Former Office Depot CEO finds purpose in locally grown family business

 In December 2018

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By Mark Tosczak

In early October, a Willie Nelson look-alike with a graying ZZ Top beard stepped into Reverence Farms Cafe to ask about ordering a pasture-raised, organic turkey for Thanksgiving. Bruce Nelson — also gray-haired, but without the long hair or beard — took his order.

Taking turkey orders is just one thing 72-year-old Nelson might do on any given day at the 2-year-old restaurant. He might also mediate disputes between the restaurant’s night shift and morning crew, make sure there are enough dishwashers and waitstaff scheduled for a busy evening, or jump in to help serve customers and bus tables.

Running the 52-seat café on a two-lane rural highway in Alamance County is about as far away as you can get from Nelson’s last job as chief executive officer of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Office Depot. Nelson spent more than three decades in corporate America and became CEO of the office-supply giant in 2000. When he retired in 2004, the Fortune 500 company had about 1,100 stores and annual revenue topping $12 billion.

“I said, ‘No more gigs,’” he says. “No public boards, no public gigs, no public companies.”

Nelson, in his 50s then, retired in Florida. But his daughter, Suzanne Nelson, a former journalist based in Washington, D.C., had moved to North Carolina and taken up farming. When she asked for a loan to buy a 60-acre plot, the elder Nelson found himself playing the role of business adviser and, sometimes, farmhand. He milked cows, mended fences, drove a tractor and more.

As Suzanne’s interest in local, organic agriculture grew, so did Nelson’s. She eventually accumulated 400 acres near the tiny town of Saxapahaw. Reverence Farms, which raises beef, pork, sheep, chickens and turkeys, became a family business, with Nelson’s son, Connor, quitting his job in Seattle and moving his family to Alamance County to join his sister and father. “We call him ‘bureau chief of management services,’” Nelson says. “He does it all,” including ordering supplies, bookkeeping and managing construction.

The family had considered a farm-to-table restaurant to serve locally grown food, eventually. But when Suzanne Nelson saw a for-lease sign on a closed roadside restaurant about three years ago, she called her father.

“I laughed and said, ‘Suzanne, we’re not going to do a café right now,’” Nelson says. “You don’t want to have multiple startup businesses going at the same time.”

But he called the owner and, a week later, agreed to a lease on a handshake. While Suzanne primarily runs the farm, the café is Nelson’s bailiwick. It’s not unlike running a giant corporation, he says, just on a smaller scale and with a different philosophy. Many issues are similar: How to find and retain good employees, what investments to make, what products to offer.

“Somebody says, ‘You should put a couple of retail coolers in the café.’ … They’re 2,500 bucks apiece,” Nelson says. “Guess what I do. … ‘How much are we going to sell out of them? What’s the margin out of there? What space are they taking? And when do I get paid back?’”

Reverence Farms Cafe has a distinctly non-corporate business philosophy. The café pays its 20 or so employees a living wage of $12 per hour. Animal proteins come from Reverence Farms, and 80% of the vegetables are grown on area farms. It serves local beer and bread. The menu is a mix of burgers, bratwurst and Southern staples such as mac ’n cheese and BBQ chicken and pork.

Business adviser Paul Saginaw says making employees a priority comes naturally to Nelson. “I think he intuitively felt that way and probably was always a bit uncomfortable in the corporate world.”

Nelson notes his corporate career provided wealth to invest in Reverence Farms. But he’s also grateful to run a business focused beyond next quarter’s profits.

“Corporate America has to be for the good of the few,” he says. “[We] have the luxury now, as a family, to say, ‘No, this is for the good of the many.’ And it’s much more rewarding.”

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