A Brief History of The Coffee Plantation – Part 4

2010 April 1

In the previous posts, I written mainly about the factual history of The Coffee Plantation. In this post, I would like to share some things that I learned at The Coffee Planation (while we owned it and while working for the new owners) and during my sabbatical. After my employment contract was up, I did take a whole year off, which was undoubtedly one of the top five years of my life. Once out of the noise of a busy life, one can look deeply at their life. It was a scary look,  including a crisis of faith, and ultimately many positive outcomes. I share these with you for the purpose of being a general help in preventing you from having to learn them the hard way. So as not to bore you, I have condensed them to just 10 observations (they are wordy, so I have broken it into two sets of  five) …

1. Independence is a Foolish Goal

Somehow, I thought that the American dream was to become “independent”: to be able to do what you want, when you want it. Maybe that IS the American dream, but if so — it is bankrupt. First of all, no one has the full complement of gifts to really be independent, therefore you WILL fail. Second, God never intended it to be that way. Unless He grants us our next breath, we are dead. The Bible always speaks of a people as interdependent, as a body. Now THAT is true freedom. A group of like-minded people with complementary gifts working together to accomplish something is very freeing and effective. No longer is it all on your shoulders, you just use your gift in conjunction with others.

Application: Align yourself with people who share your passion and have the necessary complementary gifts to make it happen: be interdependent.

2. Know Your Gift

One of the reasons I was so frustrated at The Coffee Plantation is that I did not really know my primary gift. I had a general thought that I was creative and a businessman, which was somewhat helpful. God gives each of us unique gifts and talents. None of us has the complete set, so it is important to know what your primary gift is so that you can focus on using it. So what is your gift? First of all, it is called a gift for a reason: it is something you enjoy, something you immediately gravitate to, something no one has to tell you to do, something that you would almost pay people to let you do. Secondly, you may be blind to it, but the people closest to you can usually tell you immediately what your gift is. In my case, I have the gift of vision: having ideas and striving to make them a reality (a creative gift focused on people and place). This explains why I was so frustrated with being in operations. A creative person cannot be sidetracked with routine and administration without losing focus and becoming frustrated.

Application: Find out your gift. What do you like to do and are good at? What do the people closest to you say your gift is? Now study your gift.

3. Use Your Gift

Knowing your gift is a first step to freedom. However, the internal arguments will immediately arise: “how can I ever make money doing that”, “that’s just play for me, not real work”, “that’s not what we do in our family”, “what will everybody think”, “I can’t make a change right now”. During my sabbatical, I became involved with a ministry called Life Purpose Ministries, which focused on work and giftedness from a Biblical perspective. They gave seminars on the topic and most attendees were deeply frustrated with their chosen vocation. Three groups of people stood out as being frustrated: pastors, missionaries, and lawyers. The first two groups were under the mistaken impression that the highest calling of a Christian is to be a full time pastor or a missionary. The Church does send that message, even if the Bible does not. These people were not gifted as pastors or missionaries and once they saw that one can serve God as a photographer, a pilot, or a metal worker, they were SO HAPPY. The common thread with the lawyers is that they tried to follow the money. The desire to make enough money for a certain lifestyle is a powerful motivator that drives many people down an uphappy and, perhaps, prosperous road.

Work through the objections in your heart. Choose to go with your gift and use it with abandon. People will be attracted to you because so few people are employed in their giftedness. Turn down all opportunities to get sidetracked in areas where you are not gifted. Align yourself with others of the same passion, but different gifts to accomplish big things!

Application: Stop with the objections! Use your gift with gusto: do not focus on areas in which you are not gifted. Align yourself with equally passionate people of different gifts.

4. Put People First

It is easy to put money first in a business, after all we do hope to make a profit. But that is entirely backward thinking. Money is just an indicator you have provided something to people that they are willing to give you money for in return. Focus on people and serving them — the money will follow. Business, particularly foodservice, is all about relationships. Never let technology or cleverness or process ever get in the way of strengthening and improving your relationships with people. There is one group of people that must be served more than any other by a business owner. Stockholders – NO. Customers – NO. Employees – YES! The employees are the people that mainly serve everyone else, make the food, clean, and talk with guests. If they are not honored and served by a business owner, then you can forget about great, genuine hospitality for guests. Serve your employees by showing genuine care for them, provide a positive work environment, train them well, speak highly of them, help them with personal growth, have compassion, give them decision making authority, and be lavish with honest praise.

Application: Don’t let anything get in the way of building and improving personal relationships in your business. The most important group of people for business owners: your employees.

