How to Build a Brand in a Snapshot: Instagram’s Appeal, Board Games, and Emerging Tech
Building a brand and bringing people together: Cary Mosier, Owner of Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre, shares how an original family board game became the inspiration for a multi-location organic plant-based restaurant. He shares how he’s embraced the digital experience with Instagram and how his tech stack helps operations. We discuss what NOT to do when expanding to new locations, how to maintain your anti-establishment roots even as you “go corporate”, and new ways to build revenue streams that go beyond the four walls of your operation.
- Starting a business and scaling it takes a different skillset. The growth of your business may be altered by legal hurdles and cultural growing pains, so invest in training procedures and continually changing your work culture. What worked for you in the beginning is not guaranteed to work in the future.
- Implementing technology is equally as important as deciding on your restaurant's layout and ambience. It's integral to create a seamless digital operation, especially as you expand to multiple locations.
- As dining returns, people are still going to restaurants where they feel special, they feel seen, recognized, and loved, and appreciated. People are yearning to get out and connect with people.
Cary Mosier: While certainly technology amplified our ability to order while sitting in our homes, I think we all are yearning to get out and connect with people.
Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips and real-world strategies.
Join us as today's guest shares how you can make your business more resilient in an unpredictable world.
Hi everyone. I'm Matt Levin and you're listening to The Resilient Restaurant podcast. Today I'm joined by Cary Mosier, owner of Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre, a group of leading organic plant-based restaurants based in California.
We'll be exploring what not to do when expanding to new locations, how important culture is as you expand, and new ways to build revenue streams that go beyond the four walls of your operation.
Cary, thank you so much for joining us today.
Cary Mosier: Yeah, happy to be here! Thanks.
About Cafe Gratitude
Matt Levin: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and Cafe Gratitude? Just give us a bit of an overview of the business and the history.
Cary Mosier: Cafe Gratitude is a family business. It was started in 2004 by my mother and my stepfather. My parents had gotten into eating raw and vegan for like 30 days because they were experimenting with different diets that made them feel well. They really loved the way they felt after they were eating specifically raw and vegan for 30 days, and my mom's a kind of a natural cook, so she was sort of cooking at home for friends and making meals that she was making that were all raw and vegan. Actually at the same time, they were developing a board game, which is a little bit of a crazy sort of association with the restaurant business. But they were developing a board game, which was based off of a view of life that they really prescribed to, which is in essence, is where you put your attention, creates your experience in life.
It kind of coalesced where they were like, ‘Hey, we think we want to open a cafe. We're going to put this board game on every table and we're going to serve vegan food to customers.’ And I told them I thought that was a horrible idea. I was like, ‘Oh no vegan plus a gaming parlor, this sounds like a disaster,’ in my 20 year old, sort of adolescence and naiveness. Luckily they did it despite that.
And so I started working there as a bartender. I had no restaurant experience before that. And my older brother was the manager, my mom was the cook, my stepfather was the only server we had, and my sister-in-law was the other manager and bookkeeper. It was kind of like a little Partridge family, so to speak, thrown into a restaurant.
It was a hit! It was kind of busy right away. I think people really took to the idea of it being a very unique environment. And we had questions of the day. We ask people, ‘what are you grateful for?’ The menu has affirmations on it. So when you order food, you don't say, ‘I want the macrobiotic bowl’, you say, ‘I am whole’, and this was all designed around this board game philosophy of affirming great things about ourselves, practicing and putting our attention on what we want to have happen in our lives, not what we don't, and having people get the power of their words and their intention.
We basically proceeded over the next eight years to open up one every year, and grew to about eight locations in the Bay area. We transitioned down to Los Angeles, my brother and myself, and have been opening up Cafe Gratitude and Gracias Madre, a Mexican concept, for the past 10 years, and have opened up another seven of those actually. So, now we're here at 2021 and have been opening restaurants for 17 years.
Expanding Your Operations
Matt Levin: So that's definitely an interesting or unorthodox entry into the restaurant industry and really just a lot of learning by doing. What have been some of the toughest challenges along the way?
