Monthly Archives: May 2012

How schools train students to not be responsible

A thoughtful parent was telling me about her concerns with her elementary school aged son’s academic progress.  While his test scores placed him in the 97th percentile, his grades were beginning to drop and he was getting in trouble for disobedience.  For instance, during quiet reading period, he would help a classmate with vocabulary words. “He’s not obedient, and I don’t see why he should be,” she said.  “Why shouldn’t he help out a classmate?”

Her son is in a system that rewards obedience and punishes responsibility.  A responsible child helps a classmate.  The system made it clear that obedience to rules trumps acting responsibly.  (And who the fuck came up with the idea that one needs silence to read?  One needs such conditions only if one believes such pedagogical rubbish. People read just fine on the subway, buses, etc.).

This parent was also concerned with her high school aged daughter, a good student taking honors classes.  She complained that her daughter is too compliant, too obedient, too boring. She disapproved of her daughter’s approach to school work. “She  just repeats whatever teacher tells her instead of problematizing an issue,” she said.  “I’ve asked her over and over again to write papers that challenge assumptions rather than accept teacher’s opinion as fact.”  Her daughter has been resisting her advice because “she doesn’t want to get in trouble at school, she wants good grades.”  So she gave her daughter two options: “You can either get in trouble at school or you get in trouble at home.”

This parent’s daughter is also in a system that rewards obedience and punishes responsibility.  Her daughter has adapted to it and she wants to make sure her son doesn’t do the same.

I don’t think anyone is truly comfortable with being obedient.  Those who are obedient are so, or try to appear so, out of fear and habit. Yet many schools and businesses, in spite of their stated desire for innovative citizens capable to creating new paradigms, train their students and employees to be obedient, not responsible…or sentient, or compassionate, or dignified. So why the contradiction, the absurd situation? How did we get to this point?

Education reformer/activist John Gatto Taylor describing his experiences as a student and school teacher:

“Consider the strange possibility that we have been deliberately taught to be irresponsible and to dislike each other for some good purpose. I am not being sarcastic or even cynical. I spent 19 years as a student, and 30 more as a school teacher and in all that time I was seldom asked to be responsible, unless you mistake obedience and responsibility for the same thing, which they certainly are not. Whether student or teacher, I gave reflective obedience to strangers for 49 years. If that isn’t a recipe for irresponsibility then nothing is. In school your payoff comes from giving up your personal responsibility, just doing what you’re told by strangers even if that violates the core principles of your household. There isn’t any way to grow up in school, school won’t let you. As I watched it happen, it takes three years to break a kid, 3 years confined to an environment of emotional neediness, songs, smiles, bright colors, cooperative games, these work much better than angry words and punishment.”

Taylor doesn’t consider obedience a natural state.  It’s a learned state — “three years to break a kid” — that’s taught in school.  Watch 3-4 year olds.  Unless they’ve been coddled to the extreme, they’re remarkably responsible and are constantly asking for more responsibility.  By 9, these same kids will either be obedient, be either good or bad at faking obedience, or stigmatized as “special needs” for routine in-your-face disobedience, for resisting losing their freedom and individuality, for questioning why they have to learn bullshit.  The obedient ones become middle-managers.  The ones who fake obedience become managed staff.  The “special needs” kids either become Steve Jobs or end up in jail.

Taylor on the personalities schools create:

“Constant supplication for attention creates a chemistry whose products are the characteristics of modern school children — whining, treachery, dishonesty, malice, cruelty and similar traits. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, I have never seen this dynamic examined in the public press — not in 50 years of reading the public press. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, reliably delivers cowardly children, toadies, school stoolies, little people sunk into chronic boredom, little people with no apparent purpose, just like caged rats, pressing a bar for sustenance, who develop eccentric mannerisms on a periodic reinforcement schedule.  Those of you who took rat psychology in college will know what I’m referring to — just like the experience of rat psychology, the bizarre behavior kids display is a function of the reinforcement schedule in the confinement of schooling to a large degree. I’m certain of that. Children like this need extensive management. “

