Leslie Silverglide founded Mixt restaurant at 24. Fifteen years later, she now operates 16 restaurants. Frequently the youngest person in the room – and the only woman – she’s faced more discrimination due to her age than gender.
Silverglide graduated from Stanford with a master’s degree in biodiversity conservation and management and wanted to enter an industry that needed the help, so she picked foodservice. Mixt is a sustainable restaurant group determined to grow by using materials that are good for the environment, create an ethical supply chain and pay employees a fair wage.
Silverglide sat down with Nation’s Restaurant News earlier this month at CREATE: The Future of Foodservice to talk about being one of the only women in the room and how she has navigated her career, including her company’s recent growth during a pandemic.
NRN: You’ve been the youngest person in the room practically your whole career. How has it been moving up in the world and in your station with your confidence? How has that served you in your career?
Leslie Silverglide: You have to have confidence and not be afraid to fail. And I think that's the biggest thing for me, is that I always just look and say, ‘you know, what do I have to lose?’ It's at this point that the stakes certainly get higher because I have a lot more to lose ... especially in light of the pandemic, where all of a sudden we had to transition from heavy growth mode to survival mode in a way that I just never thought was possible. And survival for the company the brand, all of our team members became the number one focus, so you know that that's created a very different lens for me to operate [with] on a daily basis, and focusing on how you preserve that is really important to me.
NRN: How has that guided your leadership during the past 18 months of the pandemic?
Silverglide: I tend to really try to operate at a pretty even keel in terms of how emotional I am. Even if I'm bubbling inside you wouldn't necessarily know it. [The pandemic] hit an emotional level for me that I had never been at in my life, I mean the feeling of failure and distress and anxiety and anguish and anger. It was so strong and so for the first time really, I let that show to my team, right when we were having to shut down half of our portfolio. I'm standing there in front of our whole entire corporate team, and I just start crying.
I let myself cry and say, ‘this is a really sad time, and I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that everything is okay and everything's fine, and [that] this is okay, because it's not. I'm going to tell you that we're going to work as hard as possible to get through this and we're going to do everything we can to preserve every single job here. But this is really tough.’
And from that, it was a very freeing experience honestly because to me, in my head, [that] was probably one of the worst things I could imagine — crying in front of a large group of people — and I survived. It felt cathartic, and I think it also felt that way to my team. It made it real, and it made it impactful, and I think, more than anything, people could see how much I care.
So, I think that's been a really important lesson for me in terms of leading and letting that emotion come through and letting people really know how I'm feeling and what I'm passionate about, much more so than I probably did before. I would say the biggest thing is just leading with empathy and leading with being true to myself and who I am, is really what I felt during the pandemic. It was crazy, and everything was changing every day and [I just said], ‘I don't have all the answers and I'm not going to make the best decision. I'm going to take in all the information we have, and I'm going to make the best decision that I possibly can.’ I feel like I personally come out of it much stronger, much more humble, much more resilient. So, thank you for that, pandemic.
NRN: How did your team members react when you broke down?
Silverglide: Everyone else started crying. And it just it kind of let us go to a place of vulnerability that we were all feeling, but all [had been covering with a] mask and facade. In that moment, it created a connection and created bonds. It brings humanity to its core. And that's what I did.
NRN: Moving more to the business side of your leadership, what does it feel like to be in growth mode again after that hard time?
Silverglide: Well, we feel very fortunate to now be back to growth mode. We’re opening up new restaurants and looking at new frontiers for us. One thing that we saw more than ever during the pandemic was the demand for healthy eating and conscious eating, because it's higher than ever before. And we just want to get our food in as many people's hands as possible, and so we feel very fortunate to be in the position of being able to expand and have more Mixts around the country.
NRN: What does growth look like for a sustainable brand?
Silverglide: When we go into a new region, we create a whole new supply chain for ourselves. So for us, we can't go and open up 15 new regions at the same time, it's very methodical. It's taking one region at a time so we can get it set up and start to get enough of a cohort of stores that they can operate very efficiently. It starts, supply chain, of course, number one — and number two is how we build out our spaces. Always we have focused on green building. And so that means that we build healthy environments for our team members and for our guests so we don't use materials that [give] off gas like organic compounds, and we also focus on our energy efficiency, water conservation, using materials that are more sustainable that travel fewer distance that also will be around for a long time.
A lot of concepts in our industry are refreshing their interiors on almost a five-year basis, which ends up having quite a large footprint and a lot of waste, because you're essentially ripping out all of these materials that you put in. We look and say, ‘how can we create a design that's still going to look good in 15 years?’ which is really hard thing to do. But now that our first restaurant is over 15 years old, it's pretty amazing that you still walk into it [and think], ‘this place looks pretty good.’
NRN: If there’s anything I’ve learned about you today it’s that you’re not a short-term thinker. What are some things other companies can do to be more sustainable?
Silverglide: One of the biggest things that we can push for is commercial composting throughout the country. In San Francisco, we have both residential and commercial compost pickup, which changes the game, and right now in most other cities across the U.S., compost pickup does not exist. That makes it virtually impossible for restaurants to actually be able to turn the majority of their waste into something reusable. I think one of the biggest things you can do is work with your city government to push that agenda, and it makes sense as micro farming has taken off across our country — there's demand for good rich compost, almost everywhere.