#7. Dan Simons details how he built a sustainable restaurant group, what conscious capitalism looks like, and why supporting your team's mental health leads to better profits. He shares his philosophy of "through the eyes of the farmer" which guides Founding Farmers decision-making process. And talks about the challenges of balancing the big picture of climate change and sustainability with the day-to-day operations of a business. Plus, discusses how his company not only focuses on nurturing the earth and the land but also on mental health resources, coaching classes, and more for their teams.
Where to find Dan Simons:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
In this episode, we cover:
(3:52) What is Founding Farmers?
(6:14) Founding Farmers Partnerships
(8:33) What does farm-to-table mean?
(11:14) Sustainability through the eyes of a farmer
(16:00) Building horizontal growth
(20:50) On coaching, leadership and empowerment
(26:36) Why you should be a mental health advocate
(32:32) De-stigmatizing mental health challenges in the workplace
(38:31) How Dan is helping other business prioritize mental health
(41:09) How to live a life of no regrets
(48:02) Who inspires Dan today?
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world-class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today is the very inspiring Dan Simons co-founder of Farmers Restauant Group. If you don't know the group well, you definitely should. It's rare to come across a business so deeply rooted in sustainability, built directly into the DNA of how the company operates.
This is levels and levels and levels above farm to table. The farmers in this group are actually owners of the business. Dan and his co-founder Mike Vucurevich, partnered with the North Dakota Farmers Union from the outset of starting the business. This means they have 18 wheelers of produce and fresh milled grain for their bread and honey from the apiaries coming right from the farms directly to the restaurants with the profits going right back to the farmers.
And they represent sustainability on really every level. Not just how they think about nurturing the earth and the land, but how they sustain and grow an incredibly profitable business with over a hundred million in top line, the way they build their restaurants with sustainable material, to what I learned most about today, the inspiring way in which they support their teams with mental health resources, coaching classes, and more.
They have seven restaurants as well as a distillery, a bakery, and a non-profit organization devoted to banning plastic straws called Our Last Straw. Dan and I have gotten to know each other over the last couple years, but today's conversation was pretty therapeutic for me. We're shedding a lot of light on why the onus is on us as leaders to help promote and support mental health and wellbeing for our team.
This sounds obvious, and yes, of course this helps the team and it makes people better, makes people happier, and it makes them more productive. But from Dan's perspective, it also just generally helps the bottom line. We had an incredible conversation and we ended up actually talking for another 30 minutes after the call was up. I learned a lot and I think you will as well. So I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I do.
This podcast is brought to you by meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. As a chef and restaurant owner for the past 20 years, I was frustrated that the only technology that we had in the kitchen was financial or inventory software. Those are important, but they don't address the actual process of cooking, training, collaboration, and consistent execution.
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Dan, welcome to the pod.
Dan Simons [00:03:11]:
Josh. I'm glad to be here, man.
Josh Sharkey [00:03:13]:
I'm so excited to have you on. I first learned about Founding Farmers through your partner Mike V maybe like 15 years ago. I don't know if you knew this. We did a project together for an Indian restaurant. I think it was about 10, 15 years ago, because you guys also have a consulting firm.
Dan Simons [00:03:27]:
Yeah, that's right.
Josh Sharkey [00:03:27]:
I'm so excited to have you on because I think you're living proof that to have a successful business, it's not just one thing, it's many things and you do many things, and I'm excited to dig into all the ways in which you run your business and think about, you know, how to fire up your team, things like that. So for those of us that don't know about you and Founding Farmers, do you mind just giving us a little background about you and how founding farmers came to be?
Dan Simons [00:03:52]:
So at this point, Mike and I, so Mike's my business partner. We have several restaurants based in the DC area, but Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania. What makes the company unique is that our business partners who own more of the company than we do are American family farmers, both individuals and organizations of which American family farmers are members. And so the North Dakota Farmers Union is our dominant partner, both strategically and for capital.
And what that means is people talk about farm to table. We're so much just different and deeper than that. This is about where the profit goes, why the company exists, advocacy market making. It takes us down a lot of roads of what matters too. What I think of as the backbone of America, independent family farmers, you know, farmers are a national security issue.
Farmers are a feed-the-people issue. There's a lot. And so supporting independent family farmers is why our restaurants exist. We have about 1,553 employees right now. We probably will do a hundred million in sales this year, or at least get on a run rate for a hundred million in sales. So these are pretty big restaurants.
Around 250 to 300 seats. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 365 days a year, 10,000 square feet, 13,000 square feet. The kitchens are 3,400 square feet, 3,800 square feet and add on the bar. So when you know we've got our own bakery, we have our own distillery. And so when you walk into one of our restaurants, it really should smell like a bakery, feel like a restaurant, and create this experience.
We're really going for it. And so that's our mission and we're not trying to make it easy. And so while some folks are trying to simplify, have less employees, get the robots to do it. Stop cooking, outsource it, buy it from someone else who produced it. We're making our own pasta and making our own vodka, and if I could sew, I'd be making our own aprons.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:55]:
Yeah, you're certainly the antithesis of simplifying the business, but somehow it still works. And it's crazy. Every time I go to one of your restaurants, they're just packed. And they're huge and they're still packed, so whatever you're doing, it's working. Is it the North Dakota Farmers Union that you partner with, or are there other farmers, cooperators or unions that you work with as well?