Many businesses, faced with a labor pool of needy people, reinforce what employees were taught in school instead of making the effort to teach them how to be responsible.  Many businesses, faced with a consumer pool of needy people, market their products to satisfy the needs of a scared, insecure, and suspicious populace.  Gatto on how schools produce consumers:

“The fantastic wealth of American big business is a direct result of school training. Schools training a social lump to be needy, frightened, envious, bored, talentless and incomplete. The successful mass-production economy demands such an audience. It isn’t anybody’s fault. Just as the Amish small business, small farm economy requires intelligence, competence, thoughtfulness and compassion, ours needs a well managed mass — level, anxious, spiritless families, godless and conforming.”

And people wonder how I can be afraid of a seemingly innocuous teenage girl but let a couple of high school drop-outs with a combined 26 felonies work on my yard and house on their own.  (And pay these guys upfront and share beers with them after work). Some people think I’m crazy.  I think they’re the ones who are bonkers.

Taylor describing the psychological health of American consumers:

“The American economy depends on schooling us that status is purchased and others run our lives. We learn there that sources of joy and accomplishment are external, that the contentment comes with the possessions, seldom from within. School cuts our ability to concentrate to a few minutes duration, creating a life-long craving for relief from boredom through outside stimulation. In conjunction with television and computer games, which employ the identical teaching methodology, these lessons are permanently inscribed. We become fearful, stupid, voiceless and addicted to novelty. “

Something has to be done about the cultural malaise that’s destroying America.  If schools won’t change their approach to teaching students, then businesses need to invest the time to teach employees responsibility.  It may turn out that the time and money invested in teaching responsibility and unlearning obedience may better serve the long-term interest of businesses.

The toughest part of building a business and new brand isn’t taxes (which are annoying and sometimes absurd), it’s human resources.  When we started, our labor pool was limited to teens because those who are qualified aren’t willing to take a chance on a new business.  Many applied and I was shocked at how incompetent, irresponsible, and obedient (or bad at faking obedience) they were.  So now we identify candidates we think are willing to unlearn what they learned in school and then develop them into responsible, thoughtful, confident, and dignified contributors.

Review of Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw

Anthony Bourdain is an important food commentator because he makes an effort to get people to think about food not just as cobbled together ingredients, but as an art, a fashion, a narrative, a political act.  He understands that restaurants don’t just sell food, they offer customers identities and cultural capital.  Those who think food is whatever it is you’re about to eat don’t understand it.  Food isn’t just central to life — the one thing we have to have to survive — it’s the center of life, the primary site where we express and reveal ourselves, whether we realize it or not.  What and how we eat defines who we are and where we’re from.

Not everyone seems to understand Bourdain. Some read Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, an insider’s expose of what really happens in restaurants, for its lurid tales of sex and drugs and debauchery (he warns about the dangers of drug abuse).  Others used it as inspiration to begin careers in the food industry (he warns about working in the food industry).  Too many liked Kitchen Confidential because they read Bourdain as an entertaining foul-mouthed badass than as a caring and witty food commentator who provides the insights to get people to think about what’s right and wrong about latest food trends and what we can do to make what we eat better, healthier.

Bourdain’s second book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, is a collection of essays about the food industry, its politics, absurdities, trends, and impact on how we eat and think. It provides insider perspectives of food industry culture, some New-York centric gossip, a chapter on food and travel porn (he makes some and is really good at it), personality sketches of chefs (entire chapter devoted to David Chang), a parenting experiment (how to teach your child to hate McDonald’s), policy recommendations (bring back Home-Economics), critique of Alice Waters and the organic movement, and more. Though there are references to Kitchen Confidential, it can be read independently of it.

