Claire Calvin of The Porch: “Firing people is really hard, but it’s not as hard as going broke”

Firing people is really hard, but it’s not as hard as going broke. My dad did give me this advice, but not before I had already spent way too much time agonizing over letting someone go that was clearly not doing a good job and was detrimental to the company. I thought it was because […]

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Firing people is really hard, but it’s not as hard as going broke. My dad did give me this advice, but not before I had already spent way too much time agonizing over letting someone go that was clearly not doing a good job and was detrimental to the company. I thought it was because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but the truth is that when we have to let someone go, it also means we have to admit we were wrong, and that rattles our confidence in ourselves as business leaders. I think, “if I was wrong about this person I thought was so amazing, what else am I wrong about? Maybe everything! Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing at all!” And of course it’s hard to break the news to someone that they’re not working out, so we want to avoid that awkward situation. So we try to rationalize and delay, usually making the situation worse. Over the years, I’ve watched people go through this same misery — where you know you need to let someone go or move them into a different role, but you drag it out because it’s hard. The truth is, sometimes we’re making it harder than it needs to be, and if someone isn’t succeeding in a role, they’re probably as unhappy in the role as you are with them in it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Claire Calvin. Claire was born and raised in Houston, Texas, but has lived all over the country before moving to Winston-Salem 12 years ago when her husband, Dr. Matt Giegengack, took a job in the Ophthalmology Department at Wake Forest Hospital. Claire and Matt have three children — Finn (16), Gus (13) and Ruby (10). A lawyer by training, Claire took time off from her career to start a family. In 2010, after adopting their daughter Ruby from Ethiopia, she began to imagine a new career that would combine her love of cooking, community and Tex-Mex food. She started a small family meal delivery service called Dinners on the Porch with a blog post and a great recipe for Chicken Enchiladas. The business took orders via the internet and delivered meals all over Winston-Salem on most Tuesday nights. As that business grew rapidly through word of mouth, she ultimately realized that a larger facility would help her business grow sustainably. In January of 2014, The Porch opened its door with the goal of serving more delivery customers as well as customers who might like to come sit and enjoy tacos and margaritas with friends and family. The Porch has become a destination for Tex-Mex lovers in Winston-Salem and beyond, and its success made it possible to expand to new ventures such as Alma Mexicana in January of 2018 and Canteen Market and Bistro in September of 2018. Keeping the businesses centrally located and creating a diverse, lively atmosphere is one of Claire’s key objectives. Today, Claire can be found working in her restaurants, enjoying the vibrant Winston-Salem community, or spending time with family and friends.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I don’t think I ever imagined myself even working in a restaurant, much less owning several! I had stopped practicing law when my kids were very young, and as they got a little older, I started getting restless and started to wonder what the story of my life was going to be. I loved cooking for my family, but as other stay-at-home parents will agree, meal planning and cooking with little kiddos underfoot is no joke. Trips to the grocery store are an adventure, cooking while keeping an eye on them often results in burned food, and if you end up making it to the table with a meal, half of your family is going to announce that they won’t eat anything you made — even if it’s a meal they loved yesterday! I knew from friends who were juggling work and family that it was even crazier, so I felt like there was a need for something. I was also terribly homesick for Houston food — it is so ethnically diverse, creative and laid back, and there was nothing like it here in Winston-Salem. So at some point I just got sick of being homesick and decided to go for it, and after that point, one thing led to another.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

