Darwin’s Ltd. has some of the best sandwiches in Cambridge, MA. Award-winning, in fact. But what gets owner Steven Darwin excited about going to his restaurant every day isn’t the food and drinks they share with their guests. It’s his staff.
“We’re cultivating people from within all the time,” says Steven. “I've gotten kids to step into all sorts of positions they never thought they could do, and they killed it.”
That's what gets me out of bed every morning. It's not making sandwiches. It's watching what happens to my people. A lot of what Darwin's is for me is a social sort of experience, a leadership experience, an emotional experience.
Steven Darwin — a relative of Charles Darwin, the author behind the theory of evolution (yep, really) — opened the first Darwin’s Ltd. location in West Cambridge in 1993 with his wife, Isabel. He was 27 years old. Now, 26 years later and having spent half their lives in cafes, they have four beloved locations across Cambridge, and four seems to be the sweet spot. The reason? There are obvious operational and financial challenges that come with opening more locations, but the reasoning — like many things at Darwin’s Ltd. — circles back to the people.
He explains, “Honestly, I don’t want a fifth or sixth location or anything like that. Four is enough, because if I opened up another cafe, there’d have to be someone between me and the senior managers. I’m at the end of what I can personally handle. My wife and I never wanted to be that big. And for me, the beauty of my job is being that person that all my senior managers interact with and can come to.”
That focus on one-on-one interactions and the human aspect of the restaurant business is the secret behind Steven’s staffing success. Like most restaurants, Darwin’s Ltd. has encountered its fair share of staffing challenges — young workers seem to come and go with the seasons — but alongside these challenges have been a wealth of successes.
Marguerite VanGeenhoven, who does bookkeeping for Darwin’s, has been with the business for 20 years. She started behind the counter and one day turned to Steven to say, “I can’t stand dealing with customers. It’s not for me. Find me something else to do.” And so he did. Marguerite went off to work elsewhere for a few years, but when she came back, Steven offered her a job doing bookkeeping for the business. She’s been doing it ever since.
David Wood worked for Darwin’s Ltd. way back in the day. He actually helped build the Darwin’s Ltd. location on Cambridge Street. “The two of us were in there every day,” Steven tells us. “Just the two of us working the table saws and the chop saws and getting the place ready to go.”
After that time with Darwin’s, David Wood went and did other work for eight or nine years. Then, after years away from Darwin’s, he reached back out to Steven, looking for a different work environment. So Steven invited him back.
Once he was back on the Darwin’s train, David was the one to broach the idea of starting a catering division, and Steven told him to go for it. Now, David has been with the business on and off for a total of fifteen years. Steven says, “It’s been so fun because the customers at our Mt. Auburn Street location where he works remember him from 15 years ago. It feels like I have just enough people from way back helping to keep the integrity of what we’re doing alive. These people really care about Darwin’s as an idea, you know?”
Stories like these two are emblematic of the Darwin’s Ltd.’s spirit and sense of community they’ve built over the years. And as Steven sees it, employees are the gatekeepers to this community and culture — both among guests and staff.
When you hire good people who have the willingness to learn and the values you’re looking for, they’ll help you weed out the people who don’t gel.
To find the staff who’ll have that special knack for helping to build culture and keep the peace, Darwin’s follows the tried and true philosophy of “go with your gut.” Quite literally — Steven trains their managers to listen to their instincts, especially when it comes to hiring. His hope is that this instinctual listening keeps the hiring process quick, to-the-point, and based on that gut check feeling you get about a person.
Steven Darwin's 27 Years in Cafes, in His Own Words
“I've never been bored. I’ll tell you that.”
He tells us, “I’ve often said to my GMs that they should be able to tell within 30 seconds of meeting a person whether they want to hire them or not. I tell them they need to attune themselves that way. After those first 30 seconds, it’s all just sugarcoating conversation, in my opinion.”
Steven asks his management team to read the signs candidates are giving them right off the bat: How do they look at you? Do they make eye contact? Do they resonate with you immediately? Do they have that special Darwin’s Ltd. hospitality?
“To them, 30 seconds might be too short,” he says. “For me, it literally is 30 seconds because I’ve been doing it for so long now. I know within 30 seconds whether I want to give somebody a shot or not.” This way, he believes, managers aren’t wasting their time or the time of any candidates. It’s a good reminder of just how precious time is in the restaurant industry.
And as you might expect, this speedy hiring is rooted in the idea of hiring for culture and not for skills and experience. Skills can be taught; personality is trickier.
“Willingness. That’s the big word,” says Steven.
If somebody’s willing, we can train them how to do just about every job that needs to be done. You can't train personality. You can't train manners. You can't train social skills. Sure, you can to a degree. But people either have it or they don't. And it's usually really obvious.
Steven explains how important it is that he puts people in the right roles. “Some people are better behind a counter. Some people are better in an office. There's nothing wrong with that. That's fine. There are just different people for different things that need to be done.”
Steven takes these two hiring ideologies — 30-second hiring and hiring for culture first — and caps them off with a simple and seemingly bizarre question on their online application form: “Have you ever hugged a koala? What was it like?” See for yourself.
That question might seem silly at first glance, but Steven sees it as a quick way of gauging a candidate’s personality. “I think it tells us about somebody who's applying right off the bat. Some people get really elaborate with their answers and some people are pretty curt with their answers. It's a fun icebreaker for the GMs if they want to explore that avenue.”
The question quickly sets apart Darwin’s Ltd. as an interesting place to work, a place with character. And at the very least, it attracts some characters. “We definitely get some characters,” Steven laughs. “I've never been bored. I’ll tell you that.”