If there’s a motif that connects the essays, it’s that “Life is cruel, lonely, and filled with pain and random acts of violence.  Everybody hates you and seeks to destroy you.” For Bourdain, many of those who cook for a living share this worldview.  David Chang, to whom Bourdain devotes an entire chapter and considers “the most important chef in America,” (but far from the best) is driven by “hate, fear and rage;” Gordon Ramsey by memories of growing up “…poor, constantly on the move, with an untrustworthy and unreliable dreamer of a father;”  Marco Pierre White by knowing that “the bastards could come knocking at any minute and take it all away.”

It’s this Hobbesian worldview that makes love, respect, loyalty, dedication, perfection, beauty, and the absurd possible.  In a world of war against all, some become “villains,” others “heroes.”  The villains, unable to take control of their fears and uncertainties, give in to the customer and fulfill their basest desires, or worse, emotionally manipulate them to pay more for the same shit.  The heroes, on the other hand, aren’t obedient to customers, they’re responsible for them.  Heroes “experiment, push boundaries, explore what is possible, what might be possible.”  Hero Grant Achatz “risked his life” to do what he’s done and hero Terrance Brennan “loved cheese enough to lose money on it.”

Bourdain wants his readers to appreciate these heroes, to become the sort of customers industry insiders wish for so they can take the risks necessary to elevate cuisine.  This is why he devotes an entire chapter to David Chang, whose restaurants are designed “exclusively for hungry chefs and cooks and jaded industry people.”  Bourdain is spot on when he imagines industry people thinking about Chang’s restaurants: “This is the way — this is how good, how much fun our business could be if only we didn’t have to worry about the fucking customers.”

The hope is that readers will reflect on who they are as customers and become the sort of patron Bourdain’s heroes love to serve.  The sort of customer who asks questions, is adventurous, experimental, reflective, relaxed, completely engaged with the food.  The customer who challenges oneself and others, pushes boundaries. The customer who can appreciate the thought, effort, passion, responsibility and sacrifice put into the food and ambiance they’re served.

Never Say “No” to a Customer

From Company Guidelines, Principles, and Values:

Never say “No” to a customer.  “No” creates a communication barrier.  Always maintain a we-can-do-it-all atmosphere. Figure out a way to provide what the customer wants.

Similar to restauranteur Cameron Mitchell’s “The Answer is Yes. What’s the Question” policy.

Milkshake Story:
Mitchell was celebrating his son’s birthday at a restaurant. His son wants a chocolate milkshake so they ask the server for one. Server tells them that they don’t *offer* milkshakes.

Mitchell asks, “Do you have milk? Do you have chocolate ice cream? Do you have a blender? Well, you can make a chocolate milkshake.” The server asks the manager, but the answer is the same: no milkshake because it’s not on the menu.

The answer was “no” because the server and manager were obedient, not responsible (see Be responsible, not obedient policy).  They followed rules because they were afraid to make and to take responsibility for their mistakes.  As long as they follow the rules, they can blame someone else if the customer doesn’t have a good experience.

Ultimately, executive management is to blame for Mitchell’s bad experience.  They’re the ones who set company guidelines and policies and oversee training of floor staff.  Their leadership failed to give employees the confidence to be responsible and make thoughtful decisions.

Someone told Mitchell that the exact same thing had happened to him—at one of Mitchell’s own restaurants. That infuriated Mitchell. He has since made sure that every new employee hears the “Milkshake Story” first day of training. “We want our people to have the attitude, ‘The answer is yes. What’s the question?‘” he says. This simple philosophy is one of the reasons Mitchell’s restaurants take regular customers and turn them into raving fans.

Our “Say No to No” policy isn’t just about producing thoughtful and responsible employees, it’s about creating an atmosphere where customers feel like they can talk to and trust us.  Early on, we noticed many customers shutting down or becoming angry whenever we told them “no.”

New Customer: Do you have strawberries?
Obedient Employee: No, we don’t.
New Customer: Oh, ok.  Do you have blueberries?
Obedient Employee: Nope.
New Customer: Ok.  I’ll stop by some other time.

