FruitGuys Strive to Be Top Banana in Company Culture

A small company thinks big, asking employees to be good people at work and outside of work.
May 30, 2012

The FruitGuys, a San Francisco fruit sales and delivery company, has been recognized for its excellent working environment. It has an enviable growth record, yet founder Chris Mittelstaedt confesses that he doesn’t much like the term “corporate culture.”

Instead, when Mittelstaedt is asked about the working environment at the company, he talks about just plain culture.

“People talk about corporate culture as if it’s something different and outside of the way that I would hope people behave outside of work,” Mittelstaedt says. All the FruitGuys' policies, communications, compensation and incentives encourage employees to act like good people, instead of just good employees.

“We’ve tried to structure being sensitive and thoughtful about the way people live and the things that are important in their lives and what kinds of help we can be to people at work in ways that would also reflect in their lives,” he says.

It seems to be working. The 35-person company was named as a top small-company workplace in a 2011 competition sponsored by Inc. magazine and Winning Workplaces.

Defining Customer Service

Mittelstaedt is a careful cultivator of FruitGuys culture, and the company’s active program of donations to food banks shows how serious he is about being a good guy. But his efforts are not rooted in positioning FruitGuys as a public benefactor or winning competitions. He traces his cultural concerns to a customer service incident in 1998, when FruitGuys was a brand-new startup supplying healthy alternatives to workplace food-vending machines.

A customer called in a fury, complaining that a driver had dropped off her fruit, made an obscene gesture and walked out. Mittelstaedt asked the driver what happened. The driver said he felt disrespected. He said his father taught him that when someone doesn't respect him, he should return that disrespect.

Mittelstaedt realized that not everybody would have the same approach to customer service that he did. He would have to encourage the style he preferred, and to teach it where needed. So he thought long and hard about what, exactly, he was trying to do with his company.

The Five Rs

While the style Mittelstaedt wants to inculcate may sound soft and uncertain, it’s actually anything but. His deliberations produced a philosophy based on what he calls the Five Rs that guide employees.

  • Be respectful at all times with clients, vendors and others
  • Be responsive to others’ needs
  • Be realistic and don't make promises you can’t keep
  • Take personal responsibility for the outcome
  • Make sure you're remembered positively

Although a Five Rs–based culture sounds pretty detailed, Mittelstaedt says that it’s really about broad principles. That’s by design. He feels that a general philosophy enables employees to apply it to a larger set of circumstances.

“When you’re creating these philosophies and tools, if it’s too specific, people will say they didn’t have a scenario for something,” he explains. “You have to get people to think.”

There are concrete benefits of having a corporate culture like the one Mittelstaedt has developed at FruitGuys. One of the most important is that employees tend to stick around.

“We have almost no turnover,” Mittelstaedt. “People generally don’t leave.” The longest-tenured employee lasted 13 years, he says, and only left because he was moving to Germany.

Keeping Communications Personal

As FruitGuys has grown to 35 employees and several locations, that cohesiveness has been maintained. The company now has three facilities in Philadelphia, Chicago and Phoenix, far from Mittelstaedt’s personal oversight.

Videoconferencing is an important tool in the effort to keep everyone working together.

“We don’t just do phone calls,” Mittelstaedt says. “It’s very helpful to see people’s faces.”

Mittelstaedt discourages over-use of relatively impersonal e-mails. He thinks a conference or a call more effectively encourages workers in locations far from headquarters to feel they are part of the culture. It also improves communication.

“We talk about making sure you’re picking up the phone and talking to people rather than e-mailing if you feel there’s a nuance that needs to understood,” he adds.

Conversely, FruitGuys improves its efficiency and effectiveness by staying away from business in some employee communications. Mittelstaedt says after the workday has ended, they make a point of talking to employees about what’s going on in their lives. He feels it’s especially important for remote workers who don’t get as much opportunity for informal water-cooler interactions with others.

“Being thoughtful about employees’ lives really goes a long way,” he says.

Mittelstaedt acknowledges that all this thoughtfulness may daunt a business owner who is pressed by practical concerns like making payroll. But he says it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

“You have to just start,” he says. “Although, it is really big thinking. It’s wrestling with questions like why am I here? What is the meaning of my work?”

It’s not necessary to fully answer such questions, Mittelstaedt says. But you do have to try to come up with some partial solutions based on whatever meaning you uncover that can translate into a business culture.

“That creates long-term relationships with your employees,” Mittelstaedt says. “It creates loyalty. It creates engagement. People are excited about coming to work every day, because you are on a quest together.”

Learn more in OPEN Forum's Company Culture 2012 series.

Photo credit: FruitGuys