Despite being constantly connected, we are experiencing a loneliness epidemic (see HBR series here). Building real relationships is more important than ever. You can start where you work and Alex Brookings and team are doing things right at B.GOOD.
The lessons that Alex shares and my experiences as a customer stand out. These are things that you can practice with your teams in the way you treat the people you meet and interact with on a daily basis. One or two minutes can make the difference in someone’s day.
Alex is Director of Operations for B.GOOD restaurants in Maine and Vermont. He started his career in fine dining and thrives in places that emphasize the importance of working together. In 2013 he joined forces with colleague and friend William Zolper, opening a first B.GOOD location in Portland’s Old Port. Since, Brooking and Zolper have opened 2 more locations (South Portland and Burlington, Vermont), and look forward to adding more.
B.GOOD is a growing fast-casual franchise specializing in locally sourced ingredients and healthy menu options revolving around the growing season.
Elizabeth: Today’s conversation is with Alex Brookings of B.GOOD. They are in Portland, serving farm-to-table lunches and dinners and creating powerful experiences with short interactions, which we all can learn from no matter what work we are doing.
This conversation began with me being a customer of B. GOOD, which is one of my absolute favorite places to have lunch or any other meal because of how I feel both when I walk in and when I leave. In this world of so many things going on, it is a special thing to be able to create experiences that stand out for people in relatively short amounts of time. Can you start with an overview of B.GOOD?
Alex: In addition to Portland, we have locations in South Portland and Burlington, VT. It’s a franchise that started in Boston. The unique thing about it is each location has their local farmers and it’s all about the local relationships we have with those farmers and with our customers… with the people of Portland or whatever area we are in.
Elizabeth: You really feel it when you walk in. There are pictures of the farmers and some of them in the fields where your food is coming from. It creates a powerful connection. It’s one thing to say farm to table on a menu, but to feel it when you walk in is another level. You’ve managed to create that experience.
One of the things that we’ve talked about when we got together last was just the power of these short experiences. As you know, that’s something I’m really fascinated by in terms of how much we can experience in a really short amount of time. And it’s something that you have definitely mastered. So talk a little bit about the power of a short experience with your customers.
Alex: Well, first off. Thank you and I’m glad that you feel that way when you come in. I think that it’s unique that we have these small, little spurts of time. We’re fast-casual, so it’s a lot of lunch-goers that are coming and going very quickly. We have these one and two-minute intervals where we get a chance to engage with the customer, see what they like in and outside of the workplace. It’s one of my favorite things; seeing how people tick and see the world a little differently. I love just talking with strangers and over time developing a relationship. You get to meet people, understand what they like, what they like for food, and what they like for life. That’s what it’s all about. What you love to do.
Elizabeth: So, what are some of your favorite questions?
Alex: Well, one of the cornier ones I like is, “What’s your favorite thing to do in life?” Some people will answer off the bat, and some people, it gets them thinking. So I like to say, “Hey, you should know what you love to do.” So just for that quick minute…maybe it’s a full restaurant, and it’s craziness, and they get kind of caught off guard. They’re like, “Whoa. I don’t know what I love to do. Let me think about that.” So that’s just one thing that I like to ask everybody when they come in.
Elizabeth: Are there any others that have been effective over time?
Alex: Mostly small talk, “Hey, what are you doing this weekend? Anything fun going on today?” Whether working or playing, I think that you should be able to pack a little fun into every day, no matter what.
Elizabeth: I totally agree with you. So, when I am at B.GOOD, I notice at the lunch hour that it is very busy and it could be stressful, right? Sometimes I’ve seen six people in a very small galley kitchen area with two sides of counters, just to give you a picture. There’s a prep area, the cook area, and a lot of you in a small space, and then the checkout counter right there. Talk to me a little bit about how you build your culture and some of the things you do with your team to help with that stress level.
Alex: Yeah, sometimes it is pretty crazy. It can get hectic at times. But what I always remember is that it’s a team effort, you can’t do it by yourself. You need to communicate with your team. Communication is key, especially during those busy times. Whether it’s just bringing the morale up and saying, “Hey, what can I help you with?” Or helping a customer you can shuffle and fill in the gaps, wherever you need to be, it’s a team effort. That’s the biggest thing, using everybody’s strengths and having a good time. Enjoying the hectic experiences, you know? You have to enjoy the process.