Dan Simons [00:06:14]:
Yeah, there are. The Minnesota Farmers Union invests with us and is with us on the journey, and we have other unions as well. And then we have the National Farmers Union, which is, you know, a union of unions of other state levels. And then we have lots of independent farmers who invest directly with us.
That's one of the unique things we created, the ability for farmers to invest through these investment mechanisms where they don't necessarily have to be an accredited investor. So it gives a farmer a chance for a greater share of the food dollar, not just with what they sell to a restaurant, but actually sharing in the profit.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:50]:
Oh, that's interesting. I didn't realize they didn't need to be accredited. So in terms of the partnership, how are you leveraging that today? Are there, are there like logistics or distribution or sourcing unlocks that you have because of that? Or how, how are the farmers getting involved?
Dan Simons [00:07:11]:
Josh, this is like one of the coolest things and super nerdy, logistical, wonky, you know, so I appreciate you asking about it. So, I don't know, we'll find out, I guess if people won't hear about it. But it's always interesting to me. So we actually, with the partners in North Dakota, have two 18 wheelers. So we are really unbundling the industrial supply chain, cutting out the middleman. And so ask me where I get our honey. And it comes from small honey producers, these bee farmers in North Dakota, and it comes straight from their apiaries, onto our truck.
And we run that truck into DC and then we work with a local distributor to do last mile stuff for us on a daily basis. And so all of our flour for our bakery comes from the North Dakota State Mill, and the North Dakota State Mill is actually owned by the state, and the profits go back to the general fund supporting education and farmers.
And so by owning some of our own trucks, by understanding these steps of what you can eliminate with the middleman, it's remarkable. Sugar, honey, we're working on potatoes right now and we're able to bring this product in directly. And so that's just one example of a way that the farmers are deeply involved with us.
I could never, as a restaurateur, have pulled this off logistically. I wouldn't have the capital for trucks, I wouldn't have the wherewithal to manage the logistics on the pickup end of that. But you know, we put our heads together and they're entrepreneurial and so are we and we're figuring it.
Josh Sharkey [00:08:33]:
That's nuts, man. I have to imagine that when you hear the word farm to table, it must rub you the wrong way.
Dan Simons [00:08:36]:
You know, like anytime I hear the word farm to table come out of anyone's mouth when a chef talks about it, when a guest talks about it, because it is the beginning of a conversation. But of course when you dive into that, all food comes from a farm.
So McDonald's is farm to table. Then there's the implication of what do you mean, right? You mean, not industrial scale production? There's just a lot to it. You know, if you're really involved in farming right now, you're talking about antitrust legislation and you're talking about contractual prohibitions on distributors when they can or can't carry an independent farmer's product in a certain region, so it gets wonky.
The cool thing is as you learn about it and you're working with farmers and you get to make progress or you break through one of these difficult to clear hurdles. There's more money to be made on the restaurant side and there's more money to be made on the farmer's side, but you've gotta rip that cost out of the middle and out of the hands of the industrial producers.
And look, as you know, because of what you're helping all of us with on the technology and information side, it's very difficult now to manage the P&L of a restaurant. So we have to find ways to rip out the structural costs. And real farmer ownership is one of those ways.
Josh Sharkey [00:10:01]:
Yeah, no, it's so smart. And you've said before that you can't really be a partner to farmers without caring about sustainability, and I don't know if I know a more sustainable approach to running a restaurant than what you guys are doing with Founding Farmers. I think what I love about it the most as a chef is - I see this parallel between how you approach sustainability in the restaurants with really just any sort of approach to how you instill that idea or that mission in a team, or any mission in a team. You know, in the fine dining world, obviously we have these sort of parallels where everything matters, right?
Yes, we're putting out great food, and yes, we have to have the highest quality ingredients and you have to use the best techniques, but having the right angle of the six pans are are important and a clean apron matters, and the labels and the way that you label your mise en place matters and all that matters in its own way, but also it ladders up to a behavior and a belief that you instill in a team by all these habits.
And I see that with what you are doing with your business, you know, every little thing is thoughtful and is thought about. You're not just buying honey off the shelf. You're getting directly from apiaries and the way that you build your stores. I mean, you can talk about this more, and I'd love it if you could talk a little bit about all the ways in which you instill sustainability into your business and how you communicate that and help get your team involved.
Dan Simons [00:11:14]:
We have a mantra or maybe a way that frames how we are thinking. Our expression is “through the eyes of the farmer”. And that guides us. And you're right, when you say to us, everything matters. So we say a lot. Everything matters. Everything's personal, and we see it through the eyes of the farmer. And so when you do that, at least for me, it starts to challenge myself - we’ve got to do better.
And so when I talk to farmers and I work with farmers, whether it's farmers that own the company with us or that supply their family. Their kids eat the food they grow, their kids play on the land that they own. Their kids fish in the rivers or the streams nearby. So you want to talk to someone about sustainability, talk to a farmer that doesn't want to poison their kids.
