Written by Stephanie Hunt // Photo by Foxworthy Studios

Talking Company Culture with Karalee Nielsen Fallert and Steve Palmer

Summit goers fueled by Callie’s Biscuits and high test Broom Wagon Coffee brew got plenty to chew on as the day kicked off with a conversation between local restaurateurs Karalee Nielsen Fallert of Taco Boy fame and Steve Palmer, co-founder of Indigo Road Group. Charlestonians know that these seasoned entrepreneurs consistently deliver on imaginative, fresh dining concepts, but rarely do we get an honest look at how it’s done. The “Karalee and Steve Show” (clearly a missed calling as talk show hosts) delved into the rewards and challenges of fast-paced company growth, aligning with the right business partners, managing HR issues, all while staying true to authentic company culture.

“I always start by talking about my failures,” said Palmer. “The first year of operations at OKU, we barely broke even. I eventually recognized that I was in a bad partnership with people who absolutely did not share my values. And let me tell, your dreams are not going to come true if your partners do not share your values. No amount of money will make that better. My recommendation to people who find themselves in that situation is always: run!”

There comes a point in your company’s growth and maturity when you “realize that there are intrinsic values you may not have named and those you need to root out, they don’t fit anymore,” Fallert said.

Palmer, a recovering alcoholic and co-founder of the nonprofit Ben’s Friends (addressing addiction issues in F&B), once thought talking overtly about “values” in the workplace would feel “corporate—a dirty word for me—but now I talk values about all day long. When I meet with new employees—we’re up to 925 between our six cities—I begin by talking about our company values. I give them my cell number, and encourage them to call me if they ever see us not living up to them. And they do!”

For Fallert, whose vision for giving Title 1 elementary students access to fresh garden produce is behind the Green Heart Project, leading with values is the essence of company culture, but it’s not easy. “We know where we want our company to be, but there are these landmines all around. Labor issues, construction demands and rising construction costs—it’s hard to keep head above the water to see where you want to be.”

Putting efficiencies and processes in place to keep things lean, and including all her team, from line cooks to senior managers, in problem solving, helps, she finds. “What surprised me as we grew was how little time I was getting to spend in the restaurant, seeing the smiles on customers’ faces—feeling the pulse of the passion that got me into this business in the first place. I never want to be tone deaf to our line employees and our customers.”

“There’s always a balance between values and business, between talking about being an ‘employee-first company’ one minute then profit margins the next,” said Palmer. But it can and should be a both/and. “You can’t do things like cover employee mental health costs or provide interest-free loans for home down payments if you’re not making a profit.”

The bottom line for Fallert: “Your customers won’t love your company if your employees don’t buy in.” And Palmer adds: “Whatever your values are, be authentic. Sing them loud and proud and people will be drawn to you. Culture for me is a business model.”

Jordan Amaker
Director of Marketing & Communications
Director of Marketing & Communications