Cary Mosier: On some level, everyone wants to expand and you kind of naturally have a successful location and then you think ‘let's do another one.’ Expanding is really hard, especially when you have a unique culture like ours, which was really rooted in kind of a very sort of unique experience and a very mission driven company around making a positive impact on the community and the planet from a sustainability perspective. I think in expanding, despite having the best of intentions, things get super challenging to control and you get further and further away from knowing every staff by their first name or having a personal relationship with them. And it takes a different skill set to be able to put in a structure that empowers other people to be able to replicate what you've created so that the experience can stay authentic or culture can stay alive as you grow. I think part of the challenges specifically that we've faced is in the beginning, we really had this sort of democratic view on pay structure where we wanted to pay everybody back of house in front of house the same amount of money.
At the time, in 2004/2005, when we opened the first Cafe Gratitude, we paid everybody $10 an hour. At that point, that was probably two or three bucks over minimum wage. And then we pooled all of the tips in the whole house and divided it amongst all of the hourly staff. So a kitchen line person would get the same amount of tips as a server if they both worked the same amount of hours. It was pulled together, then divided by hours.
We felt like this was a really great, revolutionary thing. You feel like the back of the house historically in the restaurant business has kind of gotten the shaft when it came to pay. But then you start expanding and it takes one or two staff who are angry about that and disagree with that choice. So we get sued for that. It ends up being a lot of money to defend and restructure and those kinds of things, I think really slow down the passion and excitement of running a restaurant and focusing on food and hospitality.
And also it's a very challenging thing in growing a business. You don't anticipate all the legal hurdles you have to go through as you employ more and more people. So I think that was a bitter pill to swallow and a little bit of “Now we have to set rules and we're going to become more corporate” and all of these challenging things that you kind of face, for us were challenging along the way.
And still are, you know. My stepfather, I think, was reading this book called Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal. It's kind of like this idea that you want to go out and change the way businesses run in a way that you feel like is more ethical and equitable and you run into sort of challenges that you didn't foresee, and it kind of makes it no fun along the way. So I think that's still, you know, it's still a challenge.
Matt Levin: You think that's a universal struggle for business, or do you think that there are also things that are just kind of endemic to the restaurant industry?
Cary Mosier: I think the people that build a business are generally - you need a different skill set to expand the business. That doesn't mean you're not going to find some unicorns that are going to be able to crossover, but it's a different mindset from my experience thus far.
Building the first location, whether you're a restaurant or maybe you're a startup and you've got 10 employees, but going from 10 employees or 15 employees to going to several hundred employees requires different processes and structures. And if you want to maintain a culture along the way, you have to be open to the culture changing hopefully for the better, but you know, it's going to shift and change the way it's expressed. Because you just can't express the culture the same way with 300 people or 500 people that you did with 20 people.
You have to empower other people and they're going to have their take on it. It's going to morph a little bit. I think that one of the challenges of the restaurant business in expanding is the labor market. I mean restaurant work, let's face it, is hourly generally lower wage work that isn't most people's careers. You generally are dealing with a larger turnover in a transient workforce, which makes maintaining our culture challenging, if you don't have a rock solid sort of training and foundation. And brings about sort of frustrations and challenges with expanding replication, legal issues, all these things become challenging. And then just, you know, doing business in California is getting more and more and more challenging from my perspective.
How Culture and Management Intertwine
Matt Levin: That's really fascinating. Are there any techniques or strategies that you developed that really helped you solidify Cafe Gratitude's culture and helped to transition the business to this more, you know, quote unquote corporate operation in a way that was well accepted by your employees?
Cary Mosier: In the beginning, Cafe Gratitude from a culture standpoint had a very optimistic view on the world. Obviously, its catchphrase is ‘what are you grateful for?’ And we had these very rose colored glasses perspective on business and changing the world and changing the food system and doing things in a more sustainable way. That very significantly bled into how we manage people. From the perspective of it almost became misconstrued that if you gave criticism, it was against our culture. Do you know what I mean? If you hold someone accountable, like: ‘What are you talking about? I thought this was the Gratitude place. I thought this was the place where we talked about what's working, not what's not working.’ Starting to manage people in my early twenties and having a very challenging time having the courage and the words and the comfort to be able to deliver criticism in a way that was helpful.
I had to learn on the job and also then, how do I help form a culture that holds people accountable and people get that that is in alignment with our mission, it's not the antithesis of our mission. That one that doesn't happen overnight. For me, it became setting a tone that the most honorable thing you can do as a manager when speaking to staff is to tell them the truth. Obviously be respectful and be professional every time, absolutely. A lot of the work, I would say, an equal amount of effort has gone into creating communication skills within our company as has gone into developing recipes or food. And because ultimately that's the hardest part of the business, from my perspective, is the people. It's the most rewarding part, that's why we're here.
