What do Pop-Tarts have to do with Mexican food? Not much, unless it’s Pop-Tart Day at California Tortilla, when all customers get a free breakfast pastry (brown sugar cinnamon or strawberry at most locations) with their burrito, taco or other Mexican meal. It doesn’t make sense; it’s just goofy. And it’s all part of the fun-loving culture at California Tortilla’s 40 restaurants along the East Coast and at “World Headquarters” in downtown Rockville.
“Cal Tort,” as it is affectionately known by cult-like followers, first opened its doors in 1995 as a single restaurant on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda. It was started by business partners Alan Cohen and Pam Felix, who met in California and opened the DC Improv Comedy Club and Restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in the District before “stumbling on the Mexican concept,” Says Cohen, a 61-year-old Olney resident. “If it wasn’t going to be fun, we weren’t going to be doing it,” he says of the pair’s attitude going into the business venture.
The concept of good, fast Mexican food and general kookiness was a hit, and California Tortilla has relied on word-of-mouth “advertising” since day one. “People just responded to it; we got to be as fun as we wanted,” says Felix, 48, who lives in Washington, D.C.
The ultimate goal behind Pop-Tart Day—as well as Freeze Pop Day, the Monday Night Mystery Prize Burrito Wheel, Rock, Paper, Scissors games and other oddball promotional stunts—is to get people talking. “You want to feel like you’re in on it,” explains Stacey Kane, marketing director. “We’re not hip or slick; we’re goofy,” the 39-year-old Alexandria,Va., resident says.
Behind all the silliness is a company that values employees and puts a premium on ensuring that everyone is having a good time—from the 13 or so decision makers at headquarters, to the spunky cashiers at the restaurants. Treating employees well by nurturing their professional goals and providing a fun place to work means that many stick around. “We promote from within; some of our most successful employees started [in entry-level positions],” explains Bethesda native Keith Goldman, vice president and director of operations. For Goldman, 47, who now lives in Herndon, Va., the allure of working for Cal Tort is the ability to make decisions and then set them in motion quickly. “There’s no red tape, no ladder to climb,” he says. “Every day you never know what’s going to happen, because you’re reacting to real time.”
Goldman’s longtime business partner and company president Bob Phillips says close interaction with customers sets Cal Tort apart from a lot of its fast food franchise competition. “[Feedback] is a big part of our culture,” the 49-year-old Potomac resident explains, noting that constant contact with customers in the restaurants and through online communications (Felix says she answers every e-mail received) enables the company to quickly recover from missteps.
One marketing scheme that has been in place since the beginning and has been wildly successful is a poll tied to local and national political campaigns. During the 2008 presidential race, customers could choose between the McCain-Chilada burrito or the O-Chili-Bama burrito. “Every time, the burrito that won the burrito poll [represented the candidate] actually won the election,” Cohen says. On Election Day, customers wearing an “I Voted” sticker get a free taco. “It’s a huge day for us,” Felix says.
For Kane, the ability to operate “outside the box” makes her job great. “You can get stuck in a box [as a marketing professional]; here, you get to do everything.… A lot of places don’t let you do that,” she says.
Bethesda-based Honest Tea has been at the forefront of the now popular green movement since the company’s earliest days in the late 1990s. More than just a philosophy, being environmentally friendly and “green” is a way of life at the bottled tea maker—so much so that the company gave all 50 of its employees bicycles two years ago to encourage them to pedal to work.
The company’s Bethesda Avenue headquarters is an industrial-looking space with an Asian/Buddhist feel. Prayer flags drape the earth-toned walls, inspirational messages are prominently displayed throughout the office, and recycled and environmentally friendly materials are used all over—from reclaimed brick pillars to salvaged tea crates and recycled rubber flooring.
The office has an open plan, with president and TeaEO Seth Goldman sitting at a desk in a corner surrounded by the people who work for him. Goldman launched the company out of his Bethesda kitchen along with partner Barry Nalebuff in 1998. And as the company grew, Goldman stayed true to his idea about the kind of company it would be to work for. “It was—and is—very much about a brand that stands for something,” the 43-year-old Bethesda resident says. As for the work atmosphere: “This should be as comfortable as being at home.”
Honest Tea’s employees—about 95 now—are not held to a dress code, which is good, since they’re all expected to pitch in when a big delivery of bottled tea arrives and needs to be unloaded off trucks and hauled up and into a storage area. Workers are treated to free boxes of healthy snacks and coupons each month and have access to a company-sponsored health and wellness program and a health advocate.
Debra Schwartz, director of human resources, says she was charged with “keeping our culture” when she joined Honest Tea nearly two years ago. She describes the company’s typical employee as “extraordinarily passionate and highly entrepreneurial.” It’s important, too, that they want to sell beverages and build Honest Tea’s brand, says Schwartz, a 35-year-old Rockville resident. There’s also a core value tied to the company’s green way of thinking that’s prominent among staff members. “Whether you come to the table with that or not, you leave with it,” Schwartz explains.
Schwartz is behind the popular “snack packs”—a box of 20 healthy snacks (one for each working day of the month) obtained through a barter system with like-minded companies. Schwartz introduced the idea and is in charge of bartering for the snack pack contents and delivering them to all employees.“[Employees] know that we care about what they’re eating,” she says. “It’s been an entire success.” Indeed, snack packs are visible on most desks around the office, and the goodies inside (snack bars, trailmixes, dried fruit, cookies, as well as organic yogurt coupons and other items) are healthy treats
At a time of economic uncertainty, Honest Tea has been growing. Sales increased 66 percent in 2008 and are on pace to grow more than 70 percent this year, Goldman reports, pointing out that the company has new distribution deals in Colorado and surrounding states and in New England. Many of the new distribution channels are the result of Coca-Cola’s $43 million acquisition last year of a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea—something Goldman says has not detracted from the company’s socially responsible culture or its mission of providing healthy, organic beverages. “If we want to change the beverage industry, we have to get on the shelves,” he says. “Coke is supportive of the way we do things.”
From a popularity standpoint, Honest Tea got a big boost in 2008, when the public learned that presidential candidate Barack Obama was a fan. Goldman says Obama has been drinking Honest Tea for years—and that his favorite these days is the caffeine-free Black Forest Berry. In fact, Goldman reports, Obama’s staff contacted the company when he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate to ask where he could buy the teas (they sent him to Whole Foods). And, according to press reports, Oprah Winfrey also keeps her fridge stocked with bottles of the company’s green teas.
Goldman downplays the Obama connection, but he admits the president’s affection for Honest Tea’s drinks has “upped the cool factor” of the company—at least a little bit.
Hillary Jackson is a freelance journalist living in Silver Spring. She is a former editorial director for Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC in London and the former Cambodia bureau chief for Thomson Reuters in Phnom Penh.