May 15, 2015

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Finding Food, Drink + Design Inspiration in London

"The service experience is far more important than it is usually given credit for, and must always be about the guest."

Henry Ford and his assembly line, Steve Jobs in the garage—a lot of companies have creation myths that help define and inspire them, Earls included. 

Back in 1980 Leroy Earl 'Bus' Fuller was not a happy man. The coal miner from Montana was living in Edmonton, where he ran a hundred or so restaurants through a company called Controlled Foods. Fuller seemed the very definition of a success story, but when he surveyed his dominion, he saw only mediocrity and indifference. The servers were more interested in their tips than their guests, and the cooks were only thinking about their next smoke break. 

But a restaurateur without hope is a restaurateur without a hope, and Fuller’s hope was that his sons would jump in to help turn things around. Alas, the eldest, Stanley Earl Fuller, decided to travel around Europe instead—not for two weeks or two months, but for a year and a half. When he returned, it was with an idea for a radically new type of restaurant, one with an emphasis on … quality! 

At this new place, there would be three simple rules. First, everyone from managers on down would be given autonomy so that even the dishwashers could innovate and strive to be better. Second, ingredients used would always be top-notch. Finally, no one older than he would ever work there, dictated Stan, who, fortunately, would not remain 29 forever. 

Weary of ketchup-grade tomatoes, nostalgic for the vitality of youth and, most of all, cognizant of how hard it is to make a buck selling 99-cent hamburgers, Bus agreed, and in 1982 the first Earls opened. A year later he unloaded Controlled Foods. 

Now it’s 2015, and one of the legacies of the creation myth has just returned from another legacy of the creation myth. 

The first legacy is Mo Jessa, who as a 19-year-old found himself manning a stove in an Earls kitchen, a spot where no son of Indian immigrants should ever be found, at least to his mind. But the aspiring scientist found the culture flowing from Stan Fuller’s rules to be both welcoming and appealing, and he stayed on through several promotions, in 2013 succeeding Fuller himself as company president.

The second legacy is the inspiration trip. From the beginning, senior Earls managers have made it an integral part of their job to take one every year or two. After all, awesome dishes and ingredients that pass the Stan test aren’t revealed to people commuting home after a hard day’s work. No, they’re discovered by late-night inebriates stumbling back to their hotel rooms through tough parts of strange towns, as was the case with the Hunan kung pao noodle bowl, an early inspiration trip discovery and enduring Earls menu favourite.  

This year the trip was to London, a world capital that has returned in the 21st century to the prominence it enjoyed in the 19th—and with way, way better food. In six days, the team visited more than two dozen restaurants, bars and provisioners, including the flagship locations of Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi and a handful of spots possessing Michelin stars. Of all the inspiration trips ever taken, this one turned up the richest array of Earls-appropriate preparations and presentations, right, Mo?

Well, er, actually, in fact, no. 

In truth, not a single dish from London is likely to make it to an Earls menu. That said, the trip was anything but a colossally expensive waste of time. Far from it. In fact, the London expedition produced three confirmations (the next best thing to revelations) that will help shape Earls in the same way as Stan’s original three rules. 

At Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa butchery, the inspiration stemmed from the way that carcasses were displayed as if they were fine handcrafts or rare antiques. Lesson: Know your ingredients, and show them too. Let the guest hear, see and smell them. 

Another came at the Michelin two-starred Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, which promised propriety worthy of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson. Instead, discerning that the group passing around plates were fellow professionals, servers quickly adjusted their style, whispering conspiratorially and passing along tips about hot little spots. By contrast, at another posh place the group was condescended to by a sommelier who felt compelled to display his superior knowledge. Lesson: The service experience is far more important than it is usually given credit for, and must always be about the guest. 

Finally, there was an important insight into the paradox of alcohol. On one hand, wine, beer and cocktails offer sophistication and glamour, an opportunity to roll with the cognoscenti. On the other, at a bar called Mahiki, the group found itself drinking with straws from a shared treasure chest filled with puna, a rum-drenched slurry that was first concocted in a work of fiction. Lesson: Beyond all those other things, drinking should be fun. 

So that was London, minus the couple dozen additional spots that were studiously examined. Back in the 18th century Samuel Johnson said that a man who is tired of London is tired of life. Following their week of 16-hour days, this group was neither.

They were jazzed and impressed. And yup, they were just plain tired. 

See more photos on our Facebook page.