The whole journey of this business has been one crazy, hard and interesting thing after the next. I really had absolutely no idea how restaurants operated when we opened The Porch, and it was slammed busy from the get-go, so for a year or so I felt like I was on a rollercoaster in a house of horrors. But it was fun, too. Prior to opening the restaurant, I really had led what I considered to be a normal life, but what I now realize was an extremely sheltered and privileged one. For the most part, everyone I knew was a professional, college-educated, highly motivated person with a relatively trauma-free life history. The drama of a restaurant Back of House staff was eye-opening and life-changing for me, and it really made me examine my notions about how hard or easy it is to make it in our country. One story that stands out as the moment when I was like, “Yeah, I’m a badass restaurant owner,” but also, What the hell am I doing?” was in February 2017 when the Day Without Immigrants happened. I was super happy for many of our staff to participate in the protest by staying home since immigrants are the arms, legs, brains, hair, toenails, etc. of the restaurant industry and of good food in general, but that meant that I ended up having to work a late night shift that I don’t normally work, and my husband was out of town at the time. So the night was a little challenging and busy with a small staff, but it was fine. After service, I ran home to let the babysitter go and put the kids to bed and make sure they were okay, then came back to help finish closing and lock up. I was in the kitchen talking to the dishwasher when we heard a big crash and commotion out front, and we ran around to see that someone had broken through the locked front door, pushed down the front of house manager, grabbed the deposit and run out the back door. So the kitchen manager and another dish guy took off chasing the guy, and I kicked off my shoes and took off chasing them while calling 911. We were all flying down the street at 11:30 p.m. in the freezing cold. I was terrified that my staff was going to catch up with the robber and someone was going to get hurt or even killed, so I was yelling at my staff to stop chasing him, while talking to the 911 operator, and in my head thinking about the fact that my husband was in another country and my kids were at home sleeping alone. We finally caught up with the guy and someone took off the bandana he had over his face, and it turned out to be a former employee that I had really tried to help when he worked for us. It felt like I had failed on so many levels. The whole night was surreal, and thankfully no one had a gun and nobody got hurt, but when I finally put my head down that night, I just thought that never in a million years would the “old me” have believed that I’d be managing a busy kitchen in support of immigrant rights, then chasing criminals through dark alleys in my bare feet and finally crying and hugging my staff in relief and the realization that they truly are my family. It really drove home to me that what we are doing needs to be all about trying to build a better community for everyone.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

There are so many!! But way, way back in the day, we did have a really funny thing happen. When we were still delivering meals, we would spend all day prepping a specific meal and then the next day we’d deliver them to all of the people who had ordered. Each week the menu was a different family meal — so one week we would offer Lasagna with Green Salad & Garlic Bread, and the next would be Chicken Tortilla Soup, Chips, Queso & Brownies and so on. Anyway, I always had fun coming up with the menus and recipes, and then I’d have the staff help me do all of the prep and deliveries. We would have sometimes up to 80 meals to deliver, with each meal feeding up to six people, so there was a lot of prep to get done in a day, and many batches of the same thing would have to be made quickly. So one week we did a menu that involved a recipe I’d made up for “Cowboy Meatballs.” They were giant meatballs stuffed with cheese and covered in a Dr. Pepper BBQ Sauce, served with Mashed Potatoes from my grandfather’s recipe, Broccoli Salad and Cornbread. It was a super good dinner, and we received lots of orders. We had a new guy working prep that week, and we gave him the job of making the meatball mix while another person would roll and stuff the “balls.” So everything was fine, we got it done, delivered the meals, etc. Then about two days later, a friend said how much they always liked our meals, but that the meatballs had been so spicy! Then another person said they had woken up in the night with heartburn because of how spicy — but delicious — the meatballs had been. We were really scratching our heads because the meatballs were savory but not spicy, so we chalked it up to people who couldn’t handle seasoning. But then a few more people mentioned the same thing, so we went back to figure out what had happened. As it turned out, the new guy (who is still with us!), had gotten confused and added 2 cups of cayenne pepper to several batches of meatballs instead of 2 cups of cumin! We emailed everyone to apologize for the “fireballs,” and everyone was really nice about it, but made sure to double check every batch after that!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I like to think that there are a lot of things that make us stand out, but some of the most important are our food — of course, our involvement in the community, and our social media. Since I started my business with writing a personal blog about the food we were selling, I’ve always tried to use social media to make a direct and personal connection with our customers. We’re pretty “real,” and I’m always trying to find ways to invite our community along with us on the journey. It’s such a creative and collaborative process, that we end up learning so much from our customer’s responses to what we post that it helps guide and shape the direction of the business. Even though we’re selling food and beverages, probably 30–40 percent of the things we post are about the community, lifestyle, other businesses, or just things we think people will enjoy knowing about. In particular, our customers really respond when we highlight other local business owners whose missions are aligned with ours — positive, creative growth in the city, women-owned businesses, supporting local people and products, and giving back to the community. Winston-Salem is a city that has had some hard knocks in the last 25 years, and as a business community, we’re really tight-knit and so determined to make it that we’re all standing in the wings cheering one another on to success. It’s been the biggest blessing to be a part of it and to experience the incredible ways in which so many Winston-Salem businesses truly walk the walk in support of one another.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We always have lots of irons in the fire, and right now we’re really working on growing our wholesale business. It’s a ton of administrative red tape that I hate, but if we can get through the process, we’re excited about the big door that would potentially open to us to sell some of our best products in grocery stores and elsewhere. It feels like going back to our roots of making meals for people to enjoy at home with their loved ones — truly connecting with another person over a good meal is one of the most essential ways we can love and support one another, so it’s an honor to be a part of that experience between people.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

