MS: What was your pivotal moment in life that made you take this direction?
AF: I think there have been a lot of pivotal moments in my life, as there are in most peoples. There is certainly one that stands out in setting me on the somewhat unlikely path I ended up on.
MS: What made you want to be what you are now?
AF: I don’t think I ever thought I would be what I am now. I never really had too much of a plan when I was younger. I followed my passions but floated around a bit in my younger adult years. I suppose I began to formulate a plan right around age 30 but it was mostly based on opportunity. It took a while for it to take shape and it twisted and turned along the way. I have realized now that a lot of success in life (at least my own) was being prepared for opportunities and jumping on them once they became available. That makes it hard to really plan except for an abstract or general plan, as the future is somewhat undefined. I do, however, try to keep myself open and able to jump on opportunities that may present themselves.
It wasn’t the best long term source of employment, however, I was very happy to be doing it and loved that I got to obsess over something every day and make it my job. I didn’t really think much past that it was a time in my life that I took a lot of lessons from and still influences me to this day. The pivotal life shifting moment came on April 15th, 2011. On that date the US government shut down online poker, which was riding in a bit of a legal grey area, and all of a sudden anyone who played online (there were a good amount at that time) were left without a job and with any money tied up, which turned out to be for months to years.
At that point my hand was forced and I had to decide what to do with my life. I was never scared of going for things and for some reason I had it in my mind that I would become a restaurant manager. Only problem was that I had pretty much no restaurant experience. I applied for a bunch of jobs and got rejected (for good reason) but applied for the job of catering manager at a place called Ithaca Bakery in Ithaca, where I was living post college. When I started there, I was hooked. I loved everything about it and it actually fit the lifestyle that I had become accustomed to as it had a fair amount of autonomy. When I get into things, I get into them somewhat obsessively and long term. This is the point when my obsession began to shift to the restaurant industry.
MS: What are your favorite parts about what you do?
AF: I feel so lucky every day that I get to control my own destiny and that I am able to do it in a balanced manner. I love to learn, which is actually a relatively novel concept for me. When I was younger, I thought I wasn’t very smart. I now realize I just didn’t like school and it wasn’t the right way for me to learn. I work a lot but I get to do it on my terms. I do it when I am home with my family (I am typing now as I sit next to my son). I do it during the day but get to take breaks or time off when I want and have constant long term goals that keep me motivated and grounded.
MS: What are your short-term and/or long-term goals at the moment?
AF: My short term goals are to remain happy and balanced. To find ways to work creatively (I love this project for that reason) and to keep building and progressing. My long term goals are to keep building, growing and expanding within the confines of maintaining my work-life balance. I would like to have the option to “retire” soon. I don’t know if I would but I would like to be at the point in the next 5 years or so (loose time frame) where I have the ability to retire if I want.
“I think it's a mistake to set strict or specific goals. My goals have always been process-driven. If we focus on the process of something our expectations are in line with what is needed to achieve the goals. When our goals are specific like make a million dollars or write a book for the sake of writing a book, the book will suck and you’ll set a new goal of 2 million dollars immediately after because someone else has that.”
MS: Do you have advice for people interested in the same field?
AF: Be obsessed with what you do. Find people who are successful and latch on to them. Take risks but understand and accept the risks. Be objective and honest about life. Open yourself to other ways of looking at things. I think people get too confined and boxed in and that diminishes opportunities. Be solutions driven. Our brains often react negatively first and we just want to complain about the state of a thing instead of looking for the opportunity (big and small) or a solution that may sit slightly outside of the box. Step out of your comfort zone. It's comfortable for a reason, because it's easy, it's known. Learning comes from breaking away from what’s easy. Challenge yourself. Growth comes from difficult situations.
“Everything is a skill. We look at people and think they are just naturally good at something or that “I could never do that.” Not true. If you break everything down into the atomic zone we are just a combination of micro-skills and patterns of thinking. Everything can be adjusted, unlearned, learned and improved upon. I do think some people are born with certain opportunities, privileges and predispositions but I think there is a lot that we don’t realize we can achieve because people don’t open themselves to thinking creatively.”
MS: What is something(s) you wish you knew in the beginning?
AF: I don’t think there is anything I wish I knew. I knew what I knew in the moment, I accepted what I didn’t know and was okay with that and it drove my work ethic. I am not someone who believes in destiny or a plan but I believe we make the best decisions with the information available to us at the time it’s available. If something turns out to be a mistake, that is more than okay, it's a part of the process of growth.