Versus responsible employee

New Customer: Do you have strawberries?
Responsible Employee: We’re seasonal so we’ll have them soon.  Are you looking for something fruity?
New Customer: Mmmm, yeah.
Responsible Employee:  Do you like mangoes because they smell and look great today?
New Customer: Yeah, I like mangoes.
Responsible Employee:  How about the Tropical Bugs bunny.  It has mangoes, pineapple, banana and a bit of carrot juice, which brings out the mango and pineapple flavors.
New Customer: Okay, I’ll take that.
Responsible Employee: How is it?
New Customer: So good.  Thank you!

Responsible employee has higher ask-to-talk ratio.  Asking questions invites customer to talk, to work with the barista to come up with something that will make her happy.  Another example:

Customer: Do you sell milkshakes?
Obedient: No, sorry.
Customer: Oh, ok.

versus responsible.

Customer: Do you sell milkshakes?
Responsible: We have something better and tastes just like it.  Would you like to try it?
Customer: What’s it called?  What’s in it?
Responsible: It’s an avocado milkshake.  It has avocado, peanut butter, some kale, and your choice of fruit — I recommend apple — and whey protein.  It tastes just like a milkshake but it’s so much healthier, guaranteed.
Customer: Hmmm, ok.  I’ll try it.
Responsible: Great…here you go.
Customer: Omigosh, it really is like a milkshake!  Thank you so much!!!

Responsible employee understands the customer isn’t ordering a milkshake, he’s asking for a feeling.  He wants something — taste, texture, maybe color — that will remind him of happy times, perhaps memorable childhood events.  The milkshake is irrelevant.  A good barista will be able to re-create the milkshake, give him the feeling he wants guilt-free.

It’s tough to get “no” out of our vocabulary.  We all still make the mistake of saying “no” to a customer.  But all employees know there are other, more positive ways, to say “no.”  It just requires some thought.

Frequently Asked Questions by Customers (Part II)

Does the owner have a degree in nutrition? 

Did the owner attend culinary school?

Then where did owner learn how to cook?
From eating at challenging and interesting food establishments, practice at home, and years of obsessing about food.

When did he start cooking?
He began serving classmates buttered toast when he was 6 years old.  Also at age 6, while parents were napping, he rummaged through the fridge to make veggie soup from scratch.  Interest, however, was not supported or developed by family, who had other ideas for his future.

How many hours a week does the owner work?
He doesn’t count work hours because he doesn’t make a distinction between work and leisure.  His guess is around 100 hours per week, if “work” is defined as time spent at store, grocery shopping, blogging, and completing paper work.  Time spent thinking about the business (and food) is nearly every waking moment.

Every waking moment!?  Does he think about sex?
We think he tries, not sure if he’s successful at it.

What does the owner have for breakfast?
Varies.  Typically hot water with cayenne, avocado with hot sauce, chicken broth, maybe some nuts and an all veggie smoothie.  Spread over 3 hour period.

How tall is the tall blond?

Who eats the most?
The rail thin one. By a wide margin.

Why do you guys play so many songs about death?
It just feels right.

Are you guys vegan or strictly raw  foodies?
We eat meat, raw and cooked.  Owner believes less meat is better for health and environment.

Is the owner crazy? 
Don’t know.  We’re not doctors.

Why would you work with someone like your owner?
We’re crazy.

So which barista knows kung fu?
The one with the bruises.

Where’s the owner?
He’s mowing the lawn and drinking beer.

What does the owner do in his free time?
He mows lawns and drinks beer.

Is the owner Japanese?

Is the owner Korean?

Why doesn’t the owner take any days off?
Because he’s building a business and is trying to develop a brand.  Isn’t the same as owning a franchise with strong brand recognition.  He’s also trying to pack as much kitchen time as possible so he can catch up to his peers.  We estimate that the two years he’s spent on the floor is equivalent to five years for average cook.  And finally, quality goes down fast, even if owner is at the store one hour less per day.

What was owner’s upbringing like?
Stereotypical Asian upbringing, Tiger Mother lite.  Piano, violin, music theory, math tutoring, tennis…bitch slapped for getting a B (and he got many of those).  He wouldn’t change much of it.   

