Episode 7

Seth Stowaway

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Season 3

Building a Healthy Workplace Culture in the Kitchen with Chef Seth Stowaway

Great People Leaders can emerge from every industry, even industries known for difficult or even hostile workplaces. Take the restaurant business for example. The margins are razor thin, the hours are long, tempers can run short. An estimated 80 percent of hospitality workers experienced burnout through the pandemic. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Today’s guest is Chef Seth Stowaway. He is on a mission to build a healthy, positive workplace culture at San Francisco's Osito Restaurant and Liliana Cocktail Lounge.

Katelin: Welcome to All Hands, a podcast brought to you by Lattice, where people success is business success. I’m your host Katelin Holloway. 

Great People Leaders can emerge from every industry, even industries known for difficult… sometimes hostile… workplaces. Take the restaurant business for example. The margins are razor thin, the hours are long, tempers can run short… and Chefs in the heat of the kitchen have a reputation for, well, fiery personalities. An estimated 80 percent of hospitality workers experienced burnout through the pandemic. 

But it doesn’t need to be that way. Today’s guest is on a mission to build a healthy, positive workplace culture in his kitchen.

Chef Seth Stowaway:

"I find the most joy at work when I talk with people at the table, and I can tell that they have been moved. While at the same time, I can talk with somebody in the kitchen and they had a night where they flourished. When both of those things happen the guest is feeling really great, and the cook is feeling really great. Together, that's the best, the best feeling."

Chef Seth Stowaway is the owner of Osito restaurant and Liliana cocktail bar in San Francisco’s Mission district. Chef Stowaway prepares all the dishes at Osito over an open flame – but it’s not all smoke and char, though he is from Texas. The food and experience he creates from the fire is nothing short of exquisite.

Katelin: Chef Seth, welcome to All Hands.

Chef Seth Stowaway: Thanks for having me. (laughs).

Katelin: I am so excited to have this conversation with you today for many reasons, um, but before we really get into things, I want to share a little bit with our audience about how our paths crossed. I was incredibly inspired after meeting you, uh, a few years ago now when you slid into my LinkedIn DMs. You and I were perfect strangers as of a few years ago, and you asked me a simple question. You simply wanted to know and connect with me about building a healthy workplace culture in the kitchen. And so tell us Seth, what inspired you to want to intentionally build a healthy workplace culture at your restaurant?

Chef Seth Stowaway: I think the first thing is, um, I, I spent so much time in my youth, uh, alone when I was, you know, out there struggling, um, with addiction and and homelessness, I wanted to be around people and I- I loved people when I got sober and I found, a good mentor, um, I realized that that, you know, a kitchen could be a place where you find community and where you learn how to grow up.

As my career went on I found myself fall into a lot of like, the negative, negative kitchen culture and for lots of different reasons.

It was just like this beautiful thing, this thing that I loved turned into this thing that was just like breaking me.

Katelin: Yeah.

Chef Seth Stowaway: I wanted to be able to be a part of restaurants, you know, and, um, as my wife so gently put it before I started to work on Osito, she said, "Maybe, maybe you, you- maybe you can't work in kitchens. Maybe kitchens aren't a safe place." And I said, "That's sad, you know, to me."

Katelin: Yeah.

Chef Seth Stowaway: I had gotten to a point where, you know, I like, wasn't happy with myself, um, and wasn't loving people and just like, I know, it's not the only way. And there are so many beautiful things about it I just wanted to build the place that I knew it could be.

Katelin: The restaurant industry is notoriously difficult. I mean, like they- they've created a multimillion dollar TV Empire out of it. Gordon Ramsay has made a career out of creative insults. So what are the actual things that make the restaurant industry so difficult to work in? Why are chefs and other hospitality staff so prone to burnout?

Chef Seth Stowaway: It's a couple of things. The margins that restaurants operate at, most restaurants operate at. Now, there are obviously exceptions, but one of the biggest things you can control is your labor. Um, and especially in cities where labor is really expensive.