The biggest lesson I’ve had to learn in terms of helping people thrive is that honest and straightforward feedback is crucial to success. As women, we may tend to have a warm personal relationship with people we hire, so sometimes it can feel like more of a friendship than an employer/employee relationship. That’s great for teamwork and general positive work environment, but sometimes when you need to put on your “boss” hat, it’s not as comfortable to have those hard conversations. So instead we might engage in gossip, or simply avoid telling someone that they’re not doing a good job. We may think that we’re doing the right thing because hearing negative feedback will certainly lead to hurt feelings, but in the long run, we’re doing everyone a disservice. If someone isn’t doing a good job and we don’t tell them, it’s ultimately so destructive because either they’ll find out eventually and feel betrayed that you didn’t tell them, or they will just carry on underperforming while other team members become frustrated and ultimately disengaged. Brene Brown’s writing on this topic really changed my way of thinking about feedback, so I recommend her books “Daring Greatly” and “Dare to Lead” to every leader I know, and I had our lead managers read them as well. Being direct and honest is hard because it puts you in a vulnerable position, but it’s the only way to truly get to where you want to go.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Never give up communicating about your vision! It’s impossible to micromanage a large group of people, so you have to make sure your key people know where you’re trying to go. But of course, the tricky thing about vision — which we all have whether we know it or not — is that it is not a roadmap. Even the terminology we use — vision, dream, inspiration — tells us that. It’s something that our brain spits out one day — it can come to us as a lightning strike or a slowly building knowledge that we’re moving toward one step at a time, so it’s not always easy to put into words or concrete directions to your team. People ask me whether The Porch today is what I had always “envisioned.” The truth is that my “vision” for that place had nothing at all to do with the color of the walls or the food on the plates. The passion that kept me going — aside from sheer terror of losing my house — was trying to create a feeling or vibe that I was homesick for when we moved here. I missed it like you would miss a long lost friend, and I couldn’t imagine living here in Winston-Salem — which we love to death — without it. I missed the feeling of Texas, which means nothing to anyone else, so without really realizing I was doing it, I started creating a space that would feel like Texas to me.

So there’s the rub — how do you explain to anyone who is following along, trying to help you achieve your “vision” — which in this case is a feeling — what they’re supposed to do? It won’t work to say “make it feel like Texas in here” to people who aren’t from Texas. Or even to people who are, because of course, my Texas was all about my own childhood and family — dishes my dad would make on a Saturday afternoon and greasy spoons we found on trips to visit family in Austin. It was about the swirling mass of humanity in Houston, where you can’t look right or left without seeing a Vietnamese or Indian or African or French or Mexican hole in the wall restaurant serving dishes from their country to Texans, who in turn mix it all up again and call it Tex-Mex or Viet-Texan. I can’t just say, make it feel like all of that.

So then begins the grueling work of translating vision into a plan that you can communicate in a way that anyone can act on. And it can be so, so frustrating because over and over you’re faced with the limitations of your own communication skills. You say things or draw things or tell people to do something in a specific way, and what comes out is not at all like the vision you had in your mind. So you try again, and again. You learn to speak languages you didn’t think you could — you use math to talk to the banker you need a loan from, you use charts and make rules and spreadsheets to try to help people who like that sort of thing. You get it wrong, erase and then try again. It wears some people out, and they give up and head out. Which is hurtful because maybe, you think, you’ll never be able to get it right. But if it’s important to you, you keep trying until a light goes on and someone “gets it”, or you realize you’ve found someone who speaks your language but has some skill you don’t have — they finally get what you’re trying to do and they’re good at managing people or making spreadsheet or making tacos. So they’re the translators and hands and feet of your vision. Bless those people.