MS: Who/what are your biggest inspirations and why?
AF: My older brother is a big inspiration. He thinks very creatively and doesn't get confined by normalities. He never seemed afraid to do what he thought was right, even at a very young age. His life path was always outside of the normal ways of operation. I feel very lucky I got to see that from a young age. My parents inspired me to be the family person I am today. They taught me compassion, love, empathy, discipline and lots more. We had a very grounded, loving and “normal” childhood. I thought everyone had the same experience when I was younger but have since realized that lots of families struggle. That is of course not to say we didn't have struggles but we were always there for each other and it was never doubted that we loved one another and still do. My wife inspires me in many ways. She doesn't take the easy path, she is one of the most empathetic people I know and she doesnt allow me to take the easy path. She supports me with all my crazy ideas and keeps me grounded.
MS: What is your favorite food/drink-related memory?
AF: My first trip to Europe. My mother set up home exchange trips to Europe every year from age 14-21 or so. We would switch houses with families in different countries. It was a very unique way to travel. We went to Belgium on our first trip and from there went to France and the Netherlands as well. We tried all sorts of unique foods and experienced lots of new things for a young kid.
MS: What is your favorite quote(s) and why?
AF: The Oh Hello’s - “And the sun, it does not cause us to grow, it is the rain that will strengthen your soul, it will make you whole.” I have been through a lot, we all have. My life has been great but I have struggled. I have had three different types of cancer, I have felt as bad as you can ever imagine for longer than any person ever should. I have and still do fear an early death that is out of my control. Out of that struggle however, has grown a strength that guides me through difficult situations. Nothing will ever be as big as that. Nothing will ever be harder with bigger implications. Nothing means as much as that. Everything else is easy comparatively. That is a strength that can only be nurtured by a strong, miserable, rainy season.
MS: What is your favorite meal and/or drink to share?
AF: Coffee in the morning. Nothing is better. The earlier the better, the stronger the better. Best had alone or shared with friends.
MS: What are some things that keep you going?
AF: What keeps me going is my love of life, the goal of complete freedom but mostly just maintaining happiness as much as possible.
MS: How do you approach a work life balance?
AF: I make it a priority. I don’t want to regret, I don’t want my kids to wonder why Dad wasn’t around. I don’t want to use the excuse that I make money to stop me from pulling my weight. My wife helps me stay grounded. She would never allow me to get too carried away with work or anything else.
MS: What is something you wish people learned or knew more about in your industry?
AF: That just because it's the restaurant industry it doesn't mean that everyone is always sleeping with everyone else, yelling at each other and annoyed by customers. Restaurants can also be a professional, safe and nurturing place to work.
MS: What does supporting local mean to you?
AF: Supporting local is an understanding that it may not always be the easiest, simplest or coolest option out there. It often takes more effort and more forethought. Supporting local is, however, supporting people and institutions that can and will support you. It’s not the only option and by all means should not be the sole reason you shop somewhere but it is a very important factor. Take a drive through forgotten towns in the U.S. that large industry left for cheaper jobs overseas. Having a thriving, supported town is not a given and it's not guaranteed, it takes attention and support but these are the organizations that will be there to support the local community and its members.
MS: Do you have advice or encouragement for ways to support local?
AF: I don’t think someone should shop local only because it's local or because it's a small business. I do think that is a big factor in deciding how to shop but small businesses have to earn the customer and their trust too.
MS: If you could solve one problem in the world, what would it be?
AF: I think our biggest global challenge is climate change and limited planetary resources. It is one of the biggest threats to our species but is enough on the periphery that people are not concerned with it. The inputs are obviously very complicated and a result of overpopulation, our technological advancement and lots more. Obviously hypothetical but we are quickly outgrowing this planet. The solutions are also complicated and very large so hard to pinpoint. Even hypothetically, which I would choose to tackle is hard to define but creating a solution to a planet that will at some point, no longer be able to support us would be it.
MS: How do you align your business decisions with your values each day?
AF: I very much think that the businesses I am a part of align with my values but they do so in different ways. My first restaurant, PLP, has my biggest, most obvious fingerprint on it. Everyone knows my expectations because I have communicated them myself for so long. For my other businesses, I am more part of a team and have had to adjust to that a bit. This was also one of my biggest concerns and priorities with expanding past my one location. I never viewed it negatively, just how do I achieve the goal of having a business operate without myself being there day to day but still operating in the way that I believe is right.