And so that becomes the first thing you can go. And I actually used to work for someone who would say, you know, two really good hands are better than four mediocre hands, and there is truth to that for sure, right? but when it becomes, you're asking someone to work a 16 hour day because of the- the- the workload and the volume then, then arguably, that doesn't, that doesn't hold weight anymore, right? Um, because what you're, what you're doing is saying like, "I don't want to pay for the second body, when you're good enough to do it all. Why don't you just, you should just do it all?"

And then you find yourself working, you know, 16, 17 hours a day, seven days a week, you know, and there's no, there's, there's no way to be a healthy manager, when you're burnt, when you're exhausted. You know, when you're burnt out. I mean, maybe, you know, maybe. I- I have not met them, my experience is that exhaustion causes me to be confused, it causes me to experience stress at a higher level.

It- it- it causes, um, I think, less space to process things that are happening in real time. It ends up being more, um, reactionary. Um, and, you know, some might, you know, interpret as hostile, or, you know, sometimes is hostile. Another thing, uh, in my experience. 

No one teaches you how things are going to change when you become manager, you know? Like, um, the power dynamics and the relational shift, things you can be working with people for, you know, years, and, and you're friends, you know? And you're like comfortable with each other. And, and then you, you know, become this, this, you get this new role. 

I don't have the experience of someone sitting down and saying, "Listen, everything is about to change. Your relationship with people, um, it's going to change in- inherently, and to keep you safe, to keep them safe, there are some, there are some, some new guidelines, you know?"

That's a huge one. Because like every, I  don't drink or anything, but like restaurants are hard. So people go out, and they drink, and they let off steam. And there's like all these relational dynamics that happen when you're, like, friendly, the people are your people, and then when you start to manage them, if something happens, that, you know, it- it just changes, it changes in people's perspective, right? That's kind of like our culture.

That is a- a- a really big one. It's like, "Oh, like. Yes, we are still friends. But, um, but, but also, like, what does this look like now?"

Katelin: I'm nodding along in- uh, in agreement here. I'm also, uh, smiling because I, I can see you, our audience can't for obvious reasons, this is a podcast. But you are sitting in your own restaurant, you are sitting in Osito, uh, and Liliana, they share. I smile because I know that you are doing things differently. 

Before we, we really start talking about the specifics of how you're building the culture. I'd love to, to just hear you in your own words describe the actual restaurant. I love dining at your restaurant. I love saddling up to your bar. I feel so good. I feel so at home. I know the food that I'm going to eat is going to be phenomenal, but can you describe the restaurant for someone who hasn't been there? What is that experience like coming in walking in the front door?

Chef Seth Stowaway: You walk into, um, the foyer that's, um, you know, it's small, but it's all clad in Redwood. Redwood that's reclaimed from the outside of the home, you walk straight into like, I think, like, a kind of timelessness, you know, um, which is, I think, important for what we're doing because we want to, we want to create something that is both familiar and seems like you've been around it forever, but also new, right? So, so I think that's kind of the first feeling you get is, "Oh, this is like, this is, um, it's simple, but it's very different from the things around it in San Francisco." if you look to the right, uh, there's a big redwood door that stays closed that just very small cast iron says Osito.

It's kind of like a moment for us where we open the door, and you can see the dining room which is also, you know, like, I think the design is meant to be like simple and intentionally beautifully specific until you walk into the, the dining room. You look to the right, and you see this kind of forest of coastal California, um, plant life. Um, and then you look to the left, and you just look down in this, you know, beautiful long white oak table. Just like beautiful room of reclaimed Douglas fir, um, and it's light, but it's warm. Everything has been made intentionally for, for this moment, kind of, you know, to look down this room and to see our chandeliers my friend Curtis has built and ceramic that a local artist from the mission named Ivan made.

And you immediately see us in the kitchen. There's no divider, And we were very much like together. We are not separated from each other. I that's re- really, really important.  There's no door to Liliana, it's just a, you know, it's just a, there's a doorway, but it's not closed off. I think this is intentional, um, to be like, behind this door, it's a commitment kind it's intentional, so that they have their own personalities.

