Putting Family Back in the Family Business

Sap Bush Hollow Farm Cafe

“The Hayes family at the Sap Bush Hollow Farm and Cafe” Photo Credit: Times Journal

It was an Irish lamb stew, made from our farm’s grassfed lambs, local root vegetables and a bone broth that we simmered for 72 hours straight. It came with a wedge of fresh baked Irish soda bread with local grassfed butter, a slice of Irish apple cake topped with custard cream, and a pint of locally brewed stout.

It was the St. Patty’s Day special we created for our family cafe for March 17, 2020. I had made the stew the night before and had assembled all the ingredients for the cake and the soda bread. We never got to serve it.

Covid-19 forced us to shut the doors of our farm-to-table cafe and withdraw from our farmers’ market of over 18 years. It caused us to lose access to our processors and butchers, our suppliers, our employees and our customers.

It was a year full of upheaval, sorrow, and fear for all of us.

And yet, Sap Bush Hollow Farm & Cafe had its best business year on the books. At the same time, my aging parents stayed healthy and happy, our teenagers grew powerful and confident, our marriage stayed strong.

Yes, like most small businesses, we “pivoted.”  We pivoted so much, we grew tired of the word. We saw articles about it online and in the newspapers. The local Chamber proselytized it, business websites profiled cases on it, and Cooperative Extension offered online workshops on how to do it. The belief was that pivoting was the key to saving small-scale businesses.

But looking back at it all, pivoting wasn’t really the key to our success.

It was family.

As a family business, we were able to work as a pod, minimizing our risk of exposure to Covid. Three generations were able to look out for each other. The teens stepped in to work when employees left to address their own family needs. Mom and Dad’s savings provided an emotional safety net, freeing my husband and I, who are the middle generation, to experiment, take risks, and create a business that proved stronger than ever. The bottom line improved.

Too often, the family is lost in family businesses. Younger generations are alienated and feel like they can’t do anything right. Older generations can’t understand why the younger ones can’t do anything right. Marriages fall apart from the financial constraints and the work pressures. If the businesses manage to hold on, too often they become a prison for the family members who work within them, or burdens of guilt for those who escape. It shouldn’t be that way. A resilient family business should provide greater freedoms, enrich our quality of life, nurture creativity and relationships, enable spiritual and emotional growth and deepen a sense of community and abundance. Below are some tips on how to make that happen.

1. Expand your definition of “wealth.”
Too often, wealth is misunderstood as simply money in the bank. Instead, think of true wealth as the ingredients for a good life: the ability to take off on a weekday morning for a hike; to drink in the glories of a mountain stream or the gardens in a city park. It’s fresh air, rich soil, clean water. It’s the freedom to sit with your kid over a cup of coffee and ponder the great mysteries that reveal themselves in algebra. It’s the time we can give to keep a marriage solid, and to maintain good relationships with our children. It’s the opportunity to debate with our elders over news, politics, or inevitably, business matters. It’s a chance to share labor with them, rather than fixate ad nauseam on aches and pains, prostates, blood pressure and mortality. True wealth is the food on your plate, the smile of a neighbor, the laughter around the family dinner table. Even confronting the problems that we examine and debate keeps us engaged in learning and spiritual growth throughout life. With this broader definition of wealth, we start to see that financial ups and downs are merely a small part of an overall wealth portfolio. Often, financial hardships help us to develop deeper connections and more resourcefulness, building our resilience and adding even more to our true wealth bank account. When we see how much of this true wealth a family business allows, suddenly we see it as a lot more profitable.

2. Welcome the next generation into the workplace with clear processes and written protocols.
Too often, we bring our kids into the workplace expecting them to have osmosed skills by simply watching us. We don’t prepare them to do a good job. When they fail, we parents tend to push them aside, grumbling that we “need to make sure this gets done right.” But if they can’t do it right, that’s on the parents.

In order to successfully teach, we must first examine our work process. Process is sequencing. In our cafe kitchen, that means knowing that home fries take longer to cook than eggs. It is also arranging, making sure that all the tools and materials are placed in exactly the same way every time. And finally, it is about cleanliness. In order to do a job efficiently and well, we need a welcoming and orderly workspace.

The beautiful thing about a well-examined process is that it takes the skills that each of us have internalized and lets us communicate them to the next person by means of a written protocol. With each revision, the protocol is updated, work becomes more efficient and quality improves. When we teach a new task to our kids, a written protocol prompts us to prioritize essential procedures and puts a guide to work in their hands. This sets them up for success. Even when interruptions happen, protocols give family members assurance that they can complete a job start to finish with certainty, able to put their full attention on whatever task comes next. Moreover, established protocols make skills more readily transferable to whomever enters the business.

