The Value of Our Values

“Do well by doing good.”

I remember the first time I heard this phrase; it was in my marketing class at Garrett College with Professor Mike Tumbarello. Mike was a character – energetic, funny, confident and brilliant. He’d been a biology student, salesman, entrepreneur, executive for multinational companies, and now he was a teacher at my small community college in rural MD, a position which he was overqualified for. He’d previously been a professor at Johns Hopkins University, if that clarifies what I mean by overqualified. His being at this school at all was a manifestation of his desire to see underdogs succeed. Underdogs like himself. I’d stay after class with my brother and talk, and talk with this man, who taught through stories. Stories that were sometimes hilarious, sometimes grave, sometimes a mix, like when he tried to explain to us why we shouldn’t take bribes in foreign join-ventures, elaborating with stories about a shady deal he backed out of in Russia. I could keep talking about Mike for another thirty minutes of your reading time, but this blog isn’t about Mike.

I was in my second class with Professor Tumabarello, an out-the-box entrepreneurship class, when, one day, I walked into class to see the two people that this blog post is about, Kiley and Traci Royce. I knew this couple, we went to the same church, and they ran a Bakery/Cafe  in the small town of Oakland, MD, called Get ‘N Go Cafe. The cafe was extraordinary, but not for the reasons you might think when you hear that word. It was a pretty standard interior for a Cafe, really, with a small seating area, a counter and a kitchen in the back, but there was literally a feeling something changing slightly when you walked in. These people were exceptional at caring. Not the marketing care, not the obligatory care, not even the polite and sugary care. Intense care. The kind that made part of me nervous to go in to that cafe when I didn’t feel like I had everything together in my life, and thought that I wasn’t ready to possibly have someone see straight into me and cause me to cry with the acceptance and love they showed. And the thing is, I didn’t know these people very well, and a many first-timers at Get ‘N Go felt the same care from these people. They were not ordinary.

Kiley Royce is a sturdy, quiet but yet open man, with eyes that squint in a smile often. I never got the full story of his background, but he always struck me as someone who had been through it. Traci is a lively but thoughtful, and sensitive woman who married Kiley when they were both fairly young, and would always see right into you and know what to say. In their earlier lives they had run a convenience store/gas station in a lucrative spot, and made a good living, good enough to buy their second location, what would eventually become the Cafe. Somewhere along the way they started to hear about Christianity more and more, and as passionate people are so good at, they went all out. More and more as they read about this guy Jesus impacting people’s lives through this simple idea of loving others, they become discontent with not doing the same. Eventually this led to the Cafe being a place where people came for sometimes gentle, sometimes tough and nitty gritty love, and help – financial, emotional, physical, you name it. Their large advertisement sign began to replace menu items with thoughts to inspire passers-by, and became their signature. It helped that they made amazing food, casually as an aside, it almost seemed.

Back to the classroom – that food was why they stood there today. Kiley’s chicken salad was literally a legend. They sold more of it than anything else, huge amounts a week, for a decent price. No exaggeration, I hate chicken salad. I don’t even like my mom’s and I love everything she makes, but I didn’t even need bread to eat this. It wasn’t hype, the stuff was good. They were there to say they wanted to begin to wholesale their product, and since we were about to start a project in the class, Tumabrello offered for one of us to give it a shot at drawing up a Business plan with them. I took it. I think it was my third semester of college, and I knew just enough to sound like I knew something, but I wrote up the plan, starting with the advice that they should start the venture as a separate LLC so as to protect the cafe. They were busy and I was busy, and we collaborated far too little (I ended up writing it to far from the situation, instead of guiding them in the process themselves). At the end of all of it, I handed over the plan, and said we should meet and talk through it with professor Tumbarello, and essentially, that they should rewrite it to incorporate their vision and values into it. Things got busy. Time got short. We never met.

This year I learned that Get ‘N Go closed. The word is that they sold the building to a local hospital that was going to put in a pharmacy, and made out well from the deal. Still, I wonder what could’ve been, and feel a stab of guilt when I drive by. They never began the wholesale of the chicken salad, which they hoped would subsidize their operations at the Cafe. I still have that business plan in a folder in my dorm room. It’s watermarked and worn, covered with green highlighter marks on “key points” we never discussed. I chose to write about these CEOs of sorts (In reality, partners in an LLC), because I am still trying to learn from them, and my younger self. They had values, intense and useful ones, that did, and could have continued to, manifest profoundly in the culture of a company. They were the first Stakeholder-oriented company I ever came across, without knowing at the time what that meant. Their employees were treated as trusted members of a team, with voices that were heard, benefits, and respect, and they worked with the hospitals and local organizations in community service events to created shared value in marketing and benefits to the community. Their supply chain often consisted of local bakers or local farms, and they took integration and partnership with them to a new level. Maybe it was flexible and not overly-developed strategies, maybe it was margins that were too low, maybe it was something simple, but somewhere there was a disconnect. A cylinder that missed, and kept it from thriving beyond what it did, and I want to understand that missing piece, the one that kept “doing well by doing good,” just out of reach. They certainly did good, and I’m inclined to trust that they’re still doing good every day, everywhere they go. Perhaps it was just the time to move on. But I’m looking for the answer to how they, and others like myself, could keep doing good, because I will always believe that those values are, themselves, valuable.

Image: Get ‘N Go Cafe’s sign


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