With 17 restaurants to their name (four newly opened in 2017), the Boka Restaurant Group continues to pave their way to greatness in Chicago’s dining space. Newly-opened Somerset is on the lips of every informed diner in the city, while institutions like Boka and the Goat restaurants continue to dazzle and draw crowds from around the country.
It was a sunny June day when I sat down at Little Goat for a little nosh and a two-hour chat with the four remarkable women helming Boka Restaurant Group and its 1500+ employees. I left that afternoon with eight pages of typed notes and a mind buzzing with endless ideas. These were women who were changing the way Chicago’s restaurant industry ran.
“My family is my little wisdom circle. I come from a long line of strong women, which the men in my family can tell you all about. My mom is someone who has just pushed me and been by my side and supported me to the end of the world. She’s the one that taught me that “We’re gonna get it done.” So, we try to do that with our team. We’re in the trenches with you. We laugh a lot and we try and get our teams to laugh a lot.”
“A lot of my job is de-escalating situations. They need to see that I am calm and that I have everyone’s best interests at heart. If I give off a stressed-out impression, everyone else will start to make mistakes and that’s when it spirals out of control. So, I put things in perspective, “How bad could this really go?” Perspective helps. It’s important to be in a good mental space and know that there is a solution to every problem. And when that fails, I shout in the walk-in. Everyone needs a place…But we always do figure it out.”
“The best leaders I’ve worked with are the ones that have empowered me to stumble and make my own decisions. I encourage my team to come to me with answers instead of just questions and to be solution minded. It’s not possible for such a huge company to maintain touchpoints everywhere, so we need to check ourselves to let go and have confidence in people.”
“I feel really strongly that every day when I leave my children to go to work, it is a big sacrifice. So, when I decided to be a working mom, I vowed that I would always do it with purpose. I wanted to feel good about what I was doing and what I was contributing to. Obviously, situations will always arise in the workplace. I believe in creating a platform that makes people comfortable to shoot it straight and having honest, open conversations.”
Together, they’ve helped to shape not just hundreds of careers but the Chicago restaurant industry as a whole. Over green beans and nachos at Little Goat, we discussed the steps they’ve taken to create a collaborative work environment, focused on career growth and mutual respect, over the last decade.
1. No matter how big you get, be open to writing your script organically.
“Our positions were all developed based on our specific skill sets and passions,” Abby gestures to herself and the other three women at the table.
“That’s a testament to our team being open and not set in a specific framework. Being forward thinking and taking in stride the needs of the company—what’s working and what’s not—makes the most sense for us. We don’t force people in any direction. We capitalize on their passions and help them.”
2. Autonomy and trust are pillars of a successful foundation.
“I came in confident with what I was delivering. But getting people to buy into that is incredibly hard,” says Jami, financial controller of BRG. “It was a risk for Boka to take on a woman that had young children and needed to work from home on occasion. But, they plugged me in where I needed to go.”
Jami was the first person in BRG to ever work from home, establishing a precedent for all the working mothers at the company. “They respect the fact that a lot of us are working mothers trying to maintain balance. That autonomy and trust is empowering.”
“Balancing work and life is hard,” Abby chimes in. “It’s our job to figure out how to help them navigate.”
3. Tackle the education crisis.
Erin created a massive orientation program for all Boka Restaurant Group employees. While many restaurants hire staff and go through basic training on technology and rules of hospitality, Boka Restaurant Group, focuses on a high level of empathy and follow-through.
“Hospitality is not just about the guest,” Erin explains. “It’s about the team. In this business, nothing is wrapped up at the end of the day. It can be overwhelming for staff at any level to think about what to deal with next. But we help them think outside the box of what happens on the table and how we can make service go to the next level.”
The coaching and education parameters that Erin and her team have established serve as continuing education for those working in the industry and looking to forge a successful path ahead.
4. The composition of your company is a delicate chemistry project.
Despite being a fast-growing corporation, Boka Restaurant Group cringes at the word “corporate”. Instead, leadership creates an environment where individuals are treated as such no matter what level.
While the sentiment may ring as lip service from some businesses, it is fact for Boka Restaurant Group. Every server that dropped by our table was greeted by name and inquiries were made after their lives and families. It was a prime example of corporate being directly in touch with and invested in their front of house.
“It’s like a delicate chemistry project,” Jami laughs. “Or really like selecting people that you would want to be part of your family because you will spend a lot of good times and bad times together. There’s a different level of respect that comes with the family mentality. You don’t dismiss people.”
“Our interview process is not incredibly formal,” Abby divulges. “It’s just having honest conversations and getting to the heart of why they care about what they do. And the other side of that is that we have honest conversations with people when that’s not happening. We’re very protective of being a company that takes care of people. And if people don’t feel that in a genuine sense, then we’re not a good fit.”
5. Do your part to adjust the conversation within your industry.
The Elephant in the Room has two names: Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination.
“I’ve been working at this company for so long, I forget that it’s a reality for so many,” Abby shakes her head. She’s been with Boka Restaurant Group for 10 years and prides the company on being inclusive and safe.
“We have this big board in our office of all the managers,” Erin contributes. “More than half are women. So [this] is something we would react to very quickly. We want to have very safe workspaces for women.”
Jami chimes in with a sobering reminder that no matter how much you can adjust the conversation in one environment, the same can’t be said for the entire industry.
“I’m the financial controller of this business and, without an ‘e’ at the end of my name, a lot of people in this male-dominant industry assume I’m male,” Jami shrugs. “I often have meetings with vendors and owners of businesses and they’re surprised to see this little blonde woman come into meetings…”
That being said, “I’m proud that we continue to push the envelope, taking care of our employees and serving the needs of everyone in our company,” Abby continues. “Because it’s not easy and not always a clear decision.”
In light of allegations about other restaurant groups, this seems particularly relevant.
6. Always remember…
“Find the joy in the stress and craziness or there’s no point in doing it, especially in the restaurant business.”
P.S. If you’re hungry for more and don’t want to miss a single Behind Chicago Food story, be sure to subscribe by e-mail (completely spam-free with the option to unsubscribe at any time)!
P.P.S. Curious about my views on complimentary food, event coverage, and more? View my policy page here.