What Are You Eating? How Beer, Burgers, and Pizza are transforming the way one community thinks about food Seth Gross - Owner, Bull City Burger and Brewery and Pompieri Pizza

Seth Gross is the owner of Bull City Burger and Brewery (BCBB) & Pompieri Pizza, which are hands down two of the best restaurants in Durham, NC… and arguably two of the best restaurants in the United States.

Both restaurants have a lot of personality and everything they do is deeply tied to their core values, which include sustainability, supporting local farms, and providing great jobs for their employees.  BCBB only serves pasture-raised beef and they make EVERYTHING in house, except the ketchup (apparently, it’s futile to try to keep up with customer’s aggressive ketchup consumption).  The minute you walk into Pompieri, you’re struck by the impressive Aquaponics system they use to grow basil and herbs for their delicious pizza.  Most importantly, their food is delicious.  Seth is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has more than 30-years of restaurant experience.

Seth is a B Corp Champion and his restaurants do an incredible job demonstrating the power of business as a force for good. Expect to be blown away by his interview, as it will challenge you to consider how the choices you make in what food you choose to eat can really make an impact on the world.

What inspired you to start BCBB and Pompieri Pizza?  

The inspiration was really selfish.  I wanted to create a restaurant where I knew my family could eat. I really wasn’t thrilled with the local options available. I wanted for us to be able to eat happy meat, and nothing frozen or processed.  

I also loved working with my hands and I’ve always wanted to do burgers and beer. I used to brew beer professionally and I saw the opportunity in Durham.

From that, how did you get into Pompieri?

When I got ready to do Bull City Burger, I actually wrote two business plans. I love pizza, burgers, and beers.  I had these two ideas and had to decide which to do first.  Durham, at the time, didn’t have any brew pubs, so I started there. Then I hoped I could do the pizza thing as soon as possible.  I waited three years for the first “child” to be up and walking and then I started the second restaurant.

What led you to decide to pursue B Corp certification and make the decision to make a positive impact through your restaurants? 

We were running our business a little differently than most restaurants. It was sort of along the B Corp values and I didn’t have a term for it.

B Corp started for me with a Larry’s Beans coffee bag.  I was intrigued by the B Corp logo.  It wasn’t a Fair Trade or Organic symbol.  All it had was B on it and I had to go look it up. I honestly thought it was some food certification.  

Once I started reading what they were about, I went in to work and started thinking.  I felt this is how we are running our business. I felt we should look at this because these were like-minded people.   I was skeptical at first because the B Corp movement was a bit small at the time and the certification didn’t really matter yet.  But I realized that the only way it’s going to matter is if people like us get certified.  If I believe in this, the best thing to do is to pursue the certification.

When was this?

I think about five years ago, so 2012.  BCBB opened in March 2011.  Then Pompieri opened in 2013 and we got Pompieri Certified in 2014, since you have to be operating one year before getting certified. We now operate with the triple bottom line of People, Planet and then Profit.

You said you were already running your restaurant differently – can you talk a little bit about that?

I grew up in the restaurant world.  In the restaurant world, you have the front of the house and the back of the house, and the two fight each other.

The front of the house makes way more money.  The back of the house works really hard, gets dirty, and is underpaid.  It’s just the job you did until you got a real job.  It’s a way to make money until you figure out what you want to do with your life.  That’s how I grew up.

What I wanted was for people to see restaurant work as a career – it’s actually a way to provide for a family.  You can make money, you can provide for your family, and you can afford a car.  It doesn’t have to be front versus back or unfair wages.  

I wanted to do things differently.  We started out with the goal to pay better, treat people like people, and to try to get people to stay around longer and see it is a real career.  That’s how it all started. I didn’t know exactly how to do it, but I knew what not to do.  That’s what we started with.

The planet part was already who I am – it’s how I live in my house.  I just did that I do at home, but at work.  The second component to me was the people.  So, how do we make a change there?

Honestly, it was hard.  The dishwasher is looked at as the bottom rung in the kitchen and I don’t like that.  I started out as a dishwasher – lord know it’s hot, wet, dirty… and one of the hardest positions in the restaurant.  So I started paying dishwashers like I pay cooks.

When the cook pushes back and says “How come the dishwasher is making what I’m making?’  I’ll say “well, would you like to wash dishes tonight?”  Usually the answer is no.  “So… stop complaining.”

How did the B Corp certification change your operations?

When I got certified I felt like I was joining this really cool group of people and we are going to make a difference.  Then I appreciated the value of the exam afterwards. The first time I took the exam, it was rigorous and we were trying to prove everything with documentation.

When we first took the exam, B Lab actually tried to discourage me, they said it wasn’t really designed for a restaurant. It was going to be hard for us to pass because they weren’t thinking about an independent restaurant when they started the exams.  I was pretty insistent and persistent.

In part because of us, there is now a restaurant exam.  At the time, there was only one other restaurant certified in the world.  We just had to leave sections blank – we didn’t have warehouses with OSHA certified forklift drivers, etc.  Also, a lot of the things we were doing we couldn’t get credit for since it wasn’t part of the original exam.

The second time we certified, there was now a restaurant assessment.  The exam got a lot better.  I really valued that they had those sections where if you can’t score, there are helpful tips, with things like, here are a couple of ideas, if you implement them you can get points the next time you take this exam.