Talk to a farmer that doesn't want to destroy the nutrients in the soil because their plan is to give the land or sell the land to the next generation, right? To have their kids buy into the farm and carry on the business. So you don't have to be an organic farmer to care about health and wellness, right?
This conversation just leads to, okay, so climate change matters. Look at the drought, look at the water consumption. Should we sell almonds? There's lots of these questions, and for me, if I get too wrapped up in the big picture, you know, it's going to trigger my anxiety and I'm going to think the world is an awful place and I'm going to be like, oh my God.
There's just like no hope. Humans are awful and I just, we need a virus to kill everybody. But there's actually a lot of good humans, and I think that the humans, you know, we're destroying the planet. But we're the ones that can save the planet, and for me as just a little restaurateur. I can just do my part person by person.
So we look for sustainable practices, which really, Josh just means less damaging. So telling the truth is important. I don't think you can be any form of capitalist. I see myself as a conscious or a mindful capitalist. I take a multi-stakeholder approach to business. There's more than just profit. But you can't be any former capitalist and not acknowledge that you're participating in destruction.
So shrimp. You got shrimp on the menu? Yeah, I got shrimp on the menu. What do you use? Oh, I used farm shrimp. Oh well that's maybe full of toxic stuff. Oh, I only use wild shrimp and I'm super proud of that. I only wild harvested shrimp. Really? Have you ever watched how they harvest and trawl for shrimp? Have you ever destroyed the ocean floor?
Have you ever liked to destroy the mangroves to build a shrimp farm, even an organic shrimp farm?I don't mean to be an emotional spoiler, but I love to talk about sustainability. I just can't talk about it without acknowledging the destruction. And so we can destroy less and we can also repair and rebuild as we go.
So I go from thinking about, you know, saving the planet, saving the farmers. Sustainability for me is a farm that can stay multi generational. And the people can stay healthy. They're not giving themselves cancer, and they're not poisoning their customer, and they're not destroying the land. That's a sustainable farm, one that really lasts, you know, hundreds of years.
A sustainable restaurant is one that stays in business. I'm just not enamored by some award-winning restaurant that is here for a couple of years and then is gone. If that was the stated goal, fine, but I'm thinking, don't people need a paycheck? Don't you have to be able to count on your job? Don't your employees want to come to work and build a career and climb a ladder and send money back to the country where their family is, and raise their kids?
And so we want to build a sustainable business that's mindful of the planet's, mindful of its people. And that while I wouldn't encourage my kids to go into this industry, I've got three teenage boys, they've all worked in the restaurants. I'd love to build a company that we can give the company to the next generation of operators and leaders to take over the company.
So long rambling answer, but sustainability for me, like I like to sort of unload all of that thought because I think that's the thread that goes through a business leader, chef, restaurateur, or whatever, when you think about sustainability.
Josh Sharkey [00:15:23]:
I love that man, and I love that you think about sustainability not just in terms of food, but in terms of the business. I always think about the team and how do you continue to promote and grow the team and make sure that they have opportunities to grow without expanding the business or is that sort of how you think about your businesses as you have to continually expand in order to have opportunities for your team.
Dan Simons [00:16:00]:
I don’t think you have to grow the business to create career opportunities. Frankly, just the opposite actually. I think fast growth is a good way to destroy a company and destroy careers. Companies can't handle it. They grow beyond what their real DNA was built for and they sort of collapse on top of themselves Our industry is full of those, and you can already see the next round of restaurants that go public and they will collapse on themselves.
They inevitably do. So I am a devout believer in horizontal growth. I don't think you have to grow up a ladder to grow. So what do I mean? You can have the same job title and add more skills and ability, impact the business in a deeper, more meaningful way, which includes on the P&L, you create more value for the business, the business can pay you more money.
So this is sort of a capitalistic trap lie of we can only pay you so much and we maybe we can bonus you so much. And if you're awesome and the business is making more and more and more money and you're maxing out your bonus, it's a bit of a false narrative, right? Like all the profit starts to flow through.
Who creates the profit, the team doing the work, and this sort of alleged approach that there isn't more money, the better the team is, the more profit there is, and the more you can pay people. So I can run a restaurant with two executive chefs in it. I can run a restaurant with two general managers. I can have two AGMs, I can have two service managers.
Don't have to wait for the woman or the man above you to die or get transferred or get promoted. It's our job as the leaders to help people build more skills. I'm 52 years old. I've never seen a restaurant that couldn't be more profitable than it is if it added more talent. I've never seen it.
Restaurants just have sort of an endless ability to optimize because you can thrill the guest more. You can grow the check average, you can increase the frequency of repeat diners, you can optimize your seating map and you can expand your product line. Right? So now you're doing dining at home, now you're doing to-go delivery.
You're doing experiences. You can do cooking classes. I mean, there's so much you can do as a business if your people have the talent and if you have the drive and the leadership to help them bloom and there's more money to be made. As you can see, I've never fallen into that trap of you have to wait for the person above you to get outta your way, let alone stick a knife in their back to get a promotion.
Josh Sharkey [00:18:42]:
Yeah, man, I love that. It obviously shows in the way the initiatives that you have in the business. I don't think I've heard that much before. When we think about how to grow the team, the common thing is you have to keep opening more restaurants to have more opportunities for another chef de cuisine and another general manager. But I love that. Do you have things that you do internally to sort of skill up people? Other, do you have initiatives in place to help people learn more?