3. Be present on the job.
It’s impossible to merge family and business and not have conflict. On the good side, the loving familial bonds keep us from firing one another, and it is easier to blow off steam. The downside is the high likelihood of violating personal boundaries and failing to self-moderate. Therefore, we must maintain mental presence on the job.

Presence is about giving ourselves to the moment. It is about letting go of all the tension that might be flying through the air, all the drama that may have happened at home, or yesterday, or five minutes ago, and fully giving the work at hand our utmost attention, devotion, and love. If we can’t maintain presence—let go, forgive, forget, and move with the moment—all that emotional detritus spills over into customer service, and that’s a stinking mess. Or worse, it could alienate your child, causing you to lose a future business partner, your legacy, and one of your best friends.

4. Learn the money paradox.
Having redefined true wealth above, there’s an important corollary to consider. In our family, we call it the money paradox. It is this: Ultimately, money has nothing to do with true wealth.

Money is a tool for facilitating transactions, but it is not the fresh air, the pure water, or the fertile soil. It is not the caring neighbors, words of encouragement from an elder, or a child’s hug. It is not laughter, inspiration, or fascination. It is not delicious, and it is not warm. Money is a great tool, and I am not saying that we can create a society free of it. But I’ve learned that when I get fixated on the idea of scarcity, suddenly pursuing money becomes detrimental to my happiness, and I miss out on all the riches that surround me in a family business. Instead, I’ve learned to crunch my numbers and work my business with a different goal — true wealth — in mind. Then, before I get swallowed up in money problems, I remind myself of three corollaries to the Money Paradox: 
a. Increased income does not guarantee increased happiness; 
b. Too much material wealth can be stagnating (essentially, the more we have, the more we have to lose); and
 c. We will always want more money. If we accept these phenomena as simple facts of life, it is easier to detach from financial complaints. When we don’t beat down our family life by fretting over money, the family stays whole and vibrant. When a family stays whole and vibrant, they work together. They innovate, grow, and thrive, and so does the business.

5. Let the business evolve.
Just because the business works today doesn’t mean it will work the same way in a decade. The best people to identify the new directions of a business may well be the members of the next generation. Their ideas need to be taken seriously. And those changes aren’t necessarily going to be dictated by changes in the industry you’re in; a family business needs to evolve to reflect evolution of the family and its needs. My grandfather’s sheep farm had multiple breeding cycles per year and he sold lambs all at livestock auction and to wholesale buyers. He kept the flock in a barn and fed them grain. My mom and dad loved selling to the local community and didn’t want to stress the ewes with high production demands. They wanted to raise their sheep on the lush hillside pastures. They moved their farm toward direct marketing and switched to rotational grazing. My husband and I liked the sheep, but our best skills were in developing markets and serving customers; and we loved working together in the kitchen, which is how Sap Bush Hollow Farm evolved into Sap Bush Hollow Farm & Cafe… and hence the Irish lamb stew we were preparing to serve as the pandemic hit.

During our time in quarantine, our daughters took to studying fashion design, learning to construct their own sewing patterns, turning tablecloths and curtains into capes and gowns. One took up violin and dreams of being a rock-star violinist. The other worked on her singing, dreaming of a stint on Broadway. All the while, they trained the new guardian donkey, packed orders for customers, fed the hogs daily, took care of the baby lambs, and on weekends, pulled lattes at the cafe espresso bar and served up heaping plates of farm-fresh food. They talk of chasing their big dreams, envisioning how to work them back into Sap Bush Hollow Farm & Cafe. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll add a line of up-cycled fashions, perform concerts, or do costume design. But even if they do, we can’t guarantee that our children’s dreams will lead them back to the family business. But we’re certain that squelching them will either lead them to abandon it, or leave them stuck here with unfulfilled hearts and resentment.

So we encourage all their dreams, however far-reaching they may be. As multi-generational business owners, we’ve learned that the dreams we chase help us grow and develop new skills and perspectives which helps the business expand in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable before. In turn, this helps create a more diversified, vibrant community where more family businesses can succeed. And that’s what we’re here for.

Shannon Hayes operates Sap Bush Hollow Farm, Cafe & Vacation Rentals with three generations of her family in the northern Catskill mountains. She is the host of The Hearth of Sap Bush Hollow Podcast and several books. Visit Sapbush.com.

Reprinted with permission from Shannon Hayes’ newest book, Redefining Rich, due out in August from BenBella.