Tyler Florence on Creative Leadership and Experimentation

As a 20 year Food Network veteran and classically trained chef, Tyler Florence constantly spurs the evolution of the food & lifestyle industry. From launching the successful San Francisco restaurant Wayfare Tavern and becoming an award-winning winemaker to founding the social recipe sharing app Yumavore, Tyler’s entrepreneurial spirit enables him and his team to consistently innovate in a variety of business endeavors.

Tyler has parlayed his passion for food into numerous successful businesses and has become one of America’s most important culinary voices. He graduated from the culinary program at Johnson & Wales and later received an honorary doctorate from the university for his culinary success. He’s an IDEO Chef-in-Residence and lives in Marin County with his wife and children.

Tyler shared with us how he leads his team through focus, experimentation, and creativity to bring their ideas into reality.


Tea Time with Tyler Florence at IDEO San Francisco

Tell us a little about yourself and what you’re doing at this point in your career.

I’m a classically trained chef and reality TV host, and I’m lucky to have been on Food Network for 20 years and counting. We currently have two pilots in the works on the Food Network, Tyler Florence Test Kitchen and a series called Worst Cooks in America, House Calls.

I am currently working on my 13th cookbook called Kitchen Wisdom for the Modern World. And soon we’ll be introducing our new multimedia brand from Tyler Florence Test Kitchen, which will include a YouTube series, Podcast series, and social media content via small movies every day.

I’m CEO of a tech company called Yumavore. Also, I’ve been a winemaker for over 10 years and we’re getting ready for our 2016 harvest, which is right around the corner. We're making a sort of a California Bordeaux and I'm making my first rosé this year.

I’m a chef and partner at an award-winning restaurant in San Francisco, Wayfare Tavern, and Tyler Florence Fresh located at San Francisco International Airport. We're also working on the development of a new fried chicken concept called Boxcar Fried Chicken, based on the success of our fried chicken at Wayfare Tavern.  

Other than that, I have a lovely wife and three beautiful children, a backyard full of goats, chickens, rabbits and honey bees, I collect motorcycles, and I sleep, occasionally.

How do you lead all these projects at once and ensure they’re moving forward in a way that aligns with the Tyler Florence brand?

It sounds like a lot, but it neatly breaks down into a couple different buckets: our restaurant and hospitalities bucket, our television bucket, our media bucket, and the ancillary stuff, which is all the products we design.

We take it a year at a time and no two years are the same. Sometimes we'll have a really long, successful cycle, while some ideas are merely fishing expeditions.

If we have a good idea, we'll get those through a process where we'll register the trademark and lock up all the domains. If we use it right away, cool, if not, we put it up on the shelf and pick it up at some other time. At least we didn't lose the idea. There's nothing more depressing to me than having a great idea that drifts off to the land of nevermore. We don't try to do everything at the same time; everything is broken up into cycles. My job is to be aware of where I am and be 150% present, wherever I am.

Our restaurants are, at this point, sort of flying at cruising altitude. They don't require a lot of day to day hand holding from me; although, I am what I call omnipresent. I get the daily ops reports and service reports from our managers and chefs. I design and write the menus. I take a look at the reservation list to double check who the VIPs are, and I also do a lot of social media marketing and try to keep the ball rolling there.

It's not that I have to do 25 things a day; I have to do about 5 to 6 things a day. If we're locked into a cycle of a project, then we're heavily into it for the life cycle of the project. That can be 2 months, 3 months, 3 weeks, whatever it is.

We've released cookbooks once every 18 months or so. Sometimes with our ancillary bucket, with our wine and cookware and things that we develop, the gestation period on those concepts could be minimum 365 days. We're constantly making, designing, developing, planning, looking over the horizon, and starting to build a scope of where our cash flow is coming from next year. Sometimes we do the same thing from one year to the next. Sometimes we have to kind of reinvent half of it. Every half decade or so, we have to reinvent the whole thing.

You mentioned something called fishing expeditions, could you elaborate on what those are?

You know there are fish out there. It could be the big fish. It could be the biggest fish you've ever caught in your entire life. You go through the process of coming up with a really good idea. When that idea hits you, it could be the most amazing sort of beautiful thought.

What we do is come up with a really good working title. We'll buy up all the domains, including social media domains. Get them locked up and then find and register trademarks for the concepts. Then, we'll either put it into a document called our project tracker, so we're actively in the middle of this project, or, we decide that we have enough to do right now and we'll pick this up next year, or next month.

We’ll go after a partner, manufacturer, retailer, so we can close the loops, a designer if we've already pre-sold it. That's the exercise. It's what we call a fishing expedition.

You never know. Sometimes you'll chase something for 6 months, or chase it for a year. Sometimes it's like wow, we're making a lot of money in this, or, okay, that didn't go anywhere but we certainly learned a lot in the process.

That's why we call it a fishing expedition. We always learn something about it. Whether we're in business with that particular concept or we've learned a lot about an industry we’re fascinated by.

It's a process of continual experiments, having different irons in the fire to see which ones have the potential to take off?

Exactly. You have to ride it out. You never know. If we get to the point where it's like, wow, this is such a good idea but we've gotten ten no's in a row, then maybe there's something about our pitch, or delivery, or our business model that we should start to refine. The communication and storytelling are equally as important as the idea and the intellectual property.

I've been self-employed successfully 20 years. You have to work like you're being chased by a tiger every day.

Tell us a story about a creative team that you were recently leading, or that you were involved in. What helped that team thrive?

One success we had working with teams, in television specifically, was The Great Food Truck Race. We’d get seven of the best food trucks in the country and sort of race them coast to coast, like Cannonball Run. They’d stop off in different cities and have selling competitions where they’d cook their best food and whichever team made the most money would move on to the next city. While the team that made the least amount of money were sent home. The grand prize was usually 50,000 bucks, and a brand new food truck is about $100,000.