It's darker in that room, it's warmer in that room. It's meant to kind of evoke a different kind of familiarity one that you could just, that you could feel comfortable coming to all the time

Katelin: Something that really has stood out to me since, since we first met and, and our subsequent conversations, um, was so beautifully illustrated in what you just shared. So when I asked you to describe the restaurant and the experience somebody may have coming in, you actually describe the physical space, but the- the emotion that you want to evoke, the intentionality behind every single decision that was made. And because I've had the privilege of sitting, you know, in a- in a seat where I could, could view in on your process, and every decision point along the way, not every decision but, but many of the decisions along the way to see your vision, to see or intentionality come to life in the space physically, um, before a fork even hits the table, before a piece of food enters your mouth.

This, this experience of community, this experience of intentionality is felt, uh, by the patrons that that walk through your doors. And when we first met, I- I had shared with you a little bit about my past and background and working, uh, at Pixar Animation Studios, and I had shared at one point that, you know, back then, Steve Jobs was still around and very much active at the studio. And he cared as much as you do about the details, about the space, the intentionality of- of where the door is, or is not, uh, makes a huge difference in how the culture actually comes to life and the experience that humans have when they come to that,, even if it is subconscious, especially if it is subconscious because it lives in the back of your brain.

And your, your brain is processing all of these experiences, these sensory experiences simultaneously without really registering, "Oh, there's not a door there." Uh, Or, "Oh, that's beautiful wood." Or, "Oh, those plants seem familiar." not only were you intentional about every design choice, but that you brought a community together to really build this, this restaurant, physically build the space. And then as a community, build the culture that- that you are aiming to create through Osito. I'd like to- to shift now a little bit to what it's like to work at Osito.

How many, how many employees do you have? Would anyone describe that as a lot of employees or- or a just a small scrappy team?

Chef Seth Stowaway: Um, it, for the size of the restaurant, it's a lot of employees. It's, it's about one employee for every, um, two people who can sit down at any given time.

Right now we have 30. t's a hard question to answer because, um, on paper we have like, more than enough staff, you know, and very purposefully, um, more than enough stuff, and then sometimes we, we feel like we, we don't. (laughs).

Katelin: That- I mean, that's- that's the name of the game though, right? And as an employee, the experience of not being short-staffed every night, not working and grinding and doing those really long haul shifts, and that the double and the and the seven days a week, you know, nine days a week, 12 days a week, (laughs) which doesn't exist mathematically, but it feels, it sure as hell feels like it.

I can tell, uh, even without knowing you that you have been very intentional about your staffing and, and the culture that you're building, uh, by simply having more people than is maybe the- the minimum viable output, which is what most restaurants choose to do. How would you describe the Osito and Liliana workplace culture today?

Chef Seth Stowaway: Yeah, I would describe it as we're learning. The first thing is, um, you know, the, the, the, the management team, um, is like very robust for a 60 seat restaurant, or, you know, a 26 seat restaurant and a 30 seat restaurant. Um, we have, um, uh, Chef de Cuisine, a sous-chef, named sous-chef. We have, um, an R&D Chef, and then we have two Junior sous-chefs and myself as managing the kitchen, and the kitchen and as you know is very small.

So that's a lot of people to cover a lot of ground, to be, you know, to be helpful to people who are training the dining room we have my business partner, Jen, who is our,, Executive Director, um, which is, you know, something a small business typically, like, some might be like, "Why do you have an Executive Director?" Because you're, you're one restaurant.

And I'll get to that in a second. Um, and then we have a Director of Business, who just, you know, she is, looks at our finances and does HR stuff. We have an in house, um, HR department, It's great, you know, something that I've never really had. I want everyone to be, you know, like to feel safe and good. And like what, you know, like what, what are the appropriate things and ways to approach things, and, you know, so, um, that's, you know, I think, really imperative, no matter, no matter what, and a lot of people don't have the luxury of.

Um, then we have a service and beverage director. We have a, a bar manager, uh, and then we have two Junior managers. One is, uh, uh, maître d who does like all of our guests comms, and we have a lead somm, and she basically, um, you know, does the wine stuff with the beverage director, but also closes the restaurant several nights a week so that, uh, our, oh, and a GM so that our GM is not working, you know, 14, 15 hour days, which is pretty typical for every manager. So the idea was, you know, to start cutting these, these things down, right?