Dan Simons [00:19:00]:
We teach a lot of classes, so getting the chefs out of the kitchen. Getting front of the house managers off the floor, getting folks into a classroom, into a workshop, into something experiential, I think is really valuable.
Our industry believes, I think, mistakenly that it's all about on the job training and it's kind of how we all came up, right? Like it's where you learned. It's where I learned, yes. Some folks go to culinary school, some folks go to hospitality school. You know, there's an academic moment. And then get in the restaurant and work. And then sure, you can go stodge at someone else's place.
You can go work at another restaurant, but that's still, you've got a knife in your hand or you're busting a table and you know someone is giving you feedback. But there's so much to learn to step off of that stage. So we teach a lot. I teach classes to all of our team on building powerful and effective relationships.
Management 101, personal productivity, time management. These are just examples of classes that I personally teach on a recurring basis, and these are all workshop style. Lots of discussion. I don't think people really need to be lectured to. They need to spend a couple hours in a classroom and actually walk out a bit differently.
With a new tool, with a wider lens on something that they're gonna take back into the restaurant and do differently. So teaching is a big part of it. Of course, coaching at the moment. There's nothing I love more than being in the restaurant and coaching at the moment. I just know it's not the only way to learn, and frankly, it may not actually be the best way to learn.
Josh Sharkey [00:20:50]:
Yeah, well maybe we can talk a bit about coaching and leadership for a minute. Because I think we have maybe some similar outlooks. I'd love to dig into it with you because you know I have this sort of philosophy that whenever anything goes wrong in the business, whoever was working on that thing or whatever, whatever happened.
As a leader, I always instilled in myself and asked other leaders in the business just to ask, how are you complicit? Right? In what way are you complicit? Because in some way you are right. There's three reasons primarily: either you didn't manage them well, you didn't give them the tools and resources and train them well, or you didn't hire them for the right role or the outliers potentially, that you just weren't clear enough about your vision.
No matter what happened. No matter what happened with any employee, somehow the leader has a stake in that. And I know you have this practice where you give a mirror to new managers. I'd love to sort of hear why you do that and your outlook on leadership and management.
Dan Simons [00:21:50]:
I am absolutely certain. That when any one of us is angry at something else, angry at someone else, frustrated at someone else's lack of result, lack of performance, that the cause, the reason and the solution, is me.
That is the source of the problem. I see that and I teach that as empowering. Because when I'm frustrated that there's a failure occurring and I realize I'm the problem and I realize and I believe I'm the solution now, like I'm not mad at me, I'm not mean to me, I'm not gonna choke the life out of me.
I'm going to say, wow, what's the one thing I can control? Me. I need to do better, raise my game, learn more, do something different. So I am so on you about complicit. And I love that word. And maybe I'm just one level deeper, which is just, you know, I go from like not only complicit in some way, but just fundamentally to blame.
So I give everyone a mirror. Small little pocket size mirror. And what I say along with that when I give it out is look, when you're frustrated and you want to blame the cook, the server, the guest, your colleague or your boss, and you feel that physiological blame bubbling up inside you, pause. Take a deep breath, take this little mirror out of your pocket, and look at it.
You're looking at the cause of your problem and you're looking at the solution. Figure out what you're going to do differently. And so it creates for us a vocabulary and a way that we can just all remind each other. Sometimes someone has to say to you, maybe you ought to look in that mirror, man. You know? And all of a sudden, if you're someone who even aspires towards leadership, you take a deep breath and realize, oh right, it’s me.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:53]:
Yeah, I couldn't agree with you more, man. And I know I still struggle with this even though it's such a big part of how I tried to lead, taking that blame, really. And it's funny because originally the mantra I gave for the team was everything is your fault.
You either didn't train well, you didn't manage them well, or you hired them for the wrong role and the feedback was, well, that's a little bit aggressive saying everything is your fault. What's, what's something in the middle. But it's true. You know, it is in some way you have to find where you're at fault. Because that's the only thing that you can control. That's right. You can't control how other people act or believe. And I love that, man. I love the mirror. I don't want to steal it from you, but I might.
Dan Simons [00:24:22]
Take it please. You know, and putting those together. It's on you and you can do something about it. And it's not another sentence like it's on you, breathe, pause, same sentence, and you're the solution. And it's that belief. And look, I'm not all like kumbaya. Let's hold hands. Nothing is anybody's fault. I'm trying to build and run an elite performance environment. When I say it's my fault, sometimes that includes, oh, that person shouldn't be working here. And I should have made that decision X days ago.
So the fact that I'm annoyed by it now, that's on me. Had I made that decision X days ago, I wouldn't be here right now. I'd have someone different in that spot that I'd be more inspired to teach or that's a better match. It's not about tolerance. It's about driving for excellence in a way that doesn't include pressure on people.
Accountability to me is not the right word. We like measuring success and mutual agreed upon results. Mutual agreed upon measures and scoreboards. You're a chef and obviously you work with a lot of guys in the kitchen. I'm not a chef, you know, I love my chefs. I'm in the kitchen and I'm with my guys a lot, guys and gals.
