Let me ask: what was the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning? A breakfast burrito? (Me too.) Your regretful declaration to eat clean? (Me too.) The compounding mental to-do list for the day ahead? (Also, me too.)
With each new day we have the opportunity to set a fresh intention. When we wake up, we can choose where to focus our energy in order to self-motivate, be more productive, and feel happier. What if our daily intention, in everything we do, was to be gracious? This is the very concept that Cafe Gratitude, a brightly colored vegan restaurant founded in California, was founded upon.
I sat down with Cary Mosier, owner of Cafe Gratitude and son of its original founders, who introduced me to a revolutionary business philosophy that has grown Cafe Gratitude from a small San Francisco cafe to a successful multi-location restaurant group with unlimited potential for positive impact. Read on, take a page from Cary’s book, and welcome each day with gratitude.
What were the early days of Cafe Gratitude like?
It’s a family-run restaurant, created by my family. We started in 2004, I was working there while I was going to college. I was working behind the juice bar at the first location of Cafe Gratitude [in San Francisco], my brother was the manager, my mom was the cook, my stepdad was the waiter. We all switched off washing dishes for the first week but quickly realized that wasn’t going to last very long. It slowly started building, getting busier, and we opened more locations. Now I’m here, married to an Australian, have a two year old son, and I manage all of the restaurants.
What inspired the creation of Cafe Gratitude?
Originally, it was based on a board game. My parents, who are the founders, I lovingly call them New Age Hippies, because when they got married, my stepfather and mother, they basically said “let’s pursue whatever we are inspired by” — regardless of any practical concern or questioning “will it work?” or “will it make business sense?” or “will it make us money?” Let’s take that off the table and really listen to our intuition and the first thing that they got inspired to do was create a board game called “The Abounding River,” where you roll the dice and travel through these different worlds and it asks you questions about your life — mostly centered around this idea that our lives, the experience we have with our lives, is based around our intention.
So, when I’m focused on “I need more money, or more time” then it gives me a particular experience in my life. But if I focus on “I’m young, I’m healthy, I get to live in Los Angeles where it’s sunny and beautiful” or whatever the example is, then I have a different experience with my life. The trick is, where are you going to put your attention? So the game taught people that you have a choice about where you put your attention and this particular game was centered around teaching people to put their attention on things that make them feel inspired and happy.
Where did the board game take them from there?
My parents had this game that they had spent all this time and money on, but again, they had no plan because they were just listening to their intuition and they said “Well, let’s open up a coffee shop. We’ll put the board game on all the tables, we’ll serve coffee, we’ll serve croissants, and we’ll hang out in the shop and play the game with people. That’s what we’ll do all day.” And so, that slowly became the first Cafe Gratitude.
Around 2003 my mom got into vegan, raw food. She called me and said “you know that cafe we were telling you about? We’re going to make it vegan, raw food now!” and I thought, (laughs) “this is the worst idea I’ve ever heard of, no one is going to come play games with you mom, especially if the food is not cooked.” Sure enough, that was the birth of Cafe Gratitude.
Are there some original recipes of your mom’s on the menu?
Yes, absolutely. Some of the smoothies like the “I am Grace” is her original recipe. All the crackers, the hummus, the “Yo Soy Mucho,” the “I am Whole,” there are so many, I’d have to ask my brother for more.
What makes you different from other vegan restaurants in Los Angeles?
On a menu level, we don’t serve any fake meats. We don’t do imitation meats, like using soy in place of chicken. Actually, we’re completely soy-free. We make everything from scratch ourselves. So if it’s lemon juice, we juice lemons. If it’s dressing, we make the dressing. We make our own crackers. We make our own almond milk. We don’t buy anything pre-made, everything is made here daily.
Also, and this is very important to us: everything on our menu is organic. Down to the salt, the paprika, the cayenne pepper, everything.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
California. Our honey comes from Santa Barbara, our olive oil comes from Santa Barbara, our dates come from central California. I have a forager for our lemons and avocados.
Do you offer gluten-free?
Almost everything is gluten-free. And it’s funny because that stuff became a trend. Vegan became a trend, gluten-free became a trend, and so did raw on some level. We’ve been doing all of that since 2004. We got lucky that it became popular and we didn’t have to change our menu at all it, it was already there!
What is most important to you while managing hundreds of employees?
Our philosophy around business is essentially: if we develop great people, then the business will thrive. So rather than me spending a lot of time talking about how to chop lettuce or kale or how to pour a perfect glass of wine, I spend most of my time (and it’s the most fun) talking to my employees about what fulfills them most in life. Teaching them tools for communication, having self-discipline, questions that have nothing to do with the restaurant industry.
I feel that if I provide a work environment where the owners take interest and spend time and energy to make sure their [employees’] lives are thriving, then they’ll be happier and inspired — and therefore the restaurant will be happy and inspired.
Do you have an example of putting it into practice?
We have this practice called a Clearing. Before every shift, everyday, each staff member sits down with another staff member and asks them the two questions that we put on the board daily.
The first one is usually a question that is reflective, speaks to what can be the separation aspects of life. For example: “Where in your life do you feel stuck?” or “What do you say you don’t have enough of?” Everyone can say whatever they want, and there is no right answer. We don’t change or fix it or give them advice — it’s just an opportunity for them to share openly about their lives.
The second question is a positive question. For example: “What do you love about your life?” or “What do you have plenty of?” The last part is acknowledging one another. Usually in a work environment there’s a honeymoon period where everyone is really happy and nice and then everyone gets used to it. So we say acknowledgement is the currency of a healthy community, and if acknowledgment is high, then people enjoy their jobs more.
That practice happens every day with both the front and back of house, which creates a completely different dynamic among people who work together.
What is the intention of Cafe Gratitude?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to serving love. It sounds like a cliche card, but I don’t care. When we’re in our most vulnerable and we’re actually experiencing real happiness it’s usually a loving connection. At the end of the day, we either want to give love to people through our art or our expression, or we want to receive love through expression.
Of course I’m serving you a good salad that’s vegan, it’s local, it’s organic, and those things are all great. But, what this restaurant really is, is a perspective on life.
Most people aim to give people more than what they expect. But on some level, I’m trying to give people something they didn’t know they wanted. So they are coming for a salad and they leave with the experience that they love their mom and they want to call her and tell her how grateful they are. It’s a completely different intention for a restaurant. It makes it harder, but I feel like it’s a worthy use of time. (laughs) And it has to be delicious, right? If I’m distracted by how bad my salad is I’m not going to start thinking about how much my mom loves me.