And once you get that ball rolling, things start happening. Between our three restaurants, catering staff and our admin team, we now have over 120 employees, so daily communication is essential but very challenging, especially since we are in multiple places and working seven days a week for about 16 hours a day; there’s almost never a time when we could get everyone in a room together to catch up. As a practical matter, we use a basic Google Drive doc where our managers log everything that happens on their shift, then everyone goes in and reads and responds as needed, so that we know if we had an unhappy customer, or the keg box isn’t working properly, or an employee didn’t come to work with a great attitude. We have a small but mighty admin group that handles HR, Finance, Facilities Management, Marketing & Project Development, so they read the logs every day as well for things that need their specific attention. That really helps us keep the wheels on day to day.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Obviously there are approximately 1 million people who do big and little things every day to help me, but when I think about a moment that I decided to “go for it,” I think about being inspired by my friend Cary Clifford, the owner of Camino Bakery here in Winston-Salem. She is a local entrepreneur who started a bakery out of her kitchen a few years before I started my business. I didn’t really know her, but when she opened her “for real” bakery, I was just getting started, and I ran into her one day when she was out delivering her baked goods to a coffee shop. I thought of her as this person who must have everything figured out and buttoned up to have opened a business, on Winston’s main downtown street no less! And she is amazing, but she was so genuine and down to earth about the hard parts of her business, and the work it takes to make it happen, but she looked so happy and engaged in what she was doing that it really inspired me to take a risk that I was really nervous about taking. Over the years, we’ve become friends and I know I’ve got someone just a text away that “gets it” and if she can’t tell me what to do, will at least offer me a cup of coffee and a shoulder to cry on.

How have you used success to bring goodness to the world?

I feel like that’s a tall order, but I am proud of how much we are able to give to our local charities and organizations that are doing great things! We partner with over 35 non-profits doing special events, donations, fundraising, etc. I also love to collaborate with organizations that are helping people start new businesses so that they don’t have to make all of the same mistakes I did. And, of course, I think that good food brings goodness to the world. In particular, I have loved being able to do a deep dive into the amazing cuisine of Mexico through Alma Mexicana, our tapas-themed Mexican restaurant. I love Mexico and its people and culture, and I feel like we do a good job of celebrating that in a serious way, which is a good counterpoint to the way that the country is currently being portrayed in the media.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Caveat: People probably did tell me these things, but I just didn’t listen the first time!

1. Firing people is really hard, but it’s not as hard as going broke.

My dad did give me this advice, but not before I had already spent way too much time agonizing over letting someone go that was clearly not doing a good job and was detrimental to the company. I thought it was because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but the truth is that when we have to let someone go, it also means we have to admit we were wrong, and that rattles our confidence in ourselves as business leaders. I think, “if I was wrong about this person I thought was so amazing, what else am I wrong about? Maybe everything! Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing at all!” And of course it’s hard to break the news to someone that they’re not working out, so we want to avoid that awkward situation. So we try to rationalize and delay, usually making the situation worse. Over the years, I’ve watched people go through this same misery — where you know you need to let someone go or move them into a different role, but you drag it out because it’s hard. The truth is, sometimes we’re making it harder than it needs to be, and if someone isn’t succeeding in a role, they’re probably as unhappy in the role as you are with them in it.

2. Other people are not the same as you.

Seems obvious, right? But somehow we all think that the things that get us going — the hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, motivations and thought-processes — are the same things that get everyone else going.

3. When a contractor says that a project will be finished “by Christmas,” you should nail down the year with them.

I was new to the world of contractors when I started my first restaurant, and while I have some of the very best, jobs ALWAYS take a lot more time than the contractor says they will. With each restaurant, we’ve had an opening date that has to be pushed back — in one case by over a year — due to construction delays. It makes budgeting & marketing hard, so be prepared to be patient and have a plan B (and C and D)!