But the whole thing of thinking that pressure, like in the form of putting your hands around someone's throat in a proverbial way, is going to improve performance? It doesn't. The only time that kind of pressure works is when it is on a foundation of love and trust. So my wrestling coach in high school could put serious verbal and physical pressure on us, and it drove improved performance because that guy loved us.
We trusted him. He had our back. We knew that we had a shared common goal, and we believed he could help us get there. So can you put intense pressure on, right? With that as a platform. But you know, someone just started working for you and you're gonna be an asshole to them. You know, you're a fucking idiot.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:36]:
I agree, and I'm guilty of this. Sometimes I think I probably put a lot of pressure on myself and it rubs off on my team, and you can see the impact that it has, which is, to your point, not the one you're looking for. We've been talking about leadership, but you've been talking a lot lately about mental health and I think there's no more germane time than now to be talking about that.
We all know, obviously, that mental health is important for,you know, happiness and in a positive environment, but I think that you, in the same way that you think about sustainability, you also think about mental health as it relates to the impact on the business, and I'd love to hear what you're working on with that, why it's so important with running the business and anything else you want to share.
Dan Simons [00:27:15]:
I realize I'm not everybody's cup of tea, and so let me just say, Some folks don't want to hear about mental health and they're like, oh, you know, it's just soft. Or let's just talk about the work and leave your problems at home. Let me say this: whether you come at this topic because you care deeply and are human-centric and empathic, or you're just a raw, greedy capitalist that wants elite profit.
I'm good with either of those perspectives, and I'm telling you, working on mental health in the workplace is a path to profit. So is that my motive? Sure. It's in the recipe, but I just share that to say you don't have to be a mental health advocate for the reasons of caring about people's mental health to actually be a mental health advocate.
You could be a raw capitalist, you could be an intensely driven chef that wants results. You can be fanatical about trying to win Michelin Stars or James Beard Awards and not actually care about the mental health of your people. And once you understand productivity, personal productivity, human productivity and performance excellence, and you really study it and you learn a bit about neuroscience, you will become a mental health advocate because it is a direct driver of performance up or down.
And so why do I work on it? You know, Josh, I can't imagine not working on it. I've built my career with people being part of a team. I don't like being alone. Like I'm a partnership guy. I'm a team sports guy. Yeah. Wrestling, you know, for anyone that thinks it's an individual sport, is individual when you lose, but all that training, hundreds, thousands of hours, you can't become a good wrestler without being part of a team.
This is not there. It's not, you know, it's like martial arts. It's who's in the dojo with you. And so the team approach means the quality of your teammates matters, means the performance of your teammates matters, means you care about your teammates. You’ve got to be able to love and be loved to build deep lasting partnerships.
So I bring this all back around to say, of course I care. If someone on my team has fill in the blank, depression, anxiety, and eating disorder, OCD, negative thought track, whatever it is, and everybody's got something like, I don't know you that well, but we could have a separate 15 minute conversation right now and we could unpack some stuff.
And you know what? There's some struggle in there. There's some trauma in there. Like you just can't have the lived human experience. You know, and we're all running an operating system, like our phones are running iOS or Android. I can't imagine having an Android, but whatever. People have Android, right? So your phone is running an OS.
Your brain is running an OS too. Your phone has glitches, it needs patches, it needs upgrades, and so does the OS we're running in our head. So I get a little fired up about this topic because it's just so clear to me. I want my team to be awesome and I want my team to be there to help me when I struggle and I do have my own struggles with an eating disorder.
We could talk about how that’s from wrestling. We could talk about what that means in the restaurant business and you know, my business partner knows how to help me. I'm a compulsive eater, and then I will regret that and spend hours ruminating, beating myself up, hating myself, struggling with body dysmorphia.
And my business partner knows, like when we're doing tastings, when we're having food, like I take my two bites, he moves the plate out of arm's reach, right? He's like, he's there to help me with it. He doesn't judge me. He doesn't criticize me. He's just there. So each of our restaurants has, I don't know, somewhere like 275, 200, 225 employees.
Depends on which restaurant. Some have a little bit more than that, and I never look at it like it's 225 people. I look at it, it's one plus one plus one. Each person having their own lived experience, each person running their own operating system in their brain, and if we can help them get a little better at being themselves everybody wins. They win at home, they win at work, the team wins better. So that's sort of how I put it all together.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:44]:
I love that, man. I’d love to sort of double click on that a bit in terms of tactically how you do that. We talked about wrestling a couple times here, and I'm seeing this correlation between, well, in high school wrestling, let's say, right?
The best teams continue to have the best teams year after year, which you would not assume. It's a high school, so they're not recruiting people. They might be doing a little bit of that, but for the most part, the kids that come up are the kids that come up, but somehow they keep retaining excellence and that's because they're building this mentality of excellence.
And we think about that a lot in sports and we think about a lot in business as well. But we don't think about building that mentality of mental fortitude. And it sounds like that's sort of what you're doing is in addition to creating this culture of sustainability and of course just like general sort of excellence.
I love that you're taking this approach to instilling mental fortitude, mental health in your team, because I have to imagine that that then begets more happy people, more productive people, because the higher percentage of them that are doing that, it's going to help the others. So how do you put this into practice in the restaurants?