Communication skills are something that there's not really a formalized school to develop as far as I know. I mean people don't come out and like, ‘Hey listen, I've nailed communication.’ It's kind of learned through experience. We would spend a lot of our meetings as management teams coaching people on communication skills and how to differentiate what happened in the workplace versus what somebody made it mean, and really having people get that those are two separate things and that the meaning we bring to things is something that we personally need to be responsible for.
And you want to speak to somebody in a way that really has you take responsibility for your role in either withholding criticism or withholding acknowledgement, and really have that be a more worthwhile conversation, even if it leads to termination or resignation or an end of employment. That's a continual process that we're still constantly working on. When we get it right, it has the biggest impact on our business culturally, and then you can see it actually show up financially in stores, when you have good communication coming from the management team. I'm still kind of, like shocked sometimes how people think they've communicated versus what the person actually heard. I think that's universal in all businesses I would imagine.
Matt Levin: So there are certainly some things that are universal, that haven't changed, certain things about how people operate, restaurant culture and general principles of hospitality. But there are a lot of things that have changed over the last few years. What are some of the biggest transformations you've seen, particularly in the restaurant and hospitality business?
Cary Mosier: Especially accelerated by the pandemic, I think technology is playing a larger and larger role in the hospitality business and the restaurant business. From just the visuals we're being fed all the time through social media of what food should look like. I mean, there are now concepts that are being launched, from my perspective, purely based off of sort of Instagram appeal. The way we design restaurants I think are changing because of social media. You've got people building restaurants with specifically an Instagram wall built in whether it'd be some crazy neon sign or some crazy tile.
So, I think that the fact that what you do in a restaurant, the food you serve, the way your restaurant looks is going to be photographed thousands of times, changes the way restaurants are being built and the way restaurants being staffed, the way restaurants are being designed, the way food is being designed to be plated. I think people have underestimated the impact that that has had on the restaurant business.
Outside of that, I continue to feel that people want to work for a mission-driven company and that maybe that started out more in the tech world or things like that, but it's definitely fallen into the restaurant business. People want to be working for a business that is supporting the planet and sustainability. I think that those trends are continuing to get stronger and stronger.
There's less, from my experience, of a workforce that just kind of wants a nighttime bartending gig to make money and then do something else. I think they want both.
Obviously dietary trends have dramatically shifted. I think we got lucky, the fact that we were a vegan, organic, entirely gluten-free menu back in 2004. Now there's gotta be a vegan section on most restaurants; it's really kind of awesome. I just read recently that 11 Madison Park is opening up in New York as an entirely vegan restaurant. So these kinds of changes, I think, are going to continue to happen and I welcome them. I think people are going to eat less and less meat, and we're going to continue to champion and support restaurants that are sustainable.
Building a Brand
Matt Levin: One of the things I've noticed in terms of trends is the extension of the brand beyond just the four walls of the restaurant: branded merchandise, e-commerce, a variety of other types of initiatives. What have you been exploring in your business and where do you think it's going?
Cary Mosier: I've always related to Cafe Gratitude as a brand more so than a restaurant. And I think that kind of got created accidentally. We didn't go into Cafe Gratitude intending to build a brand, but I think in hindsight, you look back and you go, ‘Oh, there's kind of all the makings for something larger here.’ The fact that it started out with a retail product, a board game, is kind of like a premonition on some level. And so, that's been the really exciting part for me. I mean, from my perspective, Cafe Gratitude specifically, is a lifestyle brand sort of view of life around gratitude and appreciation and abundance like I mentioned earlier. It’s a view of life that's based on sustainability when it comes to organics, regenerative agriculture, plant-based diets.
So there's all these different, I would say, different verticals in our business that I'm attempting to nurture and grow. And that's what keeps me interested in the business. If we were just selling salads and bowls and I kept it to that narrow view, I personally would get a little bored. So I'm always looking for how to expand it and have a broader reach. We've done a lot of things over the years and the pandemic has certainly accelerated it. We've developed a cleanse program and a meal kit program where in essence people can order food for the entire week: breakfast, lunch, and dinner and get it delivered to their house so that they just have to reheat food. It helps us that people want to eat plant-based more. They want to eat healthier and the easier we can make it, the more I think people will embrace it.