Recommended Restaurants (for teens)

Our employees are expected to develop and elevate their standard of taste in food and restaurants.  They can’t produce good products and customer experiences until they’re familiar with the highest standard of food and customer service.   We do our best to expose employees to higher standards of food and restaurants (and music, art, film, etc.) so they become intolerant of mediocrity in life.

Some associate good food with fancy, expensive food.  Not true, as there are many “expensive” restaurants that serve awful or boring food paired with inconsiderate service.  Food stalls throughout Asia (esp. Taipei!) serve great comfort food and snacks at low prices. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive.  It just needs to be challenging, engaging, soothing, and fulfilling.

Anyway, here’s a list of Seattle area food establishments that most people can afford, including teens who frequent McDonald’s and Subway and Jamba Juice.  One caveat is that some of these are affordable only if all involved are willing to share each order, eat family style.

Black Bottle (Belltown): Surprisingly large portions, hipster vibe (that I’m tired of and too old for), ideal for teens.  Crispy fried chicken and collard greens ($7), ceviche and tortillas ($9), chocolate cake and lemon gelato ($8) is enough to feed three.  That’s like 32 bucks w/tax and $5 tip.  Three McDonald’s value meals = $27.

Le Pichet (near Pike Market): French bistro, where 2 can share a Baguette Sandwich ($6.50, “Your choice of Paris ham, jambon cru, pâté, chicken liver terrine, gruyère or your choice from the cheese board”) and a tuna salad ($8.00, “Italian tuna conserve tossed with marinated chickpeas, baby artichokes, Niçoise olives and rosemary-red wine vinaigrette”).  Lunch for $19, tip and tax included.  Two $5 Subway footlongs, two sodas, one bag of potato chip plus tax = $16.

BCD (Lynnwood, H-Mart plaza): Korean, food court setting. Two can share an order of seafood soup and sizzling kalbi beef ($14).  Comes with rice and 5-7 side dishes, including fish and kimchi.  An extra bowl of rice is $2. Free hot tea.  Tax and tip = $18.  Red Robin’s Tavern Double with BOTTOMLESS FRIES = $7 times 2 = $14.  Tax and tip, no drink = $18.

Maximillien’s Happy Hour (Pike Market):  Penn Cove Mussel Marinière Butter, white wine, shallots, garlic and parsley ($4); Belgium Fries cornet served with two dipping sauces ($4); Goat Cheese Mousse with roasted garlic and herbs. Baguette croutons ($4); Bucket of 6 Kronenberg Beer ($15).  Tax and tip = $35.  View of sound.  Red Lobster’s Shrimp Festival = $13 timess 2 = $26.  Tax and tip = $33 without booze.

It doesn’t cost much to eat well, in establishments that provide knowledgeable, charming and responsible service (instead of polite and obedient service).  There’s no reason why typical teenagers can’t improve their palates.  If they can afford Sorelli pizza or McDonald’s or Red Robin or Jamba Juice or a movie ticket to watch Twilight, they can afford good food and a varied diet.

Some other affordable food establishments:

Facing East (downtown Bellevue)
Chez Shea’s Happy Hour (Pike Market)
Toulouse Petit Happy Hour (Lower Queen Anne)
Brooklyn Seafood (Downtown Seattle)
Maneki (I-District)
Il Bistro (Pike Market)

And many, many more interesting and affordable options, from Columbia City to Shoreline, Central District to Mukilteo.

Frequently Asked Questions by customers

How did you come up with your recipes and menu?
They’re primarily based on the store’s infrastructure and ingredient prices.  Other considerations include ingredient hardiness, customer demand, and taste.  We’ll discuss more in separate posts.

Are there any volunteer/internship opportunities for high school students? It’d be free labor for you!
Yes, but it wouldn’t be free labor, it’d be more like us providing free day care.  The cost to train an inexperienced volunteer who has never had a job is significant, emotionally and financially.  Also keep in mind that we work with dangerous tools and our training methods may not be acceptable to some parents.  We’re primarily interested in having interns help us develop employee management and leadership skills.