Dan Simons [00:32:50]:
We have a whole playbook. You know, we're systems thinkers. I know, obviously you are a deep systems thinker, right? There's the system that gets you the results. So we have a playbook that includes things like providing access to mental health therapists and a psychiatrist. We have one speed dial. We can get appointments at short notice if our people don't have our health insurance.
We pay for the first couple of visits. We provide free mental health access through the Talkspace app, totally free to our employees and their families. Texting and video. And the playbook just goes on. We train our people to recognize signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety or mental health struggle in their colleagues.
We have continuous use of conversation vocabulary to normalize conversations around mental health. So that's like, I don't know, four steps or so of the playbook. The playbook goes on and on and on, and at its core, it's an operation centric playbook, meaning HR is not the place that rolls out the mental health programs.
This is what the executive chefs are talking about. This is what the GMs and the managing partners are talking about. We're talking about mental health. So you wanna do a shift meeting in the restaurant. You want to talk about uniforms and food and today's specials and whatever. We're also gonna start those meetings off with a legit look in the eyes of each person.
How are you? How do you feel? Before we get to the work of the work, let's get to the work of the humans. So if you normalize talks around mental health, my business partner has panic attacks, struggles with anxiety, takes meds for it. Do I think that's a big deal for me to say in public? No. That's fantastic.
Do you know how many millions of people have that struggle, but yet have been told? Don't say it out loud. So whatever, man. I tore my ACL. I've got tennis elbow from playing pickleball. I've got body dysmorphia that has these negative thoughts that can interrupt what I want to focus on. What's the difference?
Physical, mental. It's like the one human thing. And so what has worked for us is to write down the playbook of all the ways we are going to address this. Work on this on the daily, continuously. Every time we put one of our teams together, town hall, quarterly meetings, big groups, there's always a speaker on mental health.
It's so easy in restaurants to always be talking about food, always be talking about beverages. We know how to do that. We’ll always be talking about hospitality. So just add one more. Just always be talking about mental wellness and all of a sudden the stigma goes away. You know, like the first time you tell someone, oh yeah, I happen to not struggle with depression.
I've had some bouts of depression, and seen some therapists. But you tell someone that and some people are like, oh, you know, it's like revealing something that maybe seems personal because to them it's a private thing, but then you say it and then someone else is like, yeah, me too. And then even the person for whom they've been raised or trained or shown, it's private.
They're like, oh look, people are talking about it. I mean, whatever, people know when you get a haircut, people know when you go to the physical therapist, people know when you go to the gym, they know when you go to yoga, you can tell them that you meditate. Why can't you tell them you go see your therapist?
Of course you can, and that's all you got to do. So it's as easy as just doing it. So I think you write it down, you come up with your playbook, you have your eight tactics. It's just so nice, Josh, the productivity. I don't know if you ever lost a friend or an employer or a colleague to suicide, but if you want to talk about just raw productivity, if you can prevent suicide in your business, compare the impact of your team to not dealing with the death of a coworker, to what happens to your team's performance when they deal with the death of a coworker.
It's devastating. How do you perform that night, that week? Service must go on. I mean, come on. It’s awful. So even if you don't want to care about the death of a human, which I think most people do, the upside of wellness is remarkable. And we lost an employee several years ago to suicide and I just fucking vowed man.
Like we were already working and talking about mental health, you know, and this employee was on our radar and we were doing things. And I look at it and I just say simply say, we just weren't doing enough. I just believe, because I look in the mirror and I say, who's that on? It's on me. What do we do? So it doesn't have to be a depressing topic.
I think you can talk about suicide, which is the most extreme result of a mental health struggle. And you can be excited about it. You can be excited to prevent it. And you know, you can also just help people get out of bed in the morning when they were feeling a little blue. Come to work and smile, get on the right meds. It’s not that hard.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:54]:
I imagine the hardest thing is just instilling that willingness for everyone to be open and transparent. That seems like it must have to be a top-down thing. They hear you say it and then they say, okay, that's okay. If the owner is saying this, then certainly I can say this as well.
Dan Simons [00:38:07]:
Role modeling matters in everything we do. Parenting work, our friends, how we influence one another. You know, the people that I surround myself with are influencing me and affecting me all the time. So what they say and what they do changes me and affects me, and so you can normalize things that may otherwise have been seen as quite difficult just by talking about it.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:31]:
I know you have a number of initiatives and organizations. Are there things that you're doing now to help other people, other restaurants with this?
Dan Simons [00:38:35]:
I started kind of taking the mental health show on the road, not exactly on purpose. A colleague in another company, another industry said, Hey, you know, I know you talk about this a lot in your company. Would you come give a talk to my company about this? So I said, sure.
Dan Simons [00:38:55]:
And then Conscious Capitalism has a great event every year. They're Conscious Capitalism Annual, they call it the CEO Summit. It's not all just CEOs, but you know, business leaders, come together and they invited me to get on that stage last year and I gave this talk to a room of couple hundred business leaders and I came off that stage and you know, there was just a whole bunch of people who said like, can you come give this talk to my company or can you speak at this other event?
