Constructing a Foundation of Trust
Levi Hunt, cookline
October 28, 2019
The foundation of our Evergreen® company, cookline, is trust. It is the most essential ingredient in our success, and the thing that sets us apart in our industry. We are general contractors devoted solely to building restaurants in the San Francisco area, working with restaurateurs to create high-quality, beautiful spaces that reflect their vision and provide the greatest opportunity for success in a notoriously tough industry and city.
An unconventional upbringing and path brought me here. In 1971, my parents joined a group of about 300 like-minded people living in San Francisco who had a dream of living off the land and building a community on shared values of non-violence and respect for the environment. I was born on a commune in Tennessee and lived there until I reversed my parents’ steps and moved West to California after I graduated from high school.
The pillars of the commune were trust and food—we lived sustainably on the land, growing our own food and trading with local farmers for other goods. Nobody used money. The success of the community was completely dependent on members helping one another.
Many of my most vibrant childhood memories revolve around food—eating my mother’s bread fresh from the oven after school, hours spent cleaning and preserving strawberries received in trade from our Amish neighbors, learning to cook and making meals for friends and family.
I absorbed and embraced a respect for and joy in food and in the community that sharing food creates.
This early connection to food and community led me to restaurant work in California at age 19. Over the next 10 years, I worked my way up through the ranks of restaurant management, beginning with an entry-level kitchen position at San Francisco’s iconic Boulevard and ultimately serving as project manager for bakery chain La Boulangerie, as that business expanded rapidly throughout the Bay Area.
Those years taught me many lessons in Perseverance and essential management skills. I was fueled through those often-grueling days by my love for the tight-knit restaurant community in San Francisco. Here was a community—like the one that had raised me—that was focused on food, trust, and perseverance, and where people helped one another and supported each other’s businesses and their neighborhoods. Finding my place in that community was a homecoming.
From my early years in the restaurant industry, I had a clear sense that I wanted to have my own business. At first, my dream was to open a restaurant, but when I was appointed Project Manager at La Boulangerie and worked closely with the general contractor hired to build out new locations, I saw the opportunity for a different path.
Observing the manner in which the contractor conducted business with his clients—all restaurants—revealed a disturbing lack of trust and transparency in those relationships. I was blatantly lied to during my time managing the La Boulangerie project, and the lack of customer service generally was non-existent. The contractor’s single priority was his bottom line, and the customer’s needs and budget were often ignored. Change order fees were huge, and job costs were routinely 20-30 percent higher than the initial bid. There was a complete lack of understanding of the razor-thin margins with which restaurants operate and the precarious financial position of these businesses in such a competitive market.
I knew then that I could create a different, better model of a general contracting business that would serve the unique needs of the restaurant community. I knew that restaurants count pennies to make it, and the failure rate is staggeringly high. I wanted restaurateurs to have every opportunity for success, and I wanted the unique trust that exists within the San Francisco restaurateur community to extend to the contractor charged with building their businesses. I wanted to create a new relationship model. This was something that I could do—and do well.
With this goal in mind, I spent two years working for a general contractor to learn as much as I could about the construction field. In those two years I further experienced the frustration and the financial cost of this ongoing misalignment and tension between contractor and restaurateur. I also observed the fact that the contractor I was working for, a man who was building a company around the restaurant construction, did not actually eat at the restaurants he built. He didn’t support the community from which he made his living.
In 2014, I co-founded cookline to offer a different approach, to serve the restaurant community I love so much and understand well. I wanted to not only help the restaurateurs create the spaces they envisioned, but I was also committed to establishing relationships built on trust and integrating myself into the community of clients I served.
Today, we focus every day on being transparent and honest with our clients—and saving them money—while delivering quality workmanship. We strive to value engineer and follow through to the end to create a positive relationship with the client. We watch out for our clients’ bottom lines by collaborating with designers and subcontractors throughout the construction process, seeking out lower- cost alternate materials, suggesting design changes that will be less expensive, and always focusing on the schedule to find efficiencies. The result of this hyper-focus on client experience and cost has allowed us to give money back to every single client.
Through these commitments, we have developed trust in an industry more commonly committed to their own profit. When our clients open a new restaurant feeling great about the space and without an undue financial burden, we hope we are offering them the best opportunity for success. That matters to us.
But our commitment to the restaurant community goes a bit further. Our engagement with the restaurants we build does not end when we hand over the keys to the space. We eat at our clients’ establishments; we purchase gift certificates for our employees so that they can also dine at the businesses they help bring to life; our weekly company happy hours are catered by our clients. I’ve attended a client’s wedding and have developed meaningful, lasting friendships with people who were my clients first.
In my mind, as I dreamt of creating a business in the restaurant industry, the goal was always to make a difference in the tight-knit community that I loved. Now, as I strive to transform the relationships and services in our niche of restaurant construction, I feel I’m doing just that. Our clients feed our community, and we are able to help them deliver that magic of a shared meal, and hopefully given them a better chance of long-term success based upon our quality work.
I wouldn’t be where I am today had my path not started where it did or travelled the unconventional route it took. I feel that I have now come full circle—from my childhood on the commune, where trust and food were the focus of our lives, I am now building restaurants that are the heart of their communities.
Levi Hunt is Co-Founder of cookline.