I learned to swirl the perfect soft serve ice cream cone in my first job at The Cow. The Cow is a small, family-owned ice cream and food counter-service restaurant. I had loved The Cow as a child and the charm only increased when I worked there. It was my first foray into observing how another family ran a business. During my time there, I learned how simple it is to run a quality business though the following observations:
1. Sell quality - for profit.
The Cow’s ice cream to this day, is legit. They once tried a lower fat content mix and went back to their original, because quality was not something they were willing to compromise. They esteemed quality, but they also balanced it with the business’s need for profitability. One of the most nerve-racking parts of training was having to weigh our cones to ensure they were the correct weight. If our weights were too high or too low, we'd have to keep weighing each cone and work on it until we got it right. Through that, I understood that business wasn’t only about serving quality, but rather serving quality in a way that keeps the business profitable.
2. Know your customers.
Yes, it was a small town. Yes, the family who owned The Cow had a lot of connections in the town. But, it went further than that. The owner had actual relationships with the customers. Because of this, the family knew what people liked and wanted, right down to the seasonal flavor. I remember customers frequently talking to my boss, asking her when a certain flavor was coming back. There was an environment of relationship, not simply of transaction. The family truly knowing their customers made all the difference in serving them well.
3. How you care for your employees matters greatly.
They expected hard work and utmost integrity from us while they led by example in hard work and integrity themselves. There was always work to do and they always expected us to be doing it, even if there were no customers at the window. This kept me productive and at the end of each night I felt like I had earned my nightly cinnamon toast and Whose Line Is It Anyway reruns. I learned the value of hard, fruitful work. They were more than fair with us. They went above and beyond to show their thanks to us through an annual employee Christmas party and gifts, even though it was only seasonal, summer work.
4. Employees are people.
When I first started, I was put on the food line. I was painfully nervous, too slow and got burned (literally). I was trying, but was not doing well. I could tell that the boss was disappointed in me, but instead of firing me, she moved me over to the ice cream side. I was relieved and there I excelled. She didn’t give up on me right away and decided to try me somewhere else. I was so thankful that she saw me as a person that might fit better somewhere else instead of as a dysfunctional cog to be discarded.
5. Connections really make a difference.
My dad knew the family that owned The Cow and he got me the job. The connection my dad had may have kept me from being fired in #4 as well.
6. Consistent character has high value.
Each family member I knew was consistently themselves in the business and outside of it. They were honest hard-workers. This was not limited to their business - it simply was who they were. Nothing was faked and nothing felt fake. They didn’t put up fronts. If you weren’t doing a good job, they let you know it, but they didn’t bestow flattery or give compliments where they weren’t earned. Their consistent character made them reliable, trustable people. Their consistent nature bestowed consistency on their business, which allowed people to rely on them and their business for consistent quality.
Running a quality business is simple. It does require hard work but it should be simple. If your business seems over-complicated - ask yourself why. Great business is simple. Anything more makes me suspicious.