My answer is, sure. It's fun to talk about. I know it's meaningful. And so, yeah, I've been given this talk in a variety of forms over the past year or so with, with a lot of different companies. And I know that it matters because I know what people from the audience say to me afterwards or raise their hand in, during the Q&A and and say things.
And when someone stands up in the Q&A in front of 200 people and says, I've never heard someone in a room acknowledge their own eating disorder before. And I've struggled with this and you know, thank you so much. It matters. And it's not about me, right? It's just the message. I think anyone can give that talk.
Do it in small groups, do it one-on-one. The talk is awesome. And then again, I want to talk about food and beverage and specs and standards and excellence. I just want to do it on a platform of physical and mental wellness.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:19]:
Absolutely. You know, you remind me a lot of. We had this executive coach system for a while called the Conscious Leadership Group. Have you heard of it?
Dan Simons [00:40:29]:
No, but I already love the title.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:29]:
It's really great. The premise is really around this thing they call the drama triangle of villain, victim and hero. And you typically, when in any situation, you're on the spectrum of one of those, you know, acting as a villain, the victim or the hero, and you're above the line or below the line, I'll send you some information on it.
I found it really helpful for myself and some of the leadership team. And it's funny, as you're talking, you sort of embody a lot of things that they talk about.
Dan Simons [00:40:55]:
You know, I love just learning more about this, adding new vocabulary, finding new ways to talk about it. You know, I'm on my own journey just to get better at being me, just like everybody else is on their individual journey. And I just know it's more rewarding when you do it together.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:09]:
Yeah. Well, you said your mission is a life with no regrets for you and everyone around you, so I'm sure I can understand how you work on not having regrets for yourself. How do you help others achieve that same mission?
Dan Simons [00:41:25]:
In one of the classes that we teach, I talk quite a bit about the skills and abilities around productivity, and one of those is the skill of foresight, which really connects to judgment and decision making and you know, putting yourself at that moment in the future and looking back and realizing like, oh, should I have gone left or right? Should I have said that or not said that? Should I have spoken up? And so when you can apply foresight in the moment, in real time, you know, the results of your judgment and decision making, they just improve, right?
You just get better. So when I'm talking about a life without regrets, there's two sides to the topic. One is: believe that you can avoid and prevent some large percentage of the mistakes that you would then regret. I mean, look, my biggest regrets in life or my worst decisions have probably been when I'm drunk or high.
You know, I don't party like that anymore, but you know, like making bad decisions when you're wasted. And then there's bad decisions drawn down the wrong roads because of love drawn down the wrong roads when I would let down my own integrity. And so some of these things are just avoidable as you get better judgment.
So that's one side. One part of this is foresight. The other part of this, when I say life with no regrets, what I mean is a life not negatively ruminating on the mistakes that we make. So rather than regret being this negative burden that we have to drag around, I prefer to study that regret. And to draw from it the lesson and go forward.
Like I'm an optimist. I don't know if I sound like an optimist, but I am an optimist. I always believe like this afternoon will be better, tomorrow will be better. And there's stuff that I can do with my friends and my team and my family, like, we're going to be good. We're going to get through it. Tomorrow is good.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:28]:
I don't think you can be an entrepreneur without being an optimist.
Dan Simons [00:43:31]:
Well right, because otherwise reality would just break you. Like when we're broke, when we make terrible mistakes, we would really break. So I guess it's like, step one, use foresight and judgment to avoid bad decisions. Duh. Step two, when you make bad decisions, don't dwell on it a moment longer than is required to extract the lesson and then it's not a regret anymore, just let it go. And so that's what I mean with this. A life of no regret.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:55]:
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think talking to entrepreneurs, that's probably one of the biggest catalysts I believe, of mental health issues as an entrepreneur. We're constantly making decisions, which means we're constantly making some percent of decisions that are not good ones, and it is really difficult to not dwell on them given the impact those decisions have on a lot of people, meaning your team, customers, investors, and it's probably for me, the most impactful opportunity for improving mental health as an entrepreneur is figuring out how to not dwell on the wrong decisions because they're inevitable and there's so many of them. This is really helpful to hear from you, but I'm curious if you agree at all.
Dan Simons [00:44:44]:
Yeah, Josh, I totally agree. Look, you know, I look at the company that you are building and what you've done. It's amazing. First of all, I'm grateful, right? Because your product is remarkably valuable to me. You’re going to make some big mistakes. You've got to extract the lesson quickly and move forward, or you're just letting yourself down and then frankly, you won't win long term. Right? So we can help ourselves with this and we can help all of our colleagues, other fellow owners, chefs, company runners, leaders to this thing is like, don't dwell man.
The construct is simple. What's the lesson? Have you extracted the lesson? Can you articulate the lesson? Do you know what you would do differently? Like, did you just build wisdom? Yes. Okay, great. Fucking let it go and move forward. Because if each of us is just dropping these bitter regrets into our backpack and dragging it around with us. You want to see the path to really deep depression and anxiety and a permanent struggle of the world is just gray? Drag all your regrets and mistakes around with you and let them define you. It's a hard road, but you don't have to go that way. So I'm totally with you.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:02]:
Yeah. Let's buy that t-shirt. Fucking let it go. You fired up my morning, man. I appreciate it. I'm really grateful that we're having this conversation, so thank you. I want to ask you, because we're talking about regrets, but I'm going to sort of reverse engineer that. And I think about this sometimes, I don't know if it's not a good thing to think about in terms of this framework, but if you had unlimited time and money, what would you do next?