What would the internship program be like?
Interns will work with baristas and be expected to maintain a blog, develop with owner a reading list, and craft a well-written and convincing resume and cover letter.  Lots of homework.  Successful interns will be able to land a job in the food industry within six months.

What’s it like working at Alive Juice Bar
Demanding and challenging.  Several customers have described the owner as a “slave-driver.” We prepare by reviewing and play-acting real and imagined scenarios, asking questions, and answering open-ended questions.  Occasionally there’s some drill work.  We talk about food prep and employee training techniques, sociology of eating and food, brand development strategy, “court vision,” workflow processes, cute customers, creepy customers, social skills, funny youtube videos, fashion, music.  Everyone preps, cooks, cleans, serves.

Do you offer any cooking classes?
We don’t because owner doesn’t want to strangle a customer.  He does, however, offer cooking tips and will show, when possible, a customer how something is made.   If you hang around the store, observe and ask questions, you’ll get a free cooking lesson.  We also recommend you follow our blog, Foodyap, which offers recipes, cooking tips, and explains the attitude and mindset necessary to cook as we do.

What’s your cooking philosophy?
We teach our employees cooking instincts, to cook with their senses.  We don’t follow recipes.  Good cooks are resourceful, cook with their senses, and have flexible and adaptable palates. They’re fearless and not afraid of failure.

Do you share your recipes?
Yes, ask and we’ll put it on the blog.  Keep in mind that our recipes rarely have measurements because we cook with our senses and instincts.

How do you keep your prices so low?
We use seasonal ingredients, and our employees are 2-3 times more efficient than those at similar businesses.  

Why don’t you show some responsibility for the environment and serve on plates and glasses instead of disposable cups and bowls, you greedy hypocrite?
All restaurants in Ballinger Village — defined as food establishment with full-service — must be approved by Thriftway grocery store.  They’ve historically rejected all restaurants (Thai and Greek Diner at our location), which is why there aren’t any restaurants in Ballinger Village, only take-out.  We suspect they won’t approve of a restaurant unless it increases traffic to Thriftway.

Also, I doubt we can afford the infrastructural changes necessary for a dishwashing machine.

Our containers are recyclable.

Idealism without business sense leads to tyranny.

Why don’t you offer this and that?
We’re seasonal, there’s only so much space in our prep fridge, and you probably already get enough of that so we want you to try this instead. 

Application for Summer Employment at Alive Juice Bar

We’re not offering summer positions but decided to print out applications for those seeking such a job.  Our updated application questions:

  • What do you think is founder of Hustler magazine (hard-core porn) Larry Flynt’s passion?  If you’re not familiar with Hustler, borrow a copy of ours.  You can also probably find copies at a porn shop.  Be sure to read the articles (esp. editorials and opinions) and cartoons (not available online).
  • Why are you not special?
  • List 3 ways to say “Fuck You” without saying “Fuck You.”
  • Fight in the kitchen.  Hot soup, butcher knife, last month’s receipts.  Which do you throw?
  • Mary hires Peter and Paul to dig two ditches, assigning one to each.  Peter finishes in one hour because he used his latest invention, the super-duper soil remover zapper.  Paul, using a shovel and hard work, finishes his in 8 hours.  How much should Mary pay Peter.  How much to Paul?  Who should she hire if she wants a third ditch?
  • Write the lyrics for fictional song “When a Lamb Loves a Hungry Woman.”  Listen to “When a Man Loves a Woman” for rhythm and melody to match lyrics.
  • Why are your friends boring?  What does that make you?

We’re not expecting any completed applications.  The primary aim of these questions is to trigger internal discussions about our brand, our approach to crafting customer impressions about our brand, and our values and culture.  These questions are also fun exercises that give employees an opportunity to reflect about their value to the world and to help them develop their leadership skills.


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