Alaska's Fiddlehead Restaurant: Barters and Bootstraps

Deb Marshall founded the Fiddlehead Restaurant in Juneau, AK with the hope of shaping her future, giving back to the community, and having something to eat besides moose burgers.

| August/September 1991

When Deborah Marshall came to Anchorage in 1974 with her sister, Lydia, and a musician from New York named Scott Miller, she was looking for bluer skies and taller mountains; a sense of spirit and purpose. What she found was moose burgers. Seeing a chance to shape her future, to contribute to her community and new home, and to eat a creature smaller than her car, Deb and her band of modern pioneers came out of the cold and into the kitchen.

Her first restaurant, The Bread Factory, made soup, bread, and a small pile of money. Armed with the knowledge of what it takes to make it in the restaurant business ("a constantly replenishing stock of creativity, love, energy, and compassion," says Deb), she headed southeast to Juneau. That was 1978, and the restaurant was the Fiddlehead Restaurant and Bakery. Thirteen years later, Deb hasn't left either.

What she did leave behind were a lot of the "everybody-is-equal" management techniques she acquired from years in a collective selling organic produce. Deb exchanged that for a happy blend of employee-orientated management and benefits combined with top-down leadership. The result? A company with a conscience and an effective operating plan.

In the beginning, Deb approached her restaurant with much the same attitude as in her collective days. "We made all the decisions together. Not just the owners but the staff. If we were debating whether or not to put steak on the menu, everyone sat down and talked about it. When the discussion ended, it was two years later." 

As business blossomed and the competition stiffened ("we were the only game in town for the first four or five years," says Deb), the Fiddlehead had to outgrow the "collective" style of management. "Group decision-making just wasn't effective. We needed to move quicker than our organization was able to. We needed a change." 

The change became conscientious decision-making within a traditional corporate structure. Now there is a team of four that decides Fiddlehead policy: Deb, representing management; a chef, representing the kitchen; a personnel manager speaking for the wait staff; and an operations manager, reminding everyone of the bottom line. 

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