Interview with Paul Wesslund | Author of Small Business Big Heart

What was your relationship with Sal and Cindy Rubino before you embarked on writing your book? How did you meet and how close were you?

We were church acquaintances who knew of each other, and were not especially close. Occasionally when wondering where to go out to eat, we would say, “Let’s go to Sal and Cindy’s.” When I needed box lunches for a work meeting, I would call The Café to support a member of the church.


How did you approach them about writing a book about them and their business model?

As leader of our church Sunday School class I was always looking for discussion topics, so when I read in the newspaper about their practice of hiring refugees and people in recovery, it seemed a natural to invite Sal and Cindy to speak to the class. Their presentation seemed to me to present unique storytelling narratives, including that their hiring practices were not altruistic, but a way to get loyal and dedicated, long-term employees. After mulling for a couple months I e-mailed Sal that I thought their story could be a book and he replied that he agreed, but that they were not writers, so “I see your interest and reaching out to me as divine providence.”


How did writing the book change or enhance your relationship?

It completely changed our relationship. We went from acquaintances to regularly meeting to be interviewed for hours and hours about their entire life history.


While you have written articles throughout your life, those articles have been primarily about energy. Small Business, Big Hearts is a huge departure for you. What made you want to write a book, and what drew you to this story in particular

I’ve never been interested in writing a book. While I was familiar with writing, researching, and interviewing mainly for periodicals, I knew book publishing was an extremely different industry. But over my career I’ve developed some observations and Sal and Cindy’s story struck me as one that spoke to those views. The one that most stuck in my mind as I listened to them in the Sunday School class, was a thought of mine that I disagreed when people would say “Doing the right thing can be good business,” because I thought doing the right thing IS good business.


While Sal and Cindy were ultimately successful, the road to success was bumpy. How common is this for successful business people?

The odds are against the small business owner. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 20% of small business fail by the end of their first year, 50% by their fifth year, and by their 10th year only one-third are left.


The stress of their early businesses also led to stress in their relationship. Having interviewed them, what do you believe kept them together?

They loved their family and wanted it to thrive—so much that they gave up restaurant profit centers like dinner, Sunday brunch, and alcohol.


If you had to name one character trait or quality that kept them going until they reached success, what would it be? And how did it help them along the way?

A version of resilience that understands that success requires every resource available: family; faith and its community of people; lessons from school and work; the intelligence to figure out the most workable solution; the willingness to change like Sal did when he realized he needed to work through problems rather than around them; and knowing when to stick to core principles like when Cindy insisted that employees be treated “the way we would want to be treated.”


This book is about relationships. Sal and Cindy’s relationship, their relationship with their staff and customers, their familial relationships. What is the common thread in all these relationships?

Seeing the humanity in people, and acting on that. Instead of seeing a prison record, an addiction, or someone who couldn’t speak English, as one employee said, “They looked at what you could be.”


As you researched this book, what did you learn about relationships? And what do you think your reader will take away from the book that might enhance their relationships?

That stigma is a powerful force. We almost have a need to categorize people by everything from politics to race to religion, even to what genre a musician belongs in. Those judgements limit what people are allowed to do, and even how we let ourselves enjoy other people. I hope readers will take a way a heightened sensitivity to what we called in college “marvelous diversity,” and see people for who they are rather than how they might be labeled.


Human beings thrive on validation. What role do you think validation played in the success of Sal and Cindy’s business model? Why was this particularly important for their employees?

The Café succeeded because its business model treated employees as unique human beings with families, a faith, and dreams. In return they gave The Café loyalty, dedication, and a shared vision.


Back to the writing of the book, what was the easiest part?

The routine of sitting in front of my keyboard in the morning with notes and transcripts scattered on my desk, the floor, and taped to the walls, and bringing all those elements together into storytelling on the page. I like figuring out puzzles, and making all the pieces of the characters in this book fit together in a narrative was a huge, grand puzzle.


What was the most difficult?

Interviewing. I’m not an outgoing person and I have perfectionist tendencies, so treated each interview not as a chat but a command performance losing sleep the night before fretting about the questions, worrying I wouldn’t ask them in a way that would give the best answers, feeling bad for wasting people’s time. Especially difficult was talking to refugee employees, invading their privacy with sensitive questions, struggling to understand them through heavy accents. But each interview ended with me feeling elated, and astounded at the trust that often complete strangers put in me, telling me their private stories.


Who do you see as your readers?

This question has always driven me crazy because I don’t see any one type of reader that Sal and Cindy’s story applies to. For business people there’s a detailed description of a model based on compassion that has been proven to work. For people wishing for a way out of our national divisiveness it’s a story about not judging people. For families overwhelmed by the office it’s a story of prioritizing work-life balance. For people of faith it’s a story about how you can be the same person at church, at home, and at work. For people needing a lift it’s a story about how kindness leads to success. Caring for each other speaks to everyone.


What three things will business owners and those aspiring to own their own businesses take away from this book?

  1. You don’t have to ignore the humanity of your employees or yourself to succeed. Exactly the opposite, it’s the key to success.
  2. A business model based on compassion requires high standards and hard work, and it pays off. 3
  3. Know your priorities, and don’t give up on them


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