4. The things you worry about and lose sleep over will most likely not be the things that happen. You’ll be caught off guard by the bad stuff that actually does happen, so it’s pointless to worry in advance.

Obviously, it’s good business to look for risks that might be part of your work and minimize them as much as you can. Follow best practices, do your homework and all of that, but then just accept that you may have unexpected road bumps, and you’ll figure out how to handle them. The most damaging things that have happened over the years have been things that have been almost entirely out of my control. Of course, if I had known about the risk in advance I would have done things differently, but all you can do is deal with the situation in the moment and do your best to make margaritas out of limes!

5. Tequila always makes all your ideas seem like good ones!

It goes without saying that I like to sit around and come up with ideas — that’s what entrepreneurs love the most! Some of them are good, and some are not as good, so it’s good to have a team of advisors that can give you honest and balanced feedback on your ideas without being negative. Additionally, I have learned to think about who I am sharing my ideas with and why, because sometimes if you tell someone an idea that you’re just mulling over, they may think you’re telling them to go do something, when in fact you’re just brainstorming. So now I try to be clear about whether I’m just thinking through an idea for the future or actually giving direction on a plan.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

My dad passed away this year after living for almost 40 years with Parkinson’s Disease, and now that he’s gone, a million memories from my life with him have come back in amazing detail. Almost all of the best ones have to do with a shared food experience — whether cooking elaborate meals together (he loved to cook), trying out new restaurants, or listening to him talk about politics over a family dinner. That’s been so special to me to have those memories back, and it’s made me even more aware of the power of breaking bread with those we love. So, I guess I would love to be able to say that our business and my work helped give people more quality time with their families, and that in turn was something that helped the world. As my kids are getting older and our lives are ever busier, I really cherish the rare opportunities we have to all sit down over a meal together and talk. We find out what’s important to one another, we laugh a lot, and we leave with a stronger bond than ever. Life can be so hard, and when you go through tough times, knowing that your loved ones — family and friends — are in your corner is the thing that keeps you together, so we need to find ways to make those bonding moments happen in our busy lives. It’s really not important whether the meal is a take-out pizza or a fancy four course dinner, it’s the connection. Our time is such a precious resource, and if I can help give people back a little of it — so they don’t have to meal plan, shop, cook, clean, etc, I think that’s pretty valuable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As I mentioned, my dad passed away after battling Parkinson’s Disease for many, many years. He was such a huge personality, and he had so much energy for everything, even when it was really hard for him to do almost anything. As a lawyer, he loved to learn and think and challenge ideas, so conversations with him were always super engaging. But he also loved to hunt, fish, canoe, dance, cook elaborate and difficult dishes, waterski, play chess, study astronomy, play the stock market, garden, listen to all kinds of music, build things, read, and travel — especially travel. He was an adventurer and a risk taker, with the attitude that we’ve got to squeeze every last drop out of every day we’re given. And he was doing all of that with increasingly limited mobility, difficulty speaking, often falling and hurting himself. But he literally never gave up and rarely complained about anything other than not getting to do more of what he loved. So I feel like I got to watch another person live out a life lesson that is in my heart every day — live your life in the most engaged, full way you can because it is short, and nothing is ever harder or easier than you believe it to be.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

That’s easy — Oprah Winfrey! I grew up watching The Oprah Winfrey Show every afternoon. My best friend and I would get on the phone and watch the whole show together, talking about it the whole while. We learned so, so many life lessons from Oprah, and our whole mission in life was to do something so great and noteworthy that we would be invited on the show. I can’t even begin to summarize the many ways in which the issues she talked about on that show changed how I viewed the world — race, women’s place in the world, friendship, sex, achievement, AIDS, sexuality, abuse, reading, education, and on and on. Some of these were issues that people weren’t talking about before that show, and it made it okay to stand up and live in your truth and realize that there were other people like you out there. I would just like to have the opportunity to tell her thank you for starting conversations that needed to be had, and ask her how we can keep having conversations instead of arguments with people who aren’t exactly like us.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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