say, “Hey, can we have this person bring this food in?” And we’re always down to try anything.
So yeah, I mean, aside from taking the time to everyone to stop for breakfast, you know, everyone stops at 9:00 AM or something and eats breakfast when we normally wouldn’t, I mean, there’s not a lot of downside. Everyone enjoys it. It’s nice to have just a 20-minute break or 15-minute break or kind of a break that it probably wouldn’t be great if we did it every day, but once every other week or something, I think it’s worth the positive aspects of it.
Yeah, absolutely. Do you make sure that every week you have some sort of company-wide lunch, or is it more just informal and you just kind of decide day-to-day if you want to do something?
It’s more informal. So a lot of times for breakfast, either someone offers something, so, okay, we’re just going to do this tomorrow morning. There’s a couple of small shops that are local to us, food restaurants, that it’s like, we can just… You have a craving of like, “Hey, you remember the thing that you guys brought us two weeks ago? Let’s do that tomorrow.” That’s kind of more sporadic. The lunch is usually planned, because you don’t want everyone to bring lunch in and then have a big lunch. So we did a catering event last week, so that’s something that’s kind of planned out, a bigger thing. A lot of times, whether we’re doing like sandwiches or tacos, we’ll smoke a lot of pork. That’s always planned out, because we’re always going to be putting the food on the day before. So we’ll kind of give the guys a heads up of like, “Hey, this Friday or Thursday or whatever it is, we’ll make sure we’re cooking for everyone,” and try to give them a heads up just so no one brings food when we’re planning to cook for everyone anyway.
But dinner, when we do dinners, it’s normally not in the best situations. It’s like, “Hey, we know we’re going to have a late night this week, so let’s try to figure out, if we have to work late on Wednesday night, let’s get dinner orders.” Sometimes we’ll do it like an early dinner, so everyone can eat and then we kind of finish the work. And a lot of times, if we’re working till maybe seven or eight o’clock, we’ll just order all the meals to go, so at the end of their shift, they can just kind of grab the meal and have dinner on the way home or take food home or anything.
And it’s kind of a different situation than like the celebratory meals, but they appreciate it, you know? If we have to work late for a commercial project and we’re not getting done till eight, their families have probably eaten. So it’s just kind of like the small gesture you can do to say, “Hey, we know you guys don’t want to be here this late. We don’t to be here this late. We appreciate you guys staying late to help meet the deadlines.”
So things like that can happen where they’re not as planned, but the lunch is the big one that normally gets planned because the lunch is one where, if you don’t say anything, everyone’s going to have lunch plans. Whereas the breakfast, people probably already ate breakfast, but if you have something good coming in, no one minds stopping and having a second breakfast.
Have you noticed any odd gains from adding food that are more system, process oriented?
From the office side, a lot of times we’ll order in lunch or cook lunch for the office specifically. I think the benefit there is that everyone gets together and stands around an island. We don’t have a lot of seating, but we’re only standing around the island in the showroom just kind of eating it, things come up. It’s like, “Hey, it’d be a great idea if we staged material like this, because that would be probably more effective for the saw guys.” You know, it’s kind of a time where everyone’s standing around just kind of brainstorming, but you’re not working on any specific tasks. It’s kind of like the time to sit back and think like, “Oh, if we move this material or cut this this way, that might be a faster way,” or, “Hey, I saw this machine that had come out that we should look and see if that would help our shop.”
That’s kind of the benefit you really see. It gives everyone time to just stop, because like I said before, we didn’t eat lunch. So for the lunch hour, most people would just sit at their computers or run out and grab something quick and bring it back. But if you’re providing lunch or cooking lunch for the whole office, typically everyone stops and breaks to eat, which kind of gives you time to reflect and discuss some ideas. Where otherwise no one would sit together with that free time, unless you plan a meeting, which we might try to do that once every quarter, but it’s a lot easier for ideas to just get passed around during the day.