So we can start fir- first with the management staff, like we, you know, we, I don't want to be in a restaurant where everyone's working 15, 16 hours a day. It does sometimes get up to 13 hours, 14 hours, you know, but that is the exception and not the rule here. The rule is kind of like we work 10 to 12 hour days, and anything more than that we know that you might need to take a break soon. You know the opening we didn't have everybody like, we opened in a whirlwind, and it was a little crazy, and we were working a lot, and it was like, this is not the ideal, you know, but weird, but this is always on paper, like always saying, but this is the ideal, right?

We're not giving up on that, that was really big, right? So we're working 15, 16 hour days. Then it became this thing where I'm like, "You guys gotta go home, you guys gotta go home." And they're like, "Well, we got to do this." And I'm like, "We got to work, we always have to be working towards the ideal, you know, like, it's going to ebb and it's going to flow, and you won't always get it right." But like, you have to have that as your North Star, you know?

So now, you know, the, the like, we have, um, you know, promoted two, two people in the kitchen that are like, really, really hungry and- and- and- and awesome. Uh, and two people in the, in the, in the dining room. Um, and what it's allowing us to do is train people to, so instead of, like, you know, someone being here from 10:00 until 12:00, or 1:00 a.m., you know, like, someone can come in at 10:00 and leave between 8:00 and 9:00, uh, and then there's staggering, you know, responsibilities, um, all the way until the end of the night where we can kind of close the loop for the morning.

With the intention of you know, people, people, um, you know, being able to get, be rested for the next day. And it is a hard job, you know, it's like a hard job, it's physical, it's emotional, um, that's not gonna go away. And I- I believe those things are good, uh, because we're doing something- we're doing something that we believe is awesome.

Uh, and we want to push boundaries, and we want to be, you know, we want to be the best at what we do. And that takes commitment. It is difficult, and I'm not trying to take that away because I think that is also special, um, which I think can be confusing with the ideal, right? Like, how am I, if this is the ideal, why do I still feel this way? Well, it's because it's still, this is, you still have to choose to do this because you love it. (laughing).

Um, and the same thing with the management, uh, staff in the dining room. These are the- these are like, you know, very, like, high level, what can you do to start changing things? And one is, you know, making it so that people aren't here their entire life. Or that there's enough bodies, um, that have enough, um, that have enough training that if somebody needs to take the day "Hey, can I take tomorrow off? My, my, my brain needs rest” that we can cover them. 

 I'm sober, and one of the thing is, you know, HALT, have you heard HALT? HALT is-

Katelin: I have not.

Chef Seth Stowaway: Four things to look for hungry, angry, lonely and tired, right? like, basic human needs. Well, those are the ones I think that take us, take us out, you know? Like, do you feel alone? Do you feel like there's someone to come to? and then we talk about things like, um, what does it look like to just be totally transparent, right? Like, totally transparent with our money, with where things are going with, so we take a service charge, we don't take tips, you know, uh, and by law, the, the restaurant can use that service charge however it wants.

Um, we have now only distribute that to our employees, we want everyone to make up kind of a baseline that we're working towards. But like, that's our intention, not where we're at. These are some, some big things and the other thing is we talk a lot in the restaurant, um, about, coming to the table with the things that are on your mind. This is the most challenging thing for people.

Like, if you're frustrated, if you're frustrated with me, you know, like, I'm an intense, uh, standard, keeping, you know, sometimes I can micromanage. How can we sit there, and instead of holding things in, and you know, creating resentment creating divides, but how do we say, "Hey listen, this is what's going on inside of me." Or, "I was having this problem with this person." Or, "Hey, have you guys seen that these two people are like, not, you know, they're having, it's, it's hard for them to work together, maybe we can sit them down with HR and, and work through those things?"

Those inter-relational things that most people just like stuffed down. it's easier for people to just be a little bit miserable their whole life, uh, than to walk through something seemingly difficult because there's freedom on the other side. And so we can't fix or change things really on our own, but we can say like, "Hey, what we do now is there's freedom on the other side." That's what we- we're working on.

