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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 14, 2017 1 year ago

Foodies Unite

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For former Starbucks executive Christine Barone, leadership begins with empathy. She adds in vulnerability.
by: Alicia Ceccarelli Contributing Writer

Recently appointed CEO of True Food Kitchen, Christine Barone still recalls the beverage she enjoyed on her initial visit as a customer four years prior.

It was the Hangover RX Refresher. The drink, along with what she calls her “amazing meal,” prompted Barone to keep a copy of the menu for years — along with her pleasant memory.

A former senior executive at Starbucks, Barone was hired in September to oversee True Food Kitchen's operation and brand expansion. That includes its first location on the west coast of Florida, in the Waterside Shops in Naples, which opened March 28.
Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen is a wellness-based restaurant concept founded by famed restaurateur Sam Fox of Fox Restaurant Concepts and integrative medicine expert and author Dr. Andrew Weil. True Food has 17 other locations, including Chicago, Atlanta, Denver and several in Texas and California. It plans to open six more in 2017.

Why Naples? True Food executives look for “lively, active communities that love and appreciate the quality of food, and where it comes from,” and Naples fits the bill, says Barone.

Barone says True Food Kitchen is exactly the type of restaurant concept she would have started herself because of its “great mission in helping people eat better.” A former South Tampa resident, Barone says she brings “a mix of very strong analytics, along with leading with a heart” to the position.

Her resume begins with degrees in applied mathematics and business from Harvard University, followed by a short term in investment banking before consulting for Starbucks.

Barone credits her five years with the coffee conglomerate for helping shape the questions she asks herself to refine her leadership capability. For Barone, “It's how do you bring the magic of a brand to life and then also deliver on the P & L, and hit that balance in just the right way?”

The Business Observer recently sat down with Barone at the new Naples location to talk about her career. Edited excerpts follow:

What are some facets of your leadership style that made you most qualified for this role?

Servant leadership. I absolutely adhere to making everyone in this restaurant successful. I am only serving my role if I am serving the dishwasher in the back, the bartender at the bar, and if every day I look at 'How do I make it easier for them to serve the guest?' In the hospitality industry, without servant leadership, you are not even getting started.

What has been the biggest obstacle since you started at True Food?

The biggest obstacle now is what it's always been: finding great people. We've been growing at 50% year over year, and with that growth, we just need incredible talent at all times, and so we are hiring people very quickly, bringing new folks onto the team, and just doing that successfully is always a challenge.

In an industry notorious for turnover, what do you do to retain employees?

It starts with treating folks with respect and ensuring we have a wonderful work environment. Those pieces are basic building blocks. I think the menu and the lifestyle that we offer is also very attractive to the employees. We often have employees who join us that very much live this lifestyle. To find a place where they can work, and also serve food that they truly believe in to their guests — who they care about deeply — is an incredibly attractive element of True Food Kitchen.

What something you've learned throughout your career in this industry that isn't taught at Harvard?

The hospitality industry is 10% about getting to a right answer, and 90% about getting people to do it. I can force someone to do something, but when they really do it, is when they do it with heart and when you inspire them to do something. I think that inspiration is something that's hard to teach in a classroom. Leaders in this industry know how to inspire in a very unique and special way.

How did you start your career with Starbucks?

I actually started in the strategy area, helping to write a five-year strategic plan for Starbucks, and quickly moved on to running the food business in the U.S. I had always admired Starbucks as a company that is very large, but has kept its soul in an amazing way. I was always attracted to that magical mixture of being able to drive wonderful financial performance, but also do it with a heart and without compromise.

What did you take away from Howard Schultz's leadership approach?

He leads with an incredible amount of empathy. And he is absolutely an amazing leader.

What did you learn about leadership from all your previous work experiences?

Collectively, it goes back to that servant leadership piece. Having that empathy, being a really great listener. Understanding that a great leader actually is able to lead different people differently, and really understand what motivates and inspires. My goal here is actually to help everyone achieve their personal best. Some folks want the bar set up (at the top.) It motivates them to have something they can barely jump over, whereas other folks want to get there in achievable bursts. How do you understand who is who and what motivates them to perform in a way that they are still proud of themselves?

What three qualities are at the core of every outstanding leader?

Empathy. Charisma. The ability to inspire is really important. And ability. Are you willing to get in there, get your hands dirty to really understand what needs to be done?

What advice do you give to leaders who are starting in a new position or want to move up?

Go and do an awesome job at what you are doing right now. The second piece is: a role does not define you, you get to define your role. Even within a tight job description, there are degrees of freedom where you can define a role and take a role to a different place than it was before. If you do that every time, I truly believe that is how you grow, and that is how you show you are capable of getting to the next level. There is no boss who is going to say, 'Please give me more work.' They'll say, 'Yeah, take it from me.' What we are looking for with those that want to move up is, are you starting to take those pieces and show you are thinking in that next way?

Are there any areas of your leadership that you'd like to strengthen?

One of our goals is to ask ourselves, what did we do yesterday and how can we make today even better? I am on a constant journey of learning and trying to be better. One of the ways I do that is to solicit feedback, ask what can I do better, and to be open to those types of conversations. Vulnerability is important to being a great leader.

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