We rebuilt our entire website to be an e-commerce foundation to really facilitate this meal plan ordering system. Started doing merchandise, whether it's hats or sweatshirts. As many shippable products as I can make, I really get excited about. I love sending a product to the East coast when our entire restaurant footprint is on the West coast. I think that's fun. I think it's exciting and cool, so we've done cookie kits where for the holidays we've made gluten-free cookies with natural frostings that were all vegetable derived and vegetable dyed and sent those out for Halloween and Christmas for families. That's been really fun over the pandemic.
My parents have written books about business philosophy that we use - sacred commerce, what we call it. They led workshops on communication skills. We've started a farm where we farm regenerative agriculturally and supply ingredients to our restaurants. All of these things are aspects of the business that we continue to nurture and grow, which I think is important for the financial stability of the business and getting larger than just the four walls of the restaurant.
And also the fun part: my aspirations are for Cafe Gratitude to get even bigger than that. I think at some point in the future my goal would be that people would be like, ‘Yeah, did you know Cafe Gratitude started out as a restaurant?’ That would be a big win for me.
How to Diversify Revenue Streams
Matt Levin: What I think is so interesting is that you're in the delivery business right now in 2021, whether you got into it in 2020 out of necessity or you've been doing it for a long time, the food delivery business is the business of e-commerce. If you had to give advice to somebody who didn't have 17 plus years of experience and was looking to diversify their revenue streams, where would you advise them to start?
Cary Mosier: I saw more and more of our food being sold takeout and delivery. Postmates, Uber Eats, DoorDash, GrubHub. All of these companies that have come along over the past five to seven years have changed the way people are receiving your food. I saw it just in our financials as more and more of our revenue was shifting towards takeout and delivery. So I've really focused heavily, and I would encourage people to lean into that. Don't begrudgingly do it as kind of like an unfortunate necessary. Lean into it and have it be a really great extension of your brand online. I take professional photos of our food once a month, if not more. If they're going to go to Uber Eats, or they're going to go to Postmates, or they're going to go to my website preferably, and they're going to shop for food and then have it delivered, I want that to be a very well-branded clean, professional, awesome visual experience. So I take it very seriously about how our food is photographed, so it's consistent and it looks good on the site.
I think there's a lot of restaurants that are still playing catch up on that. And it does take a lot of work; it's an expense. I see any effort I put into developing these online experiences, that seems to be where the momentum is heading. It's just the sort of current climate we're in.
And I'm constantly looking at how I can make it easier for somebody to place an order without talking to somebody if they don't want to. At least our guests are responding well to it and it's helping drive sales as opposed to kind of putting your heels in the ground and saying, you know, these third-party platforms I don't like, and I don't want to participate with.
Importance of a Digital Presence
Matt Levin: Do you think that the future for most restaurants is that they will have a permanently higher mix of takeout and to-go? Do you think that we have a permanent change in customer expectations that have been triggered by COVID? Or do you think this is more of a gradual increase and then it will go back down and we'll see this shift of return to normalcy in a kind of a lower, steady state?
Cary Mosier: No, I think it's going to be a permanent shift. I think there'll always be room for the charming Mom and Pop restaurant down the street that doesn't embrace technology, and I think that will be cool and will be fun. But for multi-unit locations or for any restaurant that wishes to expand, I think you have to have a digital presence and it has to be a seamless, well thought-out experience. Just like you're putting all of the effort into designing a beautiful restaurant with great chairs and tables and music and all of the bells and whistles that are traditional restaurant design, you have to think, okay, I've got all these clients, all these guests that are going to be ordering through an app or through my website, how do I make that as enjoyable of an experience?
I've only got maybe 150 seats in my restaurant. So there's a max amount of volume you can do. If you embrace takeout and delivery and you embrace the digital experience, you can really raise your ability to serve more guests. I have an on-staff graphic designer and photographer. These are people that are super busy within my organization because we're using so much technology and we're producing so much digital marketing, graphics, stories, Instagram, all these things are constantly turning out that they're full-time jobs now. And it's very much of an e-commerce perspective.
Matt Levin: What's interesting is that people may see the creation of visual aspects of the restaurant as as an esoteric corner of the food industry reserved for maybe the biggest chain brands or super high-end restaurants, but you're saying this might actually now be the entry level price of doing business for the average operation going forward.
Cary Mosier: From my perspective, the restaurants that embrace it are going to stand out. I certainly can't guarantee that those that don't will fail and that's not what I mean to sound like, but I take it very seriously and it's fun for me. I think it has a lot of value. I want the experience of the brand online to be just as beautiful as it is on store. It is an expression of the brand. So if it's cobbled together and it's not done with any sort of attention to detail, that's going to reflect on the brand.