MS: What is the most valuable advice you’ve received?
AF: Trust. I have received this advice in a couple ways and from a couple people. One is from my PLP business partner and chef at PLP. Being in business with someone is akin to being in a relationship. Early on in our partnership we had a talk about trusting each other. We decided at that point that we would just do it. Which sounds sort of silly and unnecessary but it has been one of the most important conversations we have had. Trust is easy in theory but difficult in practice. That advice has come into play very often and I have transferred to lots of other people that I work with.
MS: What is your definition of success?
AF: Being happy. It sounds cheesy and it is certainly lucky that at this point in my life I am able to decide that is my vision of success but it's true. If I base my level of success on monetary achievements or perceived societal success then there is always going to be one more mountain to climb, one more comma to add and one more person to impress. If I can focus on being happy then it comes down to: Does this thing add the ability to add happiness to my life? Which is much easier to keep up with and less detrimental to mental health.
MS: What was a challenge you did not expect to overcome that you did?
AF: I don’t think I have a particular challenge that I did not expect to overcome and did but when I was younger I was very self conscious, I kept things hidden and questioned myself a lot. I wasn’t able to do any sort of public speaking (like even asking questions in class) and didn’t think very highly of my learning and cognitive abilities.This was a long transition from feeling self conscience to self confident with many inputs and ‘Aha!’ moments but if you asked me a decade ago if I would be able to even do something like this, there would be no shot.
MS: Looking back on life, how have you or values shifted or refined?
AF: My values have shifted from personal to more community based values. Most of what I do, I view as a burden (not in a bad way). Being a business owner that is within a community and that employs people is a burden. They rely on me and I rely on them, that means I often have to put them first. My family is a burden, I can’t do a lot of things I used to be able to or would like to do. Being married is a burden and takes a lot of constant work. That is all totally okay and well worth the trade off but for me, needs to be viewed that way.
MS: What are you most proud of and why?
AF: I think I am most proud that I can take on so much, that I am able to do it calmly and not let it control my life. I think about the amount of things I have accomplished and the amount of things that I am accountable for and it's sort of shocking when I step back. I also see a lot of other business owners and how they operate and it gives me a lot of pride that I can maintain healthy relationships, work-life balance and remain happy and not overwhelmed. It makes me feel like I can do anything.
MS: How do you draw inspiration?
AF: From other people, the good and the bad. From situations, also good and bad and from long term goals and a drive toward growth and development. I think anything is achievable at this point and that inspires me.
MS: How has running a business impacted the way you view things?
AF: I view almost everything with an eye toward fixing or adjusting it. I look at everything I do and everywhere I go as an organization and wonder about its moving parts and how it’s structured etc. It is hard to turn off but it is always very interesting to think about why something is the way it is. I used to see everything at face value whereas now I think about what is underneath.
MS: What does being part of a community mean to you?
AF: Being a part of a community means different things. For “business me”, it's integral to my success. I can't survive without community and so it behoves me to support it back. I also love living in this community so I am more than happy to support it as much as possible. Supporting community has been a founding principal from the beginning of being in business. My family and friends are my personal community and are as important as I think anyone's probably are. I learned in the hard times that having a strong community is incredibly important. I have had to lean on my family and wider community enough times at this point that I try to give back as much as possible. I wouldn't have been able to get through some of the difficulties without it. I am in a position where I can be a supportive member of my communities now, for that I feel very fortunate. I also know I may need to lean on them at some point again, for this I know they will be there for me again.
MS: Say you were invited to a dinner party, what recipe you bring to the table and why?
AF: We had a dish when we were kids that my mother made often. We called it ‘Peaches’ or ‘Peaches Salad’. It's pretty simple but so good and always a crowd pleaser. It's a summer dish because you need fresh peaches but can be adapted with other fruits like apples. Grilled chicken breast, lettuce of your choice, orzo cooked and cooled, fresh peaches, cheese (we use blue but my mothers insists that she never used cheese and says it's like putting ranch dressing on everything, which is also something we definitely did), sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds or substitute something else for texture and crunch, and a honey-dijon balsamic dressing. So good, I want it right now actually.