Dan Simons [00:46:28]:
I'd start a for-profit business that looks like a nonprofit, but I am a big believer that profit is what creates sustainability, that supports trains and launches entrepreneurs who were born into the difficult socioeconomic layer. And I would go city by city. So I love the question because like unlimited, you just told me I have unlimited money, which to me is like unlimited resources. I'd go city by city and I'd build local programs to show kids that, you know, all they know is like some version of guns and hunger, that they have entrepreneurial capacity inside them, train them, develop them, and I'd build a business that like replaces the family and replaces the church and replaces the nonprofits.
It replaces the government. Because while I respect those institutions for what they try to do, we see the outcome in society, it's not enough. The answer will be businesses and business people that elevate society. So that's what I'd be working on.
Josh Sharkey [00:47:19]:
I mean, you're obviously, well I'm telling you this, whether you know it or not, I think you're a really inspiring guy and it sounds like you mentor a lot of people. But do you have any mentors of your own or people that inspire you?
Dan Simons [00:47:35]:
I definitely find inspiration every day, but probably not in the types of mentors that maybe the question would naturally lead to. So I've got a prep cook in one of my restaurants right now. She just got a cancer diagnosis for one of her young children.
I will be inspired by her struggle and journey. I see what people do to get through it, to have the odds and the decks stacked against them. And I take my inspiration and motivation, and I'm not talking about motivation to help someone. That's a different thing. I'm talking about actually watching someone go through the hardest, most difficult stuff.
And that's, I would say, where I get my inspiration at this point. You know, again, like I said, you know, I'm in my fifties. I don't really look up at anyone because if you look up at someone, they just have to look down at you. I'm much more of just, we're all at the table. We look across the table. It's the same level.
I certainly admire the results that I see people get. You know, like, wow, that's amazing. I think I just know enough to understand that someone's results can be amazing. It doesn't mean they are amazing. And it doesn't mean that somehow their amazingness makes anyone else any less amazing. And so I guess I'm really thinking about the question.
Look, I've had mentors along the way, you know, if you wanna name, I can tell you Stephen Covey, right? I was like 21 when I read Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and I built my career on that book. I met him once. He never knew me. He's obviously not alive now, but that's a mentor. Tom Dakota's amazing thinker in our industry about hospitality and leadership and team building. He's a great mentor and friend, so I do have some folks like that, you know, that are near to me and far to me. But mentorship and inspiration on the daily comes from the people that I see around me.
Josh Sharkey [00:49:40]:
I think we have a similar outlook there as well. I have a mantra I tell myself all the time, you know, never take anybody's advice, but index everyone's. Everybody has something that works for them and it might work for you and you want to index that and understand it, but in my opinion, wholesale taking someone's advice or listening to someone and just adopting exactly what they've said, well then you're not them. You don't think the way they think.
You don't have their background, you don't have their thought process, and you'll have a different outcome and it doesn't mean it's bad advice in general, I think is in the same way that mentorship is one of those things that we're meant to absorb at all, but not directly act upon any of it.
Dan Simons [00:50:28]:
Josh, I love that. If you're okay, I'm going to steal that from you. Yeah, you can talk to people about my mirror. I'm gonna talk about that because I think it's why I pause when I talk. You know, sharing advice is dangerous, right? And it sort of implies that you're telling someone what to do.
Because you know best what I tried to do and what I enjoy listening to is when people share their experiences and then it's on us, the listener, to absorb that, as you say, index it all and then find a way to apply it or not apply it. And it's nicer to receive someone's shared experiences than to feel like someone's advice is raining down on you. And then if you don't take it.
It feels awkward or wrong. And so I think sharing experiences, and then as the listener, indexing that. I’m repeating your words so it etches into me. So I'm indexing right now as I think about this specific construct. So thank you for that.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:30]:
Good. I appreciate that. Well, this was amazing and even better than I would've hoped. So thank you for the time. Is there anything else you wanna share with the audience or anything you want to leave us with?
Dan Simons [00:51:41]:
I'm grateful for the conversation. I'm learning as I go, and I would just say to the audience, to anyone, the doors to my restaurants are always open. The door to our kitchen is always open, the door to any conversation about leadership or support, or you want to talk about mental health in your workplace, or you wanna talk about your own mental health.
Text me, reach me through my website, whatever it is, if I can help anybody. Anywhere in our industry, I mean anywhere at all. But I love our industry and it's full of good people, and we all need each other's help and support. So I guess that's just my final thought: is that my door is always open.
Josh Sharkey [00:51:59]:
I love that. Well, talking about advice, everyone listening here, Dan has one of the most successful restaurant groups I've ever encountered so everything that he said today, it is advice, but I advise you to take it seriously. So, Dan, thanks so much, man. This was awesome and I’m excited to, you know, catch up again soon.
Dan Simons [00:52:31]:
Thanks for having me, Josh. Take care.
Josh Sharkey [00:52:40]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit www.getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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