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Op-Ed: The Place We Want to Be

Josh Kulp

June 06, 2017

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We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about. Our latest entry comes from Josh Kulp, chef/owner behind Chicago’s Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club. Below, Kulp details his vision for upending the traditional restaurant industry model by offering his employees benefits and a stake in his businesses’ future.

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Some busy nights I stand at the pass and survey the scene of our restaurant. I see cooks moving with purpose and speed; runners and bussers smiling and hustling; the cashier sharing with a new customer how we season the chicken; a bartender chatting with a regular while pouring a beer; dishwashers laughing and singing along to kitchen music while plowing through sheet pans; managers and chefs leading with passion and generosity.

Moments like these are why Honey Butter Fried Chicken is one of my favorite places to be.

Sometimes it can be easy to lose sight of it all. My business partner, Christine Cikowski, and I set out to build not only a restaurant, but also a community. We also wanted our business to reflect our values. But the only kind of truly sustainable restaurant is one that is open for service and making a profit.

These things can be at odds with one another but they don't have to be. We are making delicious food, sourcing responsibly, paying higher than average wages, providing benefits such as paid vacation and health care, and we even have profit-sharing and transparent financial practices. The price of our menu items includes not only delicious food, but also great service.

Nothing about this is easy. When Honey Butter Fried Chicken, LLC was born, lawyers drew up an operating agreement. The IRS provided an employer identification number. We figured out how to pay sales tax online, and pulled permits for construction. We were inspected by fire, buildings, health, and other departments whose names we did not catch. HVAC was balanced, concrete was poured, tables were built. Recipes were tested and re-tested, ingredients tasted and re-tasted. We paid for a loading zone, and installed a walk-in cooler. New drains went in here, and new electric came alive over there. An employee handbook was written, timeclocks and iPads were activated. Bank accounts opened and workers’ comp and liability policies signed. Credit forms were filled out, awnings affixed, fixtures installed, equipment turned on, fryers and pilots lit. A job fair was held, and employees were hired.

I was not fully prepared for the enormity of being a boss to a staff of 37. It seemed like we had taken care of every detail, but building a company culture was not going to be as simple as checking a box. As an operator and partner in this new restaurant, the tone we struck and the vision we shared could have a lasting impact, good or bad. I realized quickly that I could not be passive when it came to the culture of our company.

We needed to know what kind of place we wanted Honey Butter to be.

Orientation was the first time I said aloud a mantra that has become my guiding light: I told our new staff to help make this a place that we all wanted to be. I told them that work did not have to be something to dread when waking up in the morning. Work did not need to be suffered through just to hurry home for a couple hours of life. I told them that we had a chance to make this restaurant, this place of employment, something special. I told them that we are alive when we are at work, and that our lives do not need to be on hold while we labor.

I’ve worked in restaurants filled with screaming and humiliation. As a cook, I had mornings where I secretly hoped an act of god, or at least a power outage, would lead to a call that I would not have to come in. I’ve felt the elation of a day off and the nauseating angst of knowing tomorrow I had to be back to work. I loved cooking, but I did not love misery.

The place I want to be doesn’t make you choose between coming to work sick and missing a paycheck. The place I want to be encourages you to take a vacation and to explore the world without fretting that losing a week of pay will make rent impossible. The place I want to be doesn’t make you choose between getting that sore hip checked out and bankruptcy. The place I want to be celebrates and supports the arrival of a child into the family of an employee.

Building a culture of generosity and support is a nuanced and fulltime proposition. We ask our staff to be thoughtful and helpful. We encourage our employees to push themselves to grow as leaders. We expect them to treat each other like customers.

But all of that is for naught, if when push comes to shove, the company isn’t there for them. How can we ask our employees to work together, to help each other, if we aren’t doing the same? Our support cannot simply be lip service. We must be thoughtful and helpful as well.

This is why we believe basic benefits like paid sick time, paid time off, access to affordable health care, and paid parental leave are essential. At Honey Butter Fried Chicken, our employees have access to all of these benefits.

We know that we are in this for the long haul. We consider these costs to be an investment in the company and community we want to build. We want Honey Butter to be a place that lasts. We train our employees in financial literacy. Through weekly meetings, we share the costs, stressors, failures, and successes of running a small business. We ask our team to keep Honey Butter Fried Chicken healthy and happy. In return, when the company is successful, our team receives a share of the financial gains we produce.

We not only want this restaurant and company to become an important part of the lives of our customers, we want it to be a place where our employees can make a meaningful career within our business or, if circumstances dictate, elsewhere in our community. We want workers within the restaurant business to gain the respect and dignity of a great and meaningful profession. We are proud to have low turnover and many staff members who’ve been with us for years.

The benefits and culture we offer at Honey Butter should become the norm, which is why we work with organizations such as Restaurant Opportunity Group (ROC) and RAISE (Restaurants Advancing Industry Standards in Employment).

We specialize in fried chicken. It is delicious fried chicken, but if we can make this work, we know others can too.

Christine and I have built Honey Butter Fried Chicken to be the type of place where we are proud to take our families. It reflects our values and principles. It's also a pretty great place to spend a Saturday with friends. As we walk through the restaurant every day, we hear the buzz of the place, and see our customers’ smiles and the looks on our staff’s faces. It is our favorite place to be.

Josh Kulp is the chef and co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club in Chicago. Learn more about his restaurants here.

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The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the authors in our op-ed series do not necessarily reflect the official position of the James Beard Foundation.