A Conversation With Chris George: Cocktails, a Damn Good Burger, and a Dog Named Margaret.

Each month, Think Up hosts Noonovate, an internal meeting where we come together for lunch (virtually, these days) and focus on innovation. We might spend time learning how to do something differently or discovering more about what’s happening in our community, our industry, or within the industries in which we work. Often, we use Noonvate to “break things,” so we can experiment with ways to make them even better. And sometimes, we invite a guest to join us and share some outside thinking.

This past month we welcomed Chris George, co-founder of one of Greenville’s newest restaurants, Bar Margaret. What could possibly demonstrate more resilience, creativity, and fight for survival than launching a restaurant two weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown? To be sure, 2020 has brought unique challenges to nearly every industry, requiring people and organizations to think and work differently. This is certainly true for the creative and talented team at Bar Margaret.

Many of us Thinkers fancy ourselves as foodies/cocktail aficionados and are especially proud of the vibrant F&B scene in our hometown, #yeahthatgreenville—so we’re excited to share a few highlights from our conversation with Chris:

Swivel vs. Pivot

While the term “pivot” now seems synonymous with “pandemic,” sometimes a less substantial change is needed. Bar Margaret likes to say they “swiveled” to keep business going. Their original mission was to be a go-to spot for cocktails. It’s still their mission. But when COVID-19 shut down bar service just 13 days into operation, flexibility and ingenuity intervened. Chris and his partner Sarah shifted their focus to creating takeout options that would travel well and still be delicious when eaten at home. To ensure customers would remember them for their thoughtfully crafted cocktails, the team started making fresh cocktail mixers. These were sold as to-go items and were eventually picked up by a local market.

Now that restrictions are easing, Bar Margaret has re-opened with a renewed focus on its original mission. In their words: “We ARE still the place for tasty cocktails and our Damn Good Burger, but now we will also be the local spot to stop in for lunch and the neighborhood bodega to pick up a bottle of wine or a fresh loaf of bread on your way home. We don’t expect to be the only place you drink. We just want to be the place you think about when you’re drinking at other places.”

Collaboration as a Differentiator

Researchers who collected a decade’s worth of data on collaboration and financial performance across dozens of organizations found that during times of crisis, those with the most highly collaborative workers not only grew their business, but continued that upward trajectory afterward. While people tend to be more risk-averse in a crisis and therefore less likely to seek out differing perspectives, it’s actually during unstable times when growing your network and collaborating can have the biggest payoff.

Collaboration combines a variety of perspectives focused on solving complex challenges. It requires an openness to new ideas which may exist outside of comfort zones. As Chris and the Bar Margaret team continued to improve and expand their menu, they started to work with friends in the local culinary community. These collaborations turned into pop-up dinners and helped keep things fresh, expand their thinking, and ultimately allowed them time to perfect their offerings. At the same time, they were building a strong sense of community and supporting their friends and fellow business owners who were also navigating the pandemic’s impact on F&B.

Prototyping, One Ingredient at a Time

When something isn’t perfect—or even headed in the right direction—it doesn’t always require us to start completely over. By scrapping it all and going back to the beginning, you risk eliminating the things that are working. This is certainly true behind the bar and in the kitchen. Whether crafting the perfect cocktail or developing a new recipe, prototyping by changing just one ingredient at a time is key.

In their quest to create the most delicious veggie burger, Chris and Sarah came up with countless variations. They’d tweak an ingredient, evaluate the results, and move on to the next iteration—a process they repeated until they nailed the recipe (check out their Hippie Burger Instagram post to discover their secret ingredient!). A narrowed focus can improve efficiency and expedite development and innovation—a concept that can be applied to business strategy or when exploring new ideas. Prototype by focusing on a specific area or function to discover what’s working and what needs to change.

We’ve found that there’s much to be learned from bringing in outside thinking—and our Noonvate conversation with Chris was no exception. Many of us can relate to the challenges Chris and the Bar Margaret team have experienced. Flexibility, leaning into collaboration, and focused prototyping are a few tools we can employ to adapt to unexpected challenges. As we instill these practices, we’re building resilience—something most of us could use a little more of right now. While we continue to work through a turbulent 2020, we can learn and hone skills that will better equip us to navigate future challenges.

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About Chris George

Chris has been in the restaurant business since age 14 (with interludes as college professor, graphic designer, wilderness education instructor, and purveyor in outdoor gear). He began mixing cocktails long before he was old enough to drink them, thanks to the Old Mr. Boston bar guide that he stole from his parents. In his free time, he likes to read and walk around in the woods.

About Bar Margaret https://www.barmarg.com/

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