You’ve seen it happen at cocktail parties. Invariably, even with music swirling around the sofa and snacks scattered strategically throughout the house, guests end up gathering in the kitchen, engaged in conversation. And Terrence Conran pronounced the kitchen a place that "provides physical and spiritual nourishment, and for many homes is now the heart and soul of family life." But can a kitchen nurture a company while nourishing its bottom line?
Absolutely, according to Robert Barone and Joshua Barone, principals and investment advisor representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC. The father and son agree that their company kitchen (pictured above) has been cooking up profits since the firm’s start in 2006. Holding meetings with potential clients in a space with swishy granite counters, a glistening mosaic backsplash, two ovens, and a semi-circular counter with seating for six, the two have observed boundaries melt away as Robert Barone preps and serves them gourmet lunches.
"What we found is that our clients told us a lot more in the kitchen than they did in the conference room and it wasn’t just about finance, it was personal," said Joshua Barone. With time to relax, they also reveal their thresholds for risk and build rapport with their advisors. That’s why even during the darkest days of the recession, Joshua Barone says the firm experienced 30 percent increases year over year and nearly doubled the funds it has under advisement to $90 million.
It’s definitely helped their employees, too, the Barones say. "We like the motion and commotion of the family atmosphere," Robert Barone notes, so employees are encouraged to partake of any leftover food from the client meetings. And sharing new ideas and perspectives on their work seems somehow less threatening when you're simultaneously piling sandwiches high with deli meats, Robert says; this franker communication in turn builds loyalty.
Indeed, small investments in office kitchens have led to significant benefits in many workplaces, according to Lisa Hamblet, vice president for the facility solutions and services business of Staples Advantage. A recent survey conducted by Staples Advantage found nearly three quarters of workers saw the company kitchen as a place for impromptu meetings and social breaks that buoys energy and creativity as effectively as a cup of coffee.
But installing a kitchen alone isn’t enough. Here are some other bite-sized strategies the Barones have learned from both sides of the counter that ensure success.
Create a Stress-Free Environment From the Top Down
Though he doesn’t claim to be a professional chef, Robert says he’s taken cooking classes in Napa, Hawaii, Italy, even Australia. "It’s a stress reliever for me," he says. "I like to get my hands in the details." That sets the tone for client meetings and the entire office. "They see that I’m a regular person," he says.
Cut the Fat and Know What You’re Eating
Robert says he initially thought that everyone would gain weight from having so much access to great food. "I actually lost five pounds," he says. "I lost more," Joshua adds. The point, according to Robert, is that restaurant meals are often laden with fats and sugar and home cooking is not. When he cooks for clients, he uses the best ingredients, "It makes everything taste better." And there’s never a question about what’s going into the pan, as he preps and cooks everything in plain sight.
As an economist and portfolio manager, Robert translates this kitchen wisdom to the business of investing. "We have no hidden fees and we don’t use any investment products with ‘back door’ fees. We are transparent to our clients and employees."
If You Can’t Take the Heat
Joshua notes that behavior is a huge part of the financial market. "We use strict valuations and then wait for market opportunities when we see emotional spikes or pull backs." Cool heads and conservative investments always prevail he says. "It’s about managing your clients’ expectations. The kitchen works great for that because they can talk and get those emotions out while you share a meal," he says.
The Kitchen Doesn't Close
The office also has an espresso machine, extra computer work stations, even a shower. "You could live here if you wanted to" Robert says, but it’s not just for the staff. "We encourage our clients and friends to come in any time," and says that clients often come by to ask questions or get a take on the latest market swing.
Says Joshua: "It’s a communication thing. We listen to clients and staff to find out what they want and see where the problems are instead of just dictating a solution."