Elizabeth: That’s great. And what kind of training takes place to create that vibe? Honestly, I’ve not met a single person at your company that I didn’t enjoy interacting with. How do you go about finding the right people?
Alex: Well, I think Portland does that for us. There’s a lot of great people around here, so we are fortunate in that sense in that we have a great community and, you know, it’s all walks of life. So we have young workers where it’s their first job to seasoned vets who have worked in kitchens for 10 or 15 years. It’s all about feeling out what they like and treating them like a person. Everybody has something to bring to the table. Most of the time, it’s first impression. You can really get a feel for if somebody’s going to be good or not.
Elizabeth: Right. Are there any questions that you ask consistently in your interview process?
Alex: Like with the customers I start with their interests outside of work, “What’s your favorite thing to do? What do you like to do outside of work? What do you really enjoy? What’s your five-year plan? Are you just doing this as a dead-end job or is this something where you see yourself progressing? It’s fine if you want to do something else, but you have to know this is a team.”
Elizabeth: Those are great questions for any environment. Are there any other stories or insights to share?
Alex: Yeah… I think that being a little weird and asking people kind of off-the-cuff questions helps…, ‘what do you like to do’, when they are a complete stranger, you kind of see this progression the first time they’re a little bit, ‘wait, why are you talking to me’. Within a short time you remember their name and you say, “Hey, how are you doing today” and after a couple more visits you establish a relationship. I think that’s the best part in my sense of it; you establish a relationship, you watch it grow, and learn who people are.
Elizabeth: I believe that building relationships is so helpful for our customers and ourselves. I managed sales teams for years and relationships are the most critical part. Being able to spend time to learn about a human being outside of why you might be interacting from a commerce perspective, we need to connect. Those are the stories that you walk away with; you remember them.
Are there any characters on your team or perhaps unexpected lesson now that they are working with your team and creating that B.GOOD vibe?
Alex: We see a lot of young workers coming in and it’s their first job, or, you know, they’re just very shy and haven’t come out of their shell yet. This one kid in particular, at first it was a little hesitant. He is very shy and I didn’t know if this was going to work out, but through time and talking to him and training, and just kind of seeing what he likes, he’s one of our best workers now. You gotta give people a chance. Let them do their thing. Let them become comfortable before you jump to conclusions.
Elizabeth: Very well said, again, for any environment. So go away from your customer for a little bit and talk about the relationship with some of your suppliers. Do you have relationships directly or is that handled more through the franchise?
Alex: Absolutely. So, when we first opened, we began work with Bill Spiller of Spiller Farms, which is a farm that’s been around for many years, generations, and we went to the farm and took a tour. Bill Spiller is a character. He grows all the crops and right now we are lucky to be getting a lot of them because it’s in the growing season. He’ll even come to the restaurant and drop it off himself, which is great. It’s so awesome to see that transparency of where your food truly comes from, who made it, and to know that it’s so local, it’s the best. That’s what it’s all about.
Elizabeth: It really is. I love that. For closing, if you were to think about some of the best experiences you had as an employee, and it doesn’t have to be at B.GOOD, but who were the people in your life that pumped you up the most?
Alex: I think, first off, my parents. They are both very energetic, fun-loving people who just want to know what’s going on and they are in the action. And that’s what I like to be is meeting strangers, meeting new people, and really engaging with the people of Portland, or wherever I am. That’s what I enjoy in life. I think my parents really instilled that in me.
Elizabeth: Well, that’s the best leadership we can have, right? From day one.
Alex: It really is, yeah.
Elizabeth: I thank you for spending time with The Art of The Break and for providing such a wonderful place for me to refuel.
Alex: Well, Thanks so much for having me and I hope we can keep making those Harvest Kales for you.
Elizabeth: Yes, you can. Thank you.
The lessons that Alex shared and my experiences as a customer really stand out and they’re things that you can practice in your hiring, in your communications with your teams, and in the way you treat the different people that you meet and interact with on a daily basis. Just 30 seconds or two minutes can really make the difference in someone’s day. So, I challenge you, try it. Try to make someone smile today. I believe that we can work better together and that every moment counts for mindfulness and resiliency no matter what your work environment.
You can learn more about B.GOOD at their website.