I find myself in photo shoots with art directors and lighting and all of this work that goes into making these things come to life, which is much more work than I expected.
It's kind of the nature of the beast these days. Video content, photo content, graphic content for social media, and then having that brand extension online be seamless. It's challenging. I mean, even finding technology partners, it's still in its infancy. There's very few technology partners out there that can integrate with your POS machine and provide a great online experience. That's been something that is still getting developed in the tech world, from my experience.
Cafe Gratitude's Current Tech Stack
Matt Levin: Speaking of tech, what does your technology stack look like currently?
Cary Mosier: I say this with a little bit of self-awareness that sometimes I overdo it, but, I mean, we use Toast for our POS, which I'm a huge fan of and I think is really great.
I use Paytronix for our loyalty program and our loyalty marketing and our gift cards. I use a digital checklist system called Jolt for food labeling and checklists. I use MarketMan for inventory ordering and recipes, which has been awesome. And then for project management, I use a program called Basecamp. I think if you can use it well, you can save a lot of labor and headaches.
Matt Levin: What do you think the most interesting trends are in terms of hospitality, restaurant technology? What do you think is around the corner that maybe people aren't using that much now, or that's going to emerge that doesn't even exist yet.
Cary Mosier: One thing we're utilizing already is a contactless dining order and pay. I use Paytronix for effectively scanning a QR code at the table and being able to view the menu, order food and pay, and it goes directly to the kitchen.
So in essence, the guests become their own server. That's really interesting to me because it's working and guests are embracing it. It's helping me save a lot of labor because I only need to run the restaurant with one or two servers who are really there to support people who are challenged by the technology. But for the most part, most guests become their own servers and they can fire food directly to the kitchen. I mean, it's amazing.
I think the pandemic has actually created an opportunity for that to become embraced, which looking back on it, is the silver lining of the pandemic. Had I swapped out servers with a QR code if there was never a pandemic, I think my guests would have scoffed at that and been irritated and not wanted to do it, but because people were coming in and really wanting to a safe experience, they embraced it and then they found convenience out of it.
So now a lot of our guests love sitting down and they don't have to wait for a server to show up and take their order. And we've all had the experience of a server being too busy and you want another glass of wine and you’re waiting too long, but now you can just open your phone and order another round and it comes to you in minutes.
So it's lowering my labor, it's lowering my comps. It seems to me so far that the guests are enjoying it. So I think that's going to grow more and more as more restaurateurs become sort of hip to the savings and if their concept embraces it.
And then the other thing that I think is going to grow is text ordering. I think it's still in its infancy, but I think that if people can text an order to a number that you publish, and their order gets sent through and paid and is ready to be picked up, that is going to be hugely embraced by culture. I think we're all very attuned to text culture. I have more text conversations than I do voice conversations on my phone.
And there's some technology out there that's starting to do it; it's still got some bugs to be worked out, but I think they're going to figure it out. I think that's going to be big.
What Is Here to Stay
Matt Levin: What do you think isn't going to change in the restaurant industry and hospitality over the next 10 to 15 years?
Cary Mosier: I think at the end of the day, people are still going to go to restaurants where they feel special, they feel seen, recognized, and loved, and appreciated as cliche as that might sound. While certainly technology amplified our ability to order while sitting in our homes, I think we all are yearning to get out and connect with people. So I think people still are going to go to places that deliver a great customer experience that doesn't use so much technology that there's no interactions with people.
So I think there's a balance to this, you know? Yes, make it convenient, but how can you still provide some sense and an authentic and a rich experience for people where you stop by the table, when you deliver the food, and you have a great conversation with them, or you help them get something that maybe is a special request, or you accommodate some need of theirs? Or simply you just say, ‘Hey, Matt, good to see you again.’ The restaurants that don't let technology create a vacant experience that is just like churn and burn, the ones that really find a balance between efficiency and hospitality, I think are going to thrive more than the others.
What's here to stay is we want to be taken care of. We want to go out, we want to communicate and connect with our community and the restaurants that have it feel like a safe, recognizable, enjoyable place to be are going to be around for the long haul.
Matt Levin: Cary, thank you so much for joining us and sharing your experience and wisdom today.
Cary Mosier: Absolutely. It's fun. Love talking about this stuff.
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This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.