5. Put Quality First: Go Deep

There really only two successful ways to go in independent foodservice or retail: be the cheapest, competing on price, or be the best, competing on quality. The middle ground of of moderate quality and moderate prices is the realm of the national chain and is a minefield for the independent. The independent cannot get pricing like the chains, advertise like the chains, get financing like the chains nor get prime locations like the chains. Chains do have their weaknesses, though. They have to standardize a system and supply chain, so they normally dumb down the food to be able to execute at a consistent, if mediocre level. This means that much of their food is prepared in a factory or commissary: frozen onion rings, pre-made sauces, pre-cooked meats, etc. Many independents fall into the trap of doing exactly the same thing (but worse because they are often unprofessional and lack systems).

The way to fight back is to relentlessly go for quality — the chains cannot do this. If something can be made perceptibly (important word: perceptibly!) better by making the preparation more complex and upgrading ingredients, then go with it. If it is not perceptible, do not waste your energy so you can write something flowery on your menu.  Make onion rings from scratch, make salad dressings from scratch, make as much from scratch is possible. It adds pride to your operation and distinctiveness that people can taste. Go deep! Go as deep into the process as you can. If you are in the cocktail business learn as much as you can about every ingredient, grow mint, make simple syrup, make your own grenadine, make your own bitters, think about going crazy and getting a distiller’s license and make your own spirits. It is great fun and it ignites passion much more than soda gun sweet and sour mix.

Application: Don’t copy the chains — push relentlessly for quality. Go deep into the process, doing and controlling as much of the process in-house as you can manage.

The last 5 are continued in my next post…

10 Responses
  1. April 1, 2010

    Joe, these five observations make the cases for passion more simply than Ignite Phoenix and for collaboration more powerfully than Gangplank. I’m not saying that Ignite and Gangplank don’t spread their messages well, I’m just saying that these 5 things, distilled into a few paragraphs and spoken simply from your life experiences resonate stronger with me. I’d venture to guess that I’m not alone in that.

    I look forward to reading the next five.

    • April 1, 2010

      Thanks, Matthew. I think these principles are widely applicable and commonsense, but they get crowded out by the noise of life. The next five are a bit more specific to foodservice and retail. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog. Shortly, we will get into actual physical stuff!

  2. April 1, 2010


    Joe… I may not be a man of faith, but what you said in this post really moved me. Your whole attitude toward life and relationships and business is so refreshing and inspirational. There’s a reason why this community respects you so damn much. Thank you so much for writing this. Can’t wait for the next 5.

    • April 1, 2010

      Thanks, Adam. My absolute favorite discussion is discovering how God has gifted individuals and how to use that gift with abandon. It is so freeing. I tell it from personal experience feeling like an animal in a cage that I had built! Then the light went “on” and I can revel in using my narrow, specific gift in conjunction with others. It is such a transformation that I try to get people to take the plunge in their own lives. It is one of the scariest, rewarding things you can do with your life.

  3. Steve Kraus permalink
    April 1, 2010

    Joe…….great information, maybe even more then I can actually swallow but I DO see things in a better perspective now that you’ve identified them from a more formal definition. I have just one question (probably many more actually) but when is enough praise? I understand the employee comes first, I’ve always believed that but since I believe we are in an age of entitlement I find it hard to reach a happy medium with some and easy to find it with others Your feedback would be greatly appreciated…..steve@presscfw.com

    Best Always!

    • April 2, 2010

      Thanks for your comment, Steve. I am a big fan of the rather old book “The One Minute Manager”. I think that correction and praise go hand in hand. There should be continuous feedback of correction (as needed) and praise, since people need to know where they stand. Letting things build up, rather than addressing them on the spot (we all like to avoid conflict) causes a root of bitterness to grow, which is terrible for morale. Hope this helps.

  4. Susan Prosser permalink
    April 2, 2010

    Just got caught up on your Coffee Plantation posts, Joe. Great stuff, with the best saved for last. It’s synchronistic with this week’s Artist’s Way topic, so I’m ruminating on your first five points and am eager to read 6-10 now.

    • April 2, 2010

      Thanks, Susan. It does parallel the Artist’s Way chapter, which is quite interesting.

  5. Richard Haynie permalink
    April 6, 2010

    Great insights! You should write a book. I was curious, in the middle of running coffee plantation and handling day-to-day type stuff, did you feel that the creative visionary portion of you was not being fed and was slowly dyeing? Was your brain so overwhelmed that it didn’t have time to think creatively and thus you were worried of losing that portion of your soul?

    • April 6, 2010

      Thanks, Richard. In the middle of the battle, it is not easy to dice it quite that fine. All I know is that I had this forboding that I was a prisoner of my own making — and I did not see any way out but escape, in this case: selling. In retrospect, I can analyze and come to some better conclusions. One thing that we did not have, nor did we seek, was a mentor who could have given us wise guidance.

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