One good example is, a year ago, we formed the PPAC, which is the Pie Pan Advisory Committee.  ‘Pie pan’ is the parent company for the two restaurants.  We have three people from each restaurant, a mix of front of the house and back of the house.  We meet once a month. They are conduit for employees to bring ideas, suggestions, or complaints.  I want them to be a part of improving our organization for employees.  There are rules to get on the PPAC such as you have to be there a minimum of one year. I want people who have been there and are dedicated to the business.  They also need to be in the business through a full cycle, the various seasons.  It has been a real asset.

I remember the story of you going from a dumpster of trash down to a tiny trash can… how did this change come about?

That change was actually all us.  Every Sunday night, I would look at the dumpster area.  We have two restaurants and a handful of small businesses and residents all sharing this one dumpster. By Sunday, you couldn’t even get near the dumpster.  There were trash bags overflowing everywhere, all on the ground.  It was ridiculous.  I kept thinking look at all this waste and it was just from a couple of businesses and people. 

So we started thinking about, how could we do better?  It was a big paradigm shift for everyone at the restaurant.  

Our first step was saying that we’re going to have 4 trash cans and we’re going to sort our waste.  People were like ‘oh god, I have to do this… and touch everything… and sort the paper…’

Now, no one thinks about it.  It’s just how we are.  I haven’t seen that dumpster overflow in 4 or 5 years.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced? 

The biggest challenge we have in this industry is labor.  It has kept me from opening the third restaurant so far.  I’m really hoping this is the year we can do it.  We’ve had to invest backwards to go forwards.

We now have a full time assistant HR person just dedicated to recruiting.  To have salary for someone to do that, plus the ads we pay.  It’s really hard.  We’ve got some challenges in this industry.  With the restaurant industry – if you walked out to the street and asked if a cook should make a fair wage, I feel fairly certain 99% of the people will say ‘absolutely.’  Then you say, ‘ok, well I need to charge you $12 for your hamburger.’ The next response will be ‘No, that’s too expensive.’

We like to joke ‘you are what you eat.’ However, in the food industry, we have barriers to what you can charge to make it work.  That’s been one of my biggest challenges.  If I can charge more, I can pay the cooks better. People want the cooks paid well, but don’t want to pay more money for food.

The idea that food is cheap is reinforced every day, all around us.  If you look at any commercial on TV, it basically says ‘look at all of this food for very little money.

Carl Jr.’s has their $5 meal right now – you get a double cheeseburger, a chicken sandwich, fries, drink, and a dessert… all for $5.  The average person says ‘See – now that’s a great deal.  Look at all of that food for $5.’  But I know I can’t make that much food for $5… I don’t think you can make that much food for $5… and yet Carl Jr.’s is making a profit.  So there is a problem there.

Yes… what’s in that food?

We think it’s ok to go to Golden Corral and eat all you can for $8.99 or whatever they charge. No one questions how did the food get there for that cheap and still make money.  “All you can eat” is a very American thing.

We want to change that.  We want to say, look at the quality we’re giving you.  This quality comes at a price. We’re paying farmers real money for their food.  We’re not trying to find the cheapest tomato out there. As a result, we’re not only paying the farmers the right price so that they can be sustainable, we’re also paying the people working for us to make that burger a fair wage too.  By paying better and trying to recruit better, we’re trying to solve that labor problem for us.

It means at the end of the day, we make less profit and I’m ok with that. We talk about people, planet, profit and I’m willing to give up profit to take care of people and planet.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world… or their community? 

I talk about this a lot.  We all think the best way to do that is to change our light bulbs to compact fluorescents or LEDs, and then go buy an electric car.  And that’s great.  But there is an easier way and arguably a more impactful way.

What we all do every day is eat.  If you think about where your food comes from you will make a huge impact. I’m going to make conscious choice to not eat Doritos for lunch.  Instead I’m going to eat something from the East Coast, NC, or even the Triangle for lunch.  At the end of the year, your groceries, your meals, will have an ENORMOUS impact on the environment versus just getting a hybrid car. I’m not knocking the purchase of a hybrid car.  

I just think that starting with your eating habits because you will have an enormous net impact on your community and the environment within a year.  To me, it’s the simplest and most obvious thing you can do. It’s also cheaper per day than buying a car outright.

What specifically do you recommend to embrace this – going to farmers markets? Not buying cheap products? Shopping local?

When you do go out to eat – look at the restaurant you’re going to. Independently owned restaurants are great because they keep dollars local and are often paying better wages.

In Durham, you have a good number of choices. A lot of the Chef’s in Durham preach working with local farms and buying good ingredients.  Making the choice to eat at those types of restaurants will make a big impact.  

Farmers also have a responsibility in all this.  We have an impression that it’s really expensive to go to the farmers market. If I go with a $50, I’m going to come home with a tiny shopping bag of food.  Farmers also need to show value.  We know we’re going to pay more. It’s up to them to give us high quality stuff that makes it worth the extra expense.  So many farmers are new at this.  If you didn’t like the tomatoes at one farm, definitely try another.  You’ll figure out the farmers growing really good stuff that taste great and you’ll feel like you’re getting a good value.  It’s such a new thing, farmers markets.