After five or six years of this, and a few different executive producers, we were starting to see the low fuel light come on for the brand. Luckily, it's not anything that's overexposed; although food trucks are certainly not a big, new fascination, it's interesting to a lot of people.

When we started the show, the cultural significance of this program was that it helped grow both the supply and the demand for food trucks in America. There are now 30,000 active food trucks in America in part because of the show. I'm not saying we invented food trucks, but I like to think that we gassed it and proved that it's doable for a lot of people, a lot of young culinary startups. People walk up to me almost daily and say, because of The Great Food Truck Race I felt confident enough to start my own thing.

We decided to take a deep look at how the show is produced and if we really needed to drive coast to coast. Five, six years of going from Los Angeles east to Maine, Boston, Massachusetts, Washington DC, New York City, Miami, and Key West. Last season, we took Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago. We’d been on every highway system going west to east and were sort of out of gas (pun intended) with the road trip.

The challenge I posed to the team was, let's see if we can focus on what we call the back nine. Let's see if we can get 7 great episodes out of this concept and focus it where we circle around a hub.

The new season just aired and instead of going from west to east and literally taking several weeks to shoot the show, we decided to map out a 250-mile loop around Los Angeles. The production company's headquarters are there, all the great videographers are there. You're not paying for cross country travel, you're not paying for the migration of 60 people, 6 food trucks (three contestants each) 600-700 miles between Albuquerque and Oklahoma City.

We shot this new hybrid of a show where we centrally focused around one specific region—between Los Angeles, Malibu, Santa Barbara, and Palm Springs. We ended up wrapping the show in Catalina Island. There were so many cool, different views and topography and a lot of interesting chains.

We took what was a seven-week production and cycled down to three weeks. We saved a significant amount in the production budget. The production crew actually enjoyed the cycle, because they weren't having to spend nine hours in an uncomfortable van driving from city to city. Everybody brought a fresh new mind and energy to the table. I think this was one of the best seasons yet, which we're very excited about.  

That’s one quick story of working together with a team to come up with something fresh, solve a problem and create new energy and new dynamics that produce a great creative product—and also produce bottom line, which I think is the ultimate driving force.

What's something you're working on right now with respect to your own leadership style?

I'm leading our group to create better content that’s sustainable and we drip it every single day. Instead of having to go dark, create a bunch of content, get into a ramp up promotion cycle, hype it, hype it, hype it, and then it just dies again.

We're working on a lot of things. Our new multimedia arm, which I'm very excited about, is really about capturing the show behind the show. Every day, I shoot a movie. It’s amazing what people are looking at. If I post a picture, I get about 1200 likes, but if I post a video, I get around 91,000 views. So we’ve started changing our format of how we approach social media by creating better content.

I shoot 30-45 second videos every day. We create this new storyline where you don't have to ramp up a product launch. It gets integrated into what you're working on, what you're talking about. People follow along like they're reading a book.

I’m always asking questions. Can we be relevant every day? Can we be in the zeitgeist of conversation every single day? That's what we're working on. I think it's the way of the future.

Why creativity now more than ever?

It's a phenomenal time to be able to express yourself. It's a world open to every person that didn't get a pilot picked up, or wouldn't necessarily know how to contact the Food Network, or wouldn't know how to put together a cookbook deal, or have been turned down because they don't have that “it” factor or they're not pretty enough, whatever it is. Now, all content plays. I bet you'll be hard-pressed to find a single video on Youtube that hasn't had at least one view.

When people create great content, we go from this mindless consumption of things that are sort of handed to us, to creating our own world and our own things. If you are creative, or if you're slightly creative, or if you see something really wonderful and beautiful, just shoot it. Just shoot it and put it up. The more you shoot it, the more you play around with editing software, the more you can create great stuff—the more fulfilling it will be.

Technology has become so readily available and easy to get your hands on, and it’s so easy to sculpt and shoot great stuff and post and produce it. It's opening up the floodgates to a world that you've never seen before. It's super exciting.

Everything there is to learn in the world is available on YouTube. You can look up how to change a spark plug in a 1957 Cutlass Ciera—there's a video for that. This is the new world of online institutional education, democratizing people’s skills and sharing them with people who want to learn something as fast as possible.

To answer your question about creativity, I think it's a whole, brand new open world of sharing.

So you took the course Leading for Creativity with Tim Brown, what did you think?

I took the online course and also came to the meetup at IDEO. The one exercise I enjoyed the most was a three-way conversation. We split into groups of three based on color preference, which I thought was really interesting; I think all three of us picked light blue.

One person was building a new tech business, one woman was trying to reinvent hospice care, and I'm in the culinary lifestyle business. We all shared a success story, problem, or something that we're working on. One person acted as a coach and the other person acted as the adversary. We all took turns and swapped the conversation and role-playing. It was amazing. Obviously, all of us had wildly different points of view.

We came up with this new method, the idea of democratizing hospice care and developing a course program where you could become a certified home care specialist and take care of your elderly parents.

I think a lot of people would choose not to put their parents into an old folks home if they knew how to care for them. Plus, it saves a tremendous amount of money. It's a huge burden and a big expense to put your loved ones into an aging facility. What if you could democratize home care, create this packet and this training program and teach people? No one's going to love your parents more than you do, right?

The three of us came up with that new perspective and solved the problem together. You can tell this light bulb went off like, that's the direction of the future.

That was my favorite exercise from the meetup. Three separate people from three different disciplines who listened to each person's story and then, thin slicing it, gave a gut reaction to how you as a potential consumer of their products would react. I thought it was pretty cool.

Learn methods to take your team to new territory in our Leading for Creativity online course.

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