Worker Bonuses, Fresh Ingredients and No Advertising

By Don Hall

The arts community tends to soul search in waves. When I was coming up in the late eighties and early nineties, the wave of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the Holy Grail of the Ensemble. The idea was that if Steppenwolf could do it—start in a church basement, get some serious critical notice, take a hit to NYC, get some critical notice and send out some emissaries to conquer Hollywood but remain loyal to the Ensemble—then we could do it, too.

What is lost in the search for relevance and fame, however, is that Sinise, Kinney and Malkovich were lauded in their early days for the newness of their work not their incredible business plan. It's arguable to even suggest these cats even had a business plan except to simply put up shows they could be in. The simple reason Steppenwolf became Steppenwolf is that, at least in the earliest days (1974–1982) they were focused on the stuff that happened on the stage.

Today, too many (far too many) young theatre companies spend their soul searching energies in the second wave of thought: How to Convince People to Come Pay to See Our Shows? and the search finds itself wallowing in business models and marketing strategies and finds inspiration from the companies that are more savvy in business acumen than artistic merit.

My experience with public radio encountered the same perspective. As the new CEO increasingly focused the company's energy on the business of making money rather than the business of creating great radio, morale suffered, the mass exodus of talented people began, the vast increase in middle management became kind of ridiculous. I've come to realize that even my assistant, whom I tried to train well and impart the idea that the quality of the experiences produced was more important than the money, was simply waiting to get me out of the way so he could feel justified in his ambitious pursuit of cash and fame over almost everything else.

My experience has indicated to me that money (and the focus on business over quality) is like red onions. A little bit is a nice addition to your burger but even a bit too much makes the whole sandwich taste like nothing but red onions.

There is a way to make millions without losing your soul to the Greed Virus.

So, here is an example:

His restaurants are Spartan. And Jerry Murrell never advertises. Instead, he prefers to spend on worker bonuses and fresh ingredients.

As I read this man's story and his absolute stubborn refusal to compromise the quality of his hamburgers and fries, I am inspired by it. Worker bonuses and fresh ingredients. So simple. So different from the lessons of every fucking business course ever taught and every goddamn book on the administration of the arts. Here are, from my vantage point, the lessons those of us in the arts world can learn:

Anyone can make money in the arts as long as you focus your energies on the content of your work.
"Three days before we opened, I was still working as a trader in stocks and bonds and was in a hotel for a meeting in Pittsburgh. I found a book in the nightstand, next to the Bible, about JW Marriott—he had an A&W stand that he converted and built into the Hot Shoppes chain. He said, 'Anyone can make money in the food business as long as you have a good product, reasonable price, and a clean place.' That made sense to me.

Leave the sales to your audience.
"We figure our best salesman is our customer. Treat that person right, he’ll walk out the door and sell for you. From the beginning, I wanted people to know that we put all our money into the food. That’s why the décor is so simple—red and white tiles. We don’t spend our money on décor. Or on guys in chicken suits. But we’ll go overboard on food."

Don't charge more than you have to.
"Our food prices fluctuate. We do not base our price on anything but margins. We raise our prices to reflect whatever our food costs are. So if the mayonnaise guy triples his price, we pay triple for the mayonnaise! And then we’ll increase the price of our product."

Your meat and potatoes is the show onstage or the programs on the airwaves or the events you produce.
Make sure that that is the best thing you can produce and you'll never feel cheap or stupid or lack integrity. And the reward may not be fame or notoriety—I mean, who has actually heard of this chain?—but a consistent pride in the work you do. Every time. At the end of the day, excellence is better than more.