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November 10, 2023

The making of a leader

Self-made leaders are driven by one of the best reasons in the world: to create something that has the potential to become much bigger than themselves. I didn’t know these things when I opened our first small restaurant. How could I have? I had spent so many years studying immaterial subjects such as literature, world history, ancient languages and philosophy. Divorced and penniless, I simply wanted to earn a living and feed my three kids.

My start in business is not as illustrious as you might think. Maybe I somehow just stumbled upon this “magic potion”! The truth is, I didn’t choose the restaurant business. Rather, it chose me and success came surprisingly quickly. I sold the family home, which the bank was already eyeing, and opened the first Cora diner without any preconceived ideas, any particular passion for food or any dream of greatness or dazzling success. I was going to cook, serve customers, clean up and then take the leftovers back to the apartment for the kids’ supper.

But there I was, like an accidental dumpling, with my head bobbing in the broth. Suddenly seized by another way of seeing things, I began giving importance to gestures, things and new dishes that kept appearing for the first time in my boss’ mind. Each day, I surprised myself by wanting to embellish, perfect or add colour or a memorable flavour to every plate. Without realizing it, the banana slices, strawberries and raspberries began to dance on the French toast. Fresh blueberries jumped on melon wedges, along with big red grapes, arrow-shaped apples and juicy slices of pears and peaches.

Two months later, I made up my first staff schedules, a food inventory checklist, a daily cash closing report with the number of customers and the day’s intake, and a month-end closing sheet to track our progress. Where did the sudden expertise come from? I still wonder! Without realizing it, day after day, I created what we would later call “the Cora concept” in that first location. I recalled my mother’s crêpe mix recipe and I cooked my own vanilla syrup from scratch. Then I remembered the blancmange from college and concocted a wonderful pastry cream.

My confidence in the kitchen mushroomed as fast as the daily lineups at the door. I remember it so well: Still unaware of the impact of my actions, I was mentally organizing all the work that had to be done and the team to do it. I was unknowingly laying the groundwork that would one day allow us to believe in a reality we couldn’t yet imagine. These are the humble beginnings of my career in the restaurant industry. I certainly didn’t choose this calling, but time turned it into my passion. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I got on with the job; pulling us towards better days. I didn’t have any choice but to dedicate every waking moment to our success. I worked a hundredfold more than others and achieved exceptional results that those who were less determined never reached.

I started early on to persuade my children and our first few employees that we weren’t just serving customers; we were building something new – an idea, a different way of doing things than what existed then. Of course I lacked the words and the knowledge to properly articulate the project we had embarked upon and whose humble servants we were becoming.

I don’t know where I found the courage to sustain this vision until it could emerge from nothing. What I realize today is that I birthed an extraordinary concept in that small 29-seat diner. Like a mother, I cared for my new baby myself, night and day. While I cooked, created new recipes and dreamed, all I could think about was its wellness and future. I assumed all the responsibilities for its growth and helped people around me to serve it better. I accomplished all of this by keeping us – my children, our team and I – away from the pessimistic chaos of disbelievers.

The arrival of the Cora concept released the “boss” within me; a leader who, like an attentive mother, began to learn on the job and put her abilities to the test as she nurtured her child to maturity. I wanted to teach by example and never asked anyone to do something that I wasn’t prepared to do myself. I was disciplined and strict, keeping anything that threatened my success at bay. It wasn’t always easy to believe in the potential of my ideas; in fact, it was very challenging to hold on to a concept built on a mountain of eggshells.

The unfortunate thing about being the leader of a company is that there isn’t a higher authority to throw you a little “bravo” or “congrats on a job well done” in between meetings. Maybe that’s why I hung a picture of my father, who passed away before I started my business, in my first restaurant. I needed to hear those little words of encouragement when I was first starting out; paradoxically, it’s exactly at this stage they were rarely given.

The customers’ satisfied smiles kept me sane and motivated. And today, dear readers, your many kind comments encourage me to pursue this conversation with you each week. A THOUSAND thank yous to each and every one of you!