How One Woman Puts People First In Her Business Partnership

By Kristen Domingue

We had the chance to talk to Tabitha Mason of Cornman Farms about what it’s really like to be in a business partnership. Tabitha had a long history in the restaurant industry before becoming a managing partner in one of the companies part of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, Cornman Farms. Zingerman’s is unique in that they built their businesses with the idea that they want to be a great place to work, in part because their staff is engaged and excited to be there. To facilitate this, Zingerman’s offers business and leadership training both to its employees and the general public to learn systems that create mutual support between the “job” and the “employee.” They also are committed to cultivating a sense of ownership throughout the business, not just at the top. These ideas inspired Tabitha and were counter to everything she experienced in her previous 20 years in the hospitality industry. She relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan to become a part of the change happening in her industry, and hopefully, across industries everywhere.

I never thought I’d be a business owner, but I knew I wanted to do good.

I started my Zingerman’s career in 2011 at the Zingerman’s Roadhouse, where my now business partner was head chef. I had decades of experience in traditional restaurant settings, which means long hours, poor support for families, a lack of care for employees, and generally not great business practices. There was always an emphasis on revenue over people, and when I heard about Zingerman’s, I knew they were starting to create a better way of doing business.

I never thought I’d be a business owner, but I knew I wanted to do good, to offer more to the world and those around me. For two decades, I worked hard and was a great manager. Then, I realized after coming to Zingerman’s; I could be a great owner.

One class all new employees takes is called “Welcome to the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses.” When my trainer started talking about sustainable business and the kind of business they envision at Zingerman’s, it was as if all of the things I’d wanted and felt were possible had been given a voice. It was so overwhelming to me that I excused myself from the table, went to the bathroom and cried. In that training, I realized I wanted to become an owner because my impact on the business, the people and the community around us would be the greatest from this place.

I became managing partner of Cornman Farms in August of 2017. By that time, Kieron had departed from the Roadhouse and was already the founding managing partner.

Kieron and I both love food. My background is sales and catering. And when we got together, we shared the vision that we could have events to pay the bills so we could do other things we wanted to do:

• Grow great food
• Take great care of our people
• Do special food-based things

This gave us an avenue to do all of these things.

Zingerman’s has a unique way of promoting partners from within. Zingerman’s “The Path to Partnership” is a structured, two-year development and interview process that prepares you to become an owner within the organization. During the application process, I was asked to do a lot of soul-searching through very personal questions about things like my upbringing and beliefs. Then the answers were shared with the existing partners and the 700 other employees within the organization. I felt vulnerable. There were times I thought, “This is the best decision I’ve ever made, I can’t wait to get to Cornman.” Then other times I cried and thought, “How am I going to tell Kieron I can’t do this?” The Path to Partnership process caused me to evaluate and define what I wanted to do, in very truthful terms with myself and those around me.

A business partnership is like a marriage. You have to have that mindset going into it

“A business partnership is a marriage.” Being told to go into it with that mindset was helpful. The interviewing partners I met refused to blow smoke about what it would be like. One partner asked me what I liked about working with Kieron, and I remember giving a pat answer – like, “Oh, he makes me laugh,” to which she responded, “That’s nice. When you first got married to your husband, did he make you laugh? Do you still find him funny?” And that opened my eyes.

We essentially went through the business version of premarital counseling. As part of our process, we wrote down our deal breakers. Our CSO (Chief Spiritual Officer) Paul Saginaw, the co-founder of Zingerman’s, created the invitation for us to get in a room and say some things to one another that didn’t feel so good.

The reality of the kind of relationship I have with Kieron is that it’s both my healthiest relationship with another human being and one of my most contentious relationships.
There were times when we worked together at the Roadhouse where we’d go into the walk-in and have an all-out shouting match before a shift, come to a resolution about something or table it for later and get back to work without letting it drag us both down.

With Kieron, we can disagree, but I still feel respected and heard. When it comes down to it, we’ve always agreed on our guiding principles, even if we sometimes disagree on the “how.” And we’re even more aligned now that I’ve gone through the Path to Partnership.