What’s the recipe for a successful business? Without getting too steeped in food-related metaphors, it turns out that baking artisan breads has quite a few similarities to what goes into cultivating a closely-knit team.
Sure, one takes yeast, flour, and salt while the other takes healthy doses of trust, empathy, and, you know, a continual growth mindset. But both take patience and mindfulness to perfect, and a few imperfections make them all the better.
The team at Two Knives Catering recently spent two weeks crafting both — that is, fresh loaves of artisanal bread, and a deeper sense of community — when they flew from Amarillo, Texas to an immersive workshop at the San Francisco Baking Institute. From 7am to 2:30pm, the team would practice the craft, then spend the evenings roaming the city and getting to know each other better.
It was one of many acts that underscore their dedication to learning, as well as creating things from scratch. It represents a mindset that cofounders Kristi Aragon and Becky McKinley regularly build into into their young and experimental catering business, and one way they truly stand out in the middle of cattle country, Texas.
You see so much more heart and soul in someone’s work if they truly feel invested in it.
Neighbors Kristi Aragon and Becky McKinley had both set out on a culinary path, for the most part unaware of the other’s passions, until they exchanged simple acts of neighborly generosity. One day, Becky had a particularly demanding catering event land on her plate, so she went right to her next-door neighbor Kristi. No, it wasn’t for the standard cup of sugar or extra egg — but to ask if she’d be interested in helping cook for the event. Becky had been in the catering business for 17 years, but had never considered her entrepreneurial pursuits much more than a hobby. Meanwhile, Kristi had spent the last 15 years in the medical field, edging closer to her yearning for change, until she finally quit the field and whisked herself away to Denver to attend culinary school.
As they collaborated over the next few months, the two thought they were opening a small boutique catering service run out of their homes. But by the next April, they’d opened their first commercial kitchen and had hired over a dozen people.
A taste for change
Cooking with new and unusual ingredients (at least, for their area) is a source of thrill that drives the team forward and has accelerated their growth. Surrounded by cattle ranches in Middle America, people in Amarillo love (“love,” Kristi says emphatically) their beef — but Kristi and Becky are passionate about getting their clientele, along with their team, to try new things.
“We catered this huge engagement party the other night and we wanted to do something different. So we flew in a whole tuna. We laid it out on a piece of marble and had the carver right there, serving it to the guests.” In another town, something like that might not seem groundbreaking, but there in Texas, it had everyone talking. It was a proud and exciting moment for their team, and inspired them to keep innovating.
For the team of 13, mostly women, events like this and the trip to the Baking Institute were major team highlights that helped solidify the deep sense of trust, appreciation for learning, and feelings of inclusivity and empowerment that have shaped the expanding team. For a small business that’s relatively young (it’s only been a year that the larger team has been cooking together), the workshop was a meaningful investment in the team, and a manifestation of the mindset that its founders strive to run the business with every day.
Getting comfortable with relinquishing control to new hires is a common struggle for many first-time business owners. Kristi confesses, “When I first started out, I tended to think, ‘I’m the only who can do it.’ In a way I was holding my team back, and in a way hurting myself, thinking that I had to try to do everything,” Kristi admits.
“At the end of the day I’d be exhausted, trying to keep a hand on everything. But learning to share the ownership is so worth it. You see so much more heart and soul in someone’s work if they truly feel invested in it.”
While the relatively small team has expanded like dough in a warm oven (sorry), Becky and Kristi are making sure a healthy company culture rises with it. Decisions around new recipes to serve and which skills to learn, for example, almost always involve the team. Kristi wants to make sure her team members feel like they’re “a part of the plan,” rather than merely carrying out recipes and covering events. She explains, “When you’re just punching your time on the clock and you don’t feel like you have any skin in the game, it’s easy to be in-and-out with your day; robotic. You don’t care. Your boss hasn’t given you any reason to. And that can happen very easily if you don’t feel invested.”
That’s why the pair always finds ways to involve the team on a deeper level. “I try to offer ownership, instead of just assigning tasks.”
Through their rapid growth, it’s important to Kristi and Becky that their team stays as sharp as the knives in their business name. Therefore, they make sure the team has access to a number of ways to grow their skills, including classes, online tutorials, and workshops like the bread-making immersive.
“We all work well together, primarily because we’re all so eager to learn,” Kristi says. She emphasizes how important it is to make sure that everyone on the team is learning and getting better. “If you’re only bettering your own skills, your business is still only as strong as the least experienced person on the team. We want to be on the cutting edge of everything we do. And to do that, to allow the team to get better, I have to get out of their way.”
Clarrisa Trejo, a single mother who’s worked as a catering and kitchen assistant at Two Knives for the past nine months, is a living example of Kristi’s philosophy. As Clarrisa puts it, “Jobs often push you to get the work done, but not necessarily to do it right — or show you how to get better.” The patience and empowering leadership styles that Kristi and Becky have shown her have made a lasting impression that extends beyond her life at work. “At the beginning, I wasn’t very patient. I was a fast worker, but I often didn’t slow down enough to realize how my actions were affecting the rest of the kitchen. I wasn’t as strategic about the work. Kristi taught me to slow my pace and do the work with more patience, more thoughtfulness, which has actually made me more efficient in other parts of my life, like as a mother.”
Major teaching moments happen over time, but small acts of appreciation pop up quickly. Recently, a customer was particularly pleased with the custom cake he’d ordered for a special celebration; the beautiful frosting, the delicate details. Becky and Kristi made it a point to bring the cake’s chef up to receive the praise herself. “It gave her a real sense of pride and ownership when she saw for herself how much the customer loved the cake. She was beaming,” Kristi says, grinning.
“I’ve learned so much from other people who’ve wanted to help me pursue running a business, who’ve offered their minds to help me get to where I am today. And now, being surrounded by such an awesome team, every day I think, I’m so lucky. All I want is to give my employees just as many opportunities to learn as I’ve had.”