Katelin: I am astounded even after having worked with you, you know, loosely over the last few years at how similar the work that you were doing at Osito and in the kitchen is to the work that I have done previously and, and the majority of our listeners. What you were saying and what you're describing in and from your ideals perspective in what you want to build, the aspirational side of company and, and culture building is 100% the same. If I took away the context that you were a chef, if I took away the context that you were working, you know, over open flame with a team of, of 30 plus people every day, every night to serve food to people, I wouldn't know the difference. There is something to be learned from, from every great leader out there who is intentionally designing their culture. It doesn't matter if you are, you know, a- a truck driver in Missouri, or a chef in San Francisco, or, you know, building a tech company in Brooklyn., the fact of the matter is, is that, uh, none of us are perfect. None of our companies are perfect.

None of our culture's are exactly where we want them to be, but it is about expectation management which you've talked about a lot, managing expectations. It's about intentionality, and how we have and create the space to have dialogue around our intentions and, and to demonstrate what those intentions are. Um, and, and to give ourselves space to learn and grow and develop together. And something that you, you've shared here in this conversation that I really want to highlight is really about the impact that that has on the experience, and more importantly, the output or the outcomes of what it is that you're doing.

As you pointed out there, there's always a conversation around trade-off. Uh, we do not live in a perfect world without constraints. But when we understand what those trade-offs are, and when we are having very clear conversations around those trade-offs, that are housed within the framework of our value set, and our having our North Star, our- our aspirational version or view of what we want our culture to be.

We actually can make progress against that in a really healthy way. And so I- I just, I mean, I have chills, because as you were talking about this, again, in the context of building a restaurant and serving people food and wanting to create an incredible community experience, you really have shared a lot of incredible leadership lessons for anyone in any industry. 

I know that we've talked in the past, uh, just personally around the dynamic of what, what becoming a boss or a great manager means. What does that responsibility mean to you?

Chef Seth Stowaway: It means that the most important part of my job is to make sure that people are set up to do their job. Everything else is second whether it's, you know, I'm like R&D-ing something or like whether I need to butcher something or whatever it is, I need to, I need to have space available first and foremost, um, to, to help someone get, get through their day successfully, making sure people feel supported, um, and, um, also making sure that, in that support, there's like a healthy boundary of what it means, and what I'm offering people to share space with me.

You know, I've experienced, like, if you need to talk to me about, you know, you know, about something, you know, I'll make space for it, and then, you know, someone can come and, you know, take an hour out of my day talking about things that don't have anything to do with the workplace, or the restaurant turns out, those boundaries are, are really necessarily.

So to be a good leader, I think to say this is something that maybe you should seek outside help for because I, you know, because I can't pretend to be somebody's therapist, or like a or a doctor having those boundaries, um, also, I think, um, something, something that, you know, I, I still work on because, you know, the restaurant is so deeply, um, it's such a personal project, um, that like letting go and, and, and showing people that you trust them, you know?

You can't just say you trust people, but you got to, like, let them do things and even mess up, you know, like, you got to let them mess up. Um, you can't just come and, and change it. Which is, you know, fixing something in the moment is like, that's what I go to.  So I think prioritizing people  creating healthy boundaries, uh, for yourself, and, and for others

I think the understanding when you have the answer, and when you need to point someone to someone who has a better answer I think it's a really big one, right? Um, for me, it's like, I'm very specific. I am very good at doing these things, right? And the other, you know, people, my partner, you know, other managers, they have things that they're very good at

Our Business Director Liu all day, all of the workplace, um, laws that are always changing, all those things, you know, she's on top of all that stuff.

For me, it could be an, an uninformed utterance, you know, until I get the information from the person who, who's studying it. Um, so, so that for me giving that up for the employee that they're getting accurate information and not being, you know, messed around with, I think that's really important. Uh, and also for the other manager that like, you know, like, this is your job, and I trust you to do your job.

Katelin: So what you're saying is being a manager and being, uh, a leader in an organization is hard and complicated, and humans are messy. Is that what I'm hearing you say? (laughs).

Chef Seth Stowaway: Yeah, that humans are so messy, um, and it's always gonna get messed up. That's the thing, and that's hard, right? It's like, it's always gonna get messed up. Um, and sometimes that's the one thing I think about, like, there's never going to be a day that comes that this place is so perfect, that somebody's not going to leave here with a bad experience and thinking it's all our fault, and maybe someday it will be all our fault. And someday it's going to be them not understanding where the lines are. You know, all these things are going to be real, and they're going to be real forever. (laughs). And that causes me great anxiety.

