How My Days as a Chef Prepared Me to Grow a Startup
At the start of my career, I was the head chef of a catering company. But even before that, I put myself through college working in restaurants, so I’ve had quite a bit of experience in and around kitchens. There were times I enjoyed and others I’ve absolutely hated, all of which I still vividly remember, yet I never would have thought those experiences would contribute to the business I now run: a digital commerce dev shop named SUMO Heavy. Come to think of it, the name is unintentionally fitting, given that food is one of the staples of sumo training.
Here are four examples of the invaluable lessons I quickly learned as a chef, which ultimately became the framework for much of the culture, business processes and vision that continues to drive my dev shop today.
Menu planning is much more complex than most people give chefs credit for. As a chef, you need to be able to think and see the big picture because you’re telling a story through the tastes, ingredients and dishes you choose to incorporate into the menu. This culinary theme must flow seamlessly to guide patrons on a unique and captivating culinary journey that’s representative of the chef and the establishment. Another critical area of menu planning is the thoughtful consideration a chef must have for the tastes of his/her customers while still being able to infuse his/her own creativity to ensure that the menu stands out from the competition. As a chef, I always strived to find the perfect balance between appealing to and delighting the customer.
This type of high-level menu planning is similar to the best practices in web design and development. A comprehensive Web development strategy begins with wireframes of all the site pages on a large board to visualize the end goal and see how each element works together -- not too different from ensuring that each dish and ingredient complement one another. Similarly, strategic project mapping helps track user flow and identify the areas that need improvement in order to provide customers with an incredible web experience. Finally, the site -- like a restaurant menu -- must be specifically tailored to fill the needs and desires of the target customers.
I often spent a disproportionate amount of time in preparation, sometimes up to six hours going into a three-hour dinner shift. Food prep may not be glamorous but I’ve learned that it’s an important process that takes hard work and diligence. Just one misstep with preparation can result in fires during the busiest time of service, and I mean this both literally and figuratively.
Preparation for Web development is equally time-consuming and just as important. My culinary experience is what led me to develop SUMO’s Strategy Session, a process in which we conduct extensive research and discuss preliminary strategies before diving into a new project. We spend considerable time with our clients to better comprehend the larger goals of the client and the website’s role in achieving those goals. In web development, information is what ingredients are to chefs, so you must gather all the preliminary information before you can prioritize and execute specific tasks with a single vision in mind. Preparation makes execution that much easier -- this is something that I’ve learned holds true for chefs and developers alike.
Cooking is a multi-step process that requires a perfect balance between organized execution and vibrant creativity. Being adaptable is one trait that’s crucial here. I’ve encountered many customers with personalized requests so I’ve learned to be ready and able to adapt at a moment’s notice. And with all the heat and chaos in the kitchen, problems will occur and tempers will flare but it’s how you handle the pressure that makes the difference between a well-functioning kitchen and one that burns down.
Like cooking, development can get complicated as you run into unforeseen hurdles or last-minute revision requests from clients. To make matters worse, it’s not uncommon for arguments to break out between project teams, especially between front-end and back-end teams. When disputes arise, I’ve learned to take immediate control as the leader to resolve any problems, just like I’ve done as a chef. Whether in the kitchen or office, there’s just no room for internal turmoil.
Chefs take immense pride in the way their end product looks. A visually appealing dish is an appetizing one, so presentation is key. My personal approach is to place the ingredients in a way that’s visually engaging -- as if I’m painting a portrait. Throwing in your artistic touch will delight your customers and add value to the dining experience. Once the final touches are made, a chef must always do one more check to make sure everything is in place before sending it to the customer.
The importance of visual aesthetics also applies to a great web experience. Yes, the information must be accurate and the site’s backend must function properly, but what consumers first see will either catch their interest or drive them away. A poorly designed website will leave a lasting impression in the same way that a messy plate will.
My days as a chef contributed to the growth of my dev shop in more ways than I can explain. There is knowledge, teamwork, persistence, technique and love that must go into each of these two practices. While in essence they are vastly different from one another, to me, they go hand-in-hand and have ultimately formed the chef, developer and entrepreneur that I am today.
Bart Mroz is the co-founder and CEO of SUMO Heavy, a digital commerce consulting and strategy firm. He is a serial entrepreneur who has over a decade of business management and technology experience. Mroz was a founding partner of multiple consulting companies and a thought leader who has been published in top eCommerce publications including Internet Retailer and AdExchanger. Prior to founding SUMO Heavy, Mroz was a partner at round3 media, a creative e-commerce agency, as well as owner and managing director of SimplyHelp, an IT firm based in Philadelphia.