For the shop, I think that main thing is that if they feel appreciated, and no one clocks out if we’re doing 15 minutes or 20 minutes or 30 minutes for breakfast, so I think it’s more you’re showing that appreciation. And that’s something that you’re probably not going to be able to track or find any data points where you see the benefit, but if they feel appreciated, they’re willing to go the extra mile and help you out if you’re in a situation where you need it. I think happy employees just work. Yeah, they’re more caring, they’re willing to go the extra mile, and make sure things are getting done right. And I also think it kind of brings just the team closer together. So if there’s a situation that… It’s more of a family situation where they can bring it up, you know? There’s kind of always a divide between the guys in the office and the guys in the shop, and I think it’s something that helps bridge it.
And I think if you have kind of that open communication, because you guys hang out around those situations, it makes a more open dialogue. And I think that kind of pays back as well, because a lot of the guys have worked in the countertop industry longer than we have. So, one, they’ve worked in the countertop industry longer, two, some of those guys that work in the shop have probably worked at three or four shops before working for us. And knock on wood, once we have employees, we retain them for a long time. But there’s a lot of things other shops do that are probably a better way than what we’re doing, and when you have the time to have that open communication, you can kind of get that feedback from them, and it could help the shop run better and make our lives better, make their lives better.
So yeah, I think from the shop side, it’d be hard to kind of track, put a dollar figure on it. But I think as a whole, if you know the guys are happy and you know they feel appreciated, you’re going to have a more productive crew back there.
You also talked about doing bigger dinners. Is this something that you would do at the end of every year, or at the end of a quarter, you’d have maybe a bigger dinner, maybe somewhere else besides the office?
No, the only thing we’ve done so far outside of the office is we did a party at our barn where we did a full pig roast, and we invited everyone from the company. A lot of guys came, we were actually surprised. We don’t live close to the shop, and a lot of the guys don’t live close to the shop in a different direction, so it was kind of an event for everyone to get out there. But everyone had a great time, and that’s kind of on our list of we’d like to do a better job with that. I think the next thing we’re going to try to do is there is a entertainment venue that’s focused around the golfing experience that is coming to the area by us, and we just ran long hours on a couple of hard weeks to get all the countertops put in.
You know, the guys in the shop almost never get to see the finished product, because the guys that work in the shop are never the guys that are onsite. So I think once that, they should begin opening maybe in the next month, I think that’s the next big thing where we… We do want to have more experiences outside of the shop, and it’s kind of a catch 22, because one of the guys that used to work for us, he was like, “You know, I see you guys every day.” He was like, “I don’t want to spend my evenings or weekends seeing you guys more.” But I think to go out and have an event there, I think everyone will enjoy it, and that’s kind of the next big thing we’ll probably do outside the shop.
We’d like to do more dinners and stuff that aren’t focused around, you know, “Hey, we’re doing dinner because we’re working long hours,” but time always seems to just fly by, and it’s one of those things that you just don’t always get to. But that’s definitely on our list to do more, more events outside the office so everyone can have a good time. We’ve done everything at this point. We have the Traegers at the office, grills are at the office, cooktops are at the office, electric smokers at the office. We’ve added almost anything. We’ve got all sorts of stuff. At first, we did the easier things, we’d kind of do hot dogs and burgers, but soon you realize it’s a lot easier to smoke six pork butts than it is to try to grill, whatever, 50 burgers on a residential-size grill. It takes hours because you can’t fit them all, so you’re wasting a lot of time trying to do that.
So no, I mean, I think the bigger idea is, it’s kind of like I said, if you ask people what they want, they always want more money, but it’s like, more money doesn’t really make someone feel appreciated. Obviously they enjoy it and all that, but it’s something everyone’s always going to ask for. And it’s like, what can you do outside of that realm that shows you care? Because like a lot of things, if we’re cooking for the shop, it’s like I’m cooking, or the office staff is cooking for everyone outside and things like that. So I really think they enjoy it, but it’s kind of like the countertops. It’s just so simple. Just do things they like, it makes them happy.
That’s awesome. Thank you so much, Jason, for sharing a little more about your food. And you’re making me hungry, so I need to go get a snack or something. But thank you for sharing, this has been fun.
Yeah. Thanks for having us on again.