They may seem cool and collected, but the skilled team members who package The Chef’s Garden’s farm-fresh vegetables have tremendous pressure on their shoulders. They’re the final stop in the process of preparing our chefs’ orders for shipment, and their meticulous handiwork is what ultimately elicits a positive first impression.
We repeatedly hear chefs say that opening their Chef’s Garden box is “like Christmas.” We call it the “WOW factor,” and packing facility manager Kathleen Griffin said focused attention to detail means everything.
“I see everything from the time it comes into the building until the time it leaves,” she said. “I see it before it’s washed. I see it when it’s been washed. I see it before it gets packed into the boxes. I see it when it’s being packed. I’m always looking.”
Even though our greenhouse and field teams carefully harvest only the best looking vegetables, edible flowers, leaves, microgreens and herbs, Griffin is the final set of eyes, making sure only the most perfect ingredients make the final cut.
“I make sure that the product is quality, that they’re taking care in sizing it correctly, that everything looks nice and pretty,” she said.
Food Safety First
Besides looking good, the safety of Chef’s Garden vegetables is an even more pressing concern. “The number one thing down here, besides the quality, is food safety,” Griffin said. “We take that extremely seriously. It can look beautiful, but if there’s some kind of problem with it … So we do our own food testing. Our testing is of the caliber of FDA and CDC. We’re not going to take any chances. It lets us all rest easy at night.”
Safety includes cleanliness. “It’s important,” she said, “to make sure that their area is organized and clean while they are working so that things don’t slip by.”
Cleanliness is actually the first thing chefs notice when they tour our packing facility: shiny surfaces, pristine floors, and workers wearing lab coats with patches that say “WOW Team.” That sense of pride is pervasive throughout the team, and makes all the difference in the end product, according to Griffin. It’s an atmosphere she intentionally maintains.
“When I walk past and I see something that looks great, I say it ─ everybody does,” she said. “If we notice that something is coming across looking really good, it’s, ‘Oh, you did a great job on that.’ Anybody that sees that, we encourage them to say something.”
Signs emblazoned with the phrase “See it. Say it.” are constant reminders to pursue mutual respect. “If you see something that’s good, then you need to say it,” Griffin continued. “That’s the culture we’re trying to build.”
Practice Makes Perfect
Of course, nobody’s perfect. And correcting occasional missteps is a necessary part of Griffin’s job. She said she tries to be as tactful and gentle as she can to address any such issues and preserve a positive atmosphere.
“If I walk up and see something that’s not happening correctly, then I will address it with the supervisor first,” she said. “I try to keep it so they’re not feeling like I’m being the big boss. Because when it comes from me, it’s a negative. I’m very careful about that.”
“If it’s something that was sent incorrectly, or didn’t look quite right, we find out who packed it and we address it immediately, just to make sure they’re watching, just to remind them,” she said. “Overall they do a really good job.”
Fortunately, Griffin said she doesn’t have to step in very often thanks to the training, skills and dedication of everyone who works in the facility. But the impressive deftness and agility of the more practiced hands doesn’t happen by accident.
“We’ve had some really good people come in and pick it up just like that,” she said. “And we’ve had some that struggle along the way. But eventually they get it. It might take them a little bit longer, but they’ll get it. We just enforce patience and repetition ─ constant repetition ─ the same, same, same thing, over and over and over again, all the time.”
When someone graduates from fumbling to finesse, Griffin said it’s something to celebrate. “That’s the ultimate goal, obviously. And it’s awesome when that happens.”
Making sure her team members can back one another up is another essential part of keeping things running smoothly. “We cross train,” she said. “Everybody can go into almost every single other area.”
(Even Griffin is cross trained. On the day of this interview, she was filling in for logistics manager Jason Howland, handling late orders and shipping issues, and fielding a continual stream of questions and requests, and generally putting out fires. “It’s organized chaos,” she said.)
Griffin’s five-year tenure has been a learning process, and she said her experienced colleagues have taught her most of what she knows. “I don’t ever go about it as if I know all,” she said. “I usually ask a lot of questions. ‘What would you do in this situation?’ ‘What do you think is best?’ They know more than I do. I don’t have all the answers. If I make a wrong call, I’m the first to say ‘I screwed up, let’s fix it.’”
“You need to know your weaknesses so you can surround yourself with people who have those strengths,” she added. “You manage problems, but you lead people.”