Chef Jesse Cool at American Grass Fed Conference

Chef Jesse Cool

There is a new food consciousness in America that can be witnessed at the grass roots level of sustainable food producers (grass fed beef included here),a more savvy, enlightened consumer, food industry professionals (chefs) and yes, even corporations.As sustainability issues and products have become more mainstream we see family farms swimming upstream to connect directly with their customers and Wal-Mart launching a multi-million dollar campaign to capture their share of this target (sustainable) market.

At our recent American GrassFed Association conference our goal was to build a bridge between the farm and the consumer.Grazing America 2006 was tagged The Education and Celebration of Real Farm Food.  It was wonderful to see groups such as Slow Food,Chefs Collaborative,RAFT, professional chefs, restaurant owners and representatives of several major corporate retailers talking and forming relationships with farmers, researchers and animal husbandry professionals.

Jesse Cool represents part of this movement in her commitment to sustainable products and she attended our conference in Colorado Springs to learn first hand what grass fed beef was all about.In this recent article from Sustainable Food News you can gain insight as to where these folks see the food industry moving.

Jesse Cool:Selling sustainability to her crew, consumers and corporate America
How a California restaurateur seeks to change the ethics of the workplace

by Sustainable Food News
July 7, 2006

Jesse Cool practices what she preaches Jesse Cool lives on the boundary of the sustainable food movement.Everyday she pushes that limit further,reaching out and including others in her industry with a message of hope for the future.

Of course,no one said doing the right thing was easy.

The food industry is on a path of trying to do business sustainably, she said in an exclusive interview with Sustainable Food News.That means trying everyday to infuse the principles of the sustainable movement into a business model.It also means being very aware, alert and conscious about how we treat people, the product we serve, and waste management.

Cool, long a culinary and community icon in the San Francisco Bay area, runs a $3 million operation including the catering company CoolEatz, and three restaurants: Flea Street Café, jZcool Eatery and Catering Co. She also operates the Cool Café at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts on Stanford University campus.

But her focus is not on growing the top line but making sure that her bottom line does more than just put money in the bank.
For those who are really invested in the long term and changing the way their company approaches food have to realize that the bottom line is going to be a little different because we’re investing in something,she said.That’s what my company is about.

She is entering her third decade in business.And her life, from food stamps to cooking appearances on The Today Show, is a testament to her perseverance and determination in following her own path.

In 30 years, I’ve nearly gone bankrupt more times than I’d even like to mention and nearly gone out of business, she said.

The ebbs and flows of the food industry can make any small business owner woozy.The business decisions, the environmental factors, even 9/11,Cool said, all play a big part in shaping our attitudes toward the food chain and what we deem fit to put in our bodies.

Of course, the cost issue is always something to look at given the industry’s small profit margins,she said.

But the reality is that as the world’s population grows and we find less ways of producing healthy food, there will be no choice but to do this, she said. We’re kind of forced into it.

Cool looks to improve on her sustainable principles everyday.

We’re constantly trying to get better everyday, she said. If we don’t have the right [eco-friendly] cleaning supplies one day, we look for them. Then, when they turn up,we adapt them into our business model. We may have to raise prices a few cents or we may have to shift the menu a little bit or do something, but we look at those options rather than just say,Oh, it’s too expensive.

For example, when the first compostable containers and flatware came out years ago,Cool was only able to source spoons.
We started using them immediately, she said. They cost three times as much as plastic spoons.They melted when you put them in a cup of coffee, but we still bought them. Now, we use all compostable containers and they’re still not perfect.We’re still always looking for better lids, or [biodegradable] containers that don’t fall apart in people’s bags or don’t need Scotch tape.

But what about other multiple-unit eateries and restaurant chains that are seeking ways to incorporate sustainability practices into their operations.Some of the corporate chains are paying workers under $10 an hour, and such operations may not be as adept at dealing with issues of sustainability.

Is it necessary to have plenty of cash flow to make adjustments to supplies or ingredients?
I don’t think it’s about having more cash flow,she said.You have to learn how to be a good business person.

She explained that she had to learn what it meant to be a good business person first in order to bring her sustainable practices, which were already in place, into a business model.

Cool found that once she did that I actually found that my bottom line got healthier.

Soon, Cool started profit sharing.The impact of that decision has reverberated throughout her organization as her team became much more connected, not only to the principles of sustainability, but they got more attached to how those principles got melded into the bottom line,she said.

So how does she get her crew motivated and eager to share in her sustainable principles and philosophy?
It’s the old, five-minute manager principle, she said, which, for any business, is the [leader] adapts a certain philosophy and style, chooses and instills that philosophy in key people, and asks those key people to make sure it’s going to sift all the way down through the organization.

Cool puts people first but not necessarily in a customer is always right sort of way.
My staff and the people I buy my food from actually come before my customers,she said,adding that she deflects the snickers from colleagues with confidence from knowing as long as she, her crew, and the farmers she buys from, are doing their best to adhere to the principles of sustainability, the consumer will get the greatest benefit.

This obvious lack of direct marketing to the consumers of the value of sustainable business practices underscores the movement’s integrity as it places the focus on the origins of the meal experience not the recipients of it.

My cooks and dishwashers appreciate that the food coming in doesn’t have pesticides, she said. They feel that their work is more meaningful because we’re composting everything – even if it takes more time to do it.There is this depth of connection. I think it just changes the ethics [of the workplace].

But while Cool enjoys spreading her beliefs and practices in her operation she’s no stranger to providing her advice to the corporate world.

She was a paid spokesperson for organic and natural beverage maker Odwalla just as Coca-Cola was purchasing the company in 2001 for $181 million.She was also a spokesperson for organic frozen fruits and vegetables producer Cascadian Farms just as General Mills took over the company a couple years before.

Cool said lending her name to these brands for a fee isn’t always an easy decision. And she received plenty of letters from concerned consumers implying she was selling out sustainable principles.

But Cool said nothing could be further from the truth.

I only choose companies that I feel that if I stand up and say, I like this product and I like the company, I have carefully researched it, because I’ve been offered lots of gigs for way more money then they paid me that I’ve had to say no to, she said.

So, I align myself as a chef, that is deeply dedicated to sustainability, to some of these large companies that I believe are really invested in the future in a different way, she said. If these big companies cross the lines, if I feel like they are not trying, if I feel like they are just using us as a ploy, I would step out in a heart beat.

Cool said she is totally skeptical of the motives of large corporations swiftly staking out market share in these double digit growth food industries.

But the truth, she said, will set you free.

Big companies are not going away.They are here forever, she said. Are they perfect? Far from it.Are they using the sustainable marketing issue for their own benefit? Often. Am I hopeful that by conversing and communicating with me that there is a level of heart and soul and dedication and integrity that could be tapped into in the long term? Your damn right I hope so. What else can we do? Do we not get involved? No, we have to do be there.

Cool was in Philadelphia recently attending a conference on corporate social responsibility called Ethical Corporation Conference: How to Communicate Your Corporate Values to Consumers.

She was more than encouraged to see the likes of eco-friendly outdoor clothing maker Patagonia rubbing shoulders with executives from Wal-Mart, and Phillip Morris representatives talking with people from produce supplier Organic Valley.

It was a wonderful blend,she said. Big industry is still part of the real world. Let’s see if they can change.

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