Katelin: Well you, and every other people leader and manager and mentor and boss out there. We all are doing the very best that we can every single day. And- and regardless of, um, you know, the- the realities of just life and life unfolding in the way that it's going to is that each and every one of us can, can just do our best. And the better we can talk about these things, create that safe space, create a culture that is built around, you know, uh, an aligned value set, et cetera, et cetera, is the only way that we're going to do it slightly more gracefully, never perfectly, just slightly more gracefully.

Every person that comes into our orbit and, and leaves whether that's a diner sitting down and, and, and eating a meal, or an employee that has come and gone in a, in a shorter period of time than we had hoped, uh, or the person who stays with you forever and, and retires under, Osito umbrella. Um, every one of us is going to have our own perspective and our own story of how that experience was, and all of them are real. That is just the, the wild experience that is being a human.

Chef Seth Stowaway: Yes, totally. None of- neither one of them is right or wrong, and all of them deserve, um, being held equally, um, which is also tough, right?

Katelin: Being in a, in a position of privilege and power as the leader in an organization, it's all we can do to just adhere to those values that we believe are, are the best way to show up. But the more intentional we are about how we're building our cultures and how we are coming together as a community have a huge impact on innovation, have a huge impact on the experience that our, our consumers are our users have in and has the most importantly has a huge experience on the world of work as it is shaped. And so Seth, uh, are you ready to jump into some quick rapid fire here with me?

Chef Seth Stowaway: Yeah.

Katelin: Awesome. Okay, don't think too hard. First one, is a hotdog a sandwich?

Chef Seth Stowaway: No.

Katelin: (laughing). My man, okay. Farmer's Market or fish market?

Chef Seth Stowaway: Farmers Market. Produce all day.

Katelin: All day. Finish this sentence for me. If you can't stand the heat.

Chef Seth Stowaway: Stick around a little bit, the longer and you'll get used to it. (laughs).

Katelin: (laughing). Okay. What is your go-to mocktail on the Liliana drink menu these days?

Chef Seth Stowaway: Oh dang. That's not fair.

We do a cocktail that's made with Seedlip, uh, which is an aerosol, uh, which is, you know, basically created in the way of a spirit, but it's a botanical, and there's no alcohol. Um, and that is, uh, we use that with, um, juiced English pea shells. Um, so that there's zero waste. Um, so we use the peas on the menu, and we use the shells and the drink. Uh, and that's a really delicious spring cocktail. There's some other things in it too, but (laughs).

Katelin: Oh man. I gotta, I gotta get back out for the, this new menu. Okay, rapid fire. Uh, where do you find the most joy at work?

Chef Seth Stowaway: I find the most joy at work when when I, when I talk with people at the table, and, um, I can tell that they have been moved. While at the same time, I can talk with somebody in the kitchen and see that they have not had a very difficult night and said they had a night where they flourished. When both of those things happen, um, like the guest. You know, the guest is feeling really great, and the, the cook is feeling really great. Um, that and that is together, that's the best, the best feeling.

Katelin: I love that.

Well Seth, this has been so much fun to chat with you. Uh, I- I love what you're building and I love what you are cooking, uh, so very much and I cannot wait to share your story with our listeners. Um, and so I will say thank you so very much for doing the work that you do. And please, please keep leading authentically.

Chef Seth Stowaway: Thank you so much for having me. It's always great talking with you.

Thanks so much for joining me on this week’s episode of All Hands, brought to you by Lattice. I’m your host, Katelin Holloway.

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About the Guest

podcast guest

Seth Stowaway

Seth is the chef and owner of Osito restaurant and Liliana cocktail bar in San Francisco. Osito is an intimate 26 seat live fire tasting menu restaurant, with a singular focus for each menu. Liliana is a relaxed coastal California cocktail bar with a focus on simple well executed and seasonal cocktails. Osito is Chef Seth’s nickname, which means “little bear” in Spanish.

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