Rosanna Caira: What inspired you to enter the hospitality industry?

Zita Cobb: I’m a Newfoundlander, so everybody tangled up in Newfoundland knows genetically and culturally we’re predisposed to hospitality. We have this lovely expression: ‘You should just follow the path that wants to emerge.’ All I have ever done was follow the path that wants to emerge. There is also that lovely expression from Newfoundland: ‘It’s really good to see a light coming into the harbour and not so good to see a light going out.’ Growing up there, you grow up steeped in hospitality.

RC: What made you decide to build an inn?
ZC: When I left JDS [Uniphase], I was 42. I wasn’t really thinking about retiring; I was thinking about trying to do something with what was given to me by place. I never lost touch with home through all those years of being away, and every time I went home it would always seem like it was less and people were looking older. We all look a bit older, but this is what is happening across the world, not just across Canada — rural places are in deep trouble, because it’s not clear how they’re going to adapt to modernity. Given my background in technology and business, being a Fogo Islander and having this pot of money that was more than I needed to live a life, you look around and think, ‘Who else is going to do it?’
We wanted to do something complementary to the fishery and do it in a way that we could weave ourselves and knowledge into it. We have these human bridges, but this generation when we’re gone, [the history] is gone. Our past will become inaccessible. So how do we reach back into it and pick up the threads that are in danger of being lost and weave them into something new?

RC: What is social entrepreneurship, and why did you set up this model to run the inn?
ZC: We started with art, because it is the nature of contemporary art to ask questions and ask why and to be critical. We wanted to make sure we were building critical thinking into everything we were doing. The artist residency program started first, and then when we started with the inn, we wanted to make it of the place. The inn is really supposed to be a reflection of what we know, a reflection of the physical place, which is made of local wood, and obviously we wanted a design that could be built by local people. This is steel frame.

We started the inn to grow another leg on the economy. I deeply believe in business. It is a great tool … and I believe small communities can and should own businesses. So on Fogo Island, our fishery is owned by a cooperative. And, I’m not saying that every business should be a cooperative or every business should be a social business, but in small places you can do it. And it’s probably the only way you can do, because who in this room is going build a hotel that costs $43 million on Fogo Island if you’re looking strictly for return on capital? But take business as a tool and create an economic asset that belongs to a community — that is what we were trying to figure out how to do. Just like our co-op belongs to the fishermen and the plant workers, this Inn belongs to the community.
The Shorefast Foundation is a registered charity, and it technically owns the Inn. But charity itself is not sustainable either. What we wanted to do was use our philanthropic funds — about 20 per cent of the funding came from government and 80 per cent was ours and money we raised from other private donors. As the inn operates and reaches a surplus, those surpluses come back to the foundation and get reinvested into the community. So, effectively, Fogo Islanders own it. The only thing I own on Fogo Island is my car and house, but everything else we have belongs to the community.

RC: Was this something you thought about for a while?
ZC: It emerged in conversation — how to build something that would survive us, and, can’t most social problems be solved if we build a business model under it? It’s called ‘asset-based community development.’ We had everything: this was the most beautiful place on Earth, we were predisposed to hospitality — we’ve got all of these berries and fish. It was such an obvious thing to do. The social business is a growing sector, and I think every business can be a social business.

RC: You believe architecture, design, craft, food and art work together synergistically. Can you explain how?

ZC: Modernity does terrible things. We are losing track of the sacred. Everything has been commoditized, virtualized, globalized, flattened — so where is sacred? And I don’t mean sacred in the religious sense; I mean it in the secular sense. If you are a business owner, how do you fit into the whole ecosystem? How are you influencing the entire world?

Art is a way of knowing. If we spend increasing amounts of time on little tiny screens getting our information, we’re becoming dumb, because we are not using all of the facilities human beings have; our skin knows stuff if we give it a chance.

So this ability to stay grounded in all of our human ways, art helps with that, history helps with that — a good gale wind helps with that. We just need to get out in it and get mixed up in it. So what we tried to do when we created the inn was to be thoughtful.

RC: How important is the inn’s openness and sense of place?
ZC: There was not one thing that didn’t get intense scrutiny and debate. Here is what we were trying to do: hold the traditional and at the same time be relevant in a contemporary way.

RC: What were your challenges and concerns around procurement?
ZC: Every day we would struggle with this, but the two words that guided us were originality and integrity.

The word originality, what it really means is true to its origins. Is it really true to its origins, and has it been done before? These are the two aspects of original. And the word integrity means something has to be consistent and complete. So, now we need a bathtub or we need dishes. If we could get it from Newfoundland, we would, because that makes sense. It’s right there. If we could get it from Canada, we would — we did join in 1949. And I have to say, there is some maple in the inn. And, if not, the U.S. And, if not, we keep going to our traditional trading partners where it’s sensible.
But under no circumstances will we buy something from a place that doesn’t have basic labour laws and basic environmental protection laws. That is really hard to do. We shut down the construction site for two months, because we couldn’t find nails. As consumers, we have more power than we do as voters, so I really can’t wait until we get to the day that everything we buy has a little label that tells you where all the money went.

RC: What made you confident guests would pay between $875 to $2,475 per night (with one suite priced at $5,000) in Newfoundland?
ZC: It’s in Newfoundland. People need [to get away more]. I wouldn’t be so confident in Toronto. The philosophy we had was, you pay once, and then you’re done paying. So there is no tipping; it’s built into the price. So, if you spend $100 at the inn, 15 per cent of that top line — not bottom line — goes to all the people who work at the inn. This tipping thing contaminates human relationships.
About pricing, I don’t know who said this, but, ‘The best things in life are free and the second best things are very expensive.’

RC: Can you tell me about your signature experiences that are led by local hosts?
ZC: What is appropriate in a city is not appropriate in a remote place. The way hospitality is practised has to be responsive to the place it’s in. And so, could you imagine Fogo Island with a concierge? Well, this would be hilarious, because everybody on Fogo Island thinks they’re a concierge, and they are. We realized there are 2,706 of them. We just need to figure out how to weave us together, so we reached out to people in the community to say, ‘Would you like to be a community host?’ So a half day with a community host is included in the rate.

RC: What fuelled your approach to food and the restaurant?
ZC: All we’re trying to do is give people a sense of what the North Atlantic tastes like and what the sub-arctic terrain tastes like, and use only enough human intervention to elevate it to something that is beautiful and present it in a way that is appealing to all of your senses. But not over-manipulate it or slather it in an ego so that it tastes like everything else. Fogo Islanders are very pragmatic people and sensible. Sensible is sustainable. If you think about us traditionally, we imported half a dozen things: cane, tea, salt for the salt cod, molasses, rum, of course, and cloth. These were of main importance. We couldn’t have survived without those things, so we have to be sensible. On the other hand, would it be sensible to be bringing arugula from Mexico in February? That makes no sense. It makes no economic sense, it makes no ecological sense, and we could get through a month without arugula; we got through without it for 400 years. [Chef Murray McDonald] has been really good with preserving.

RC: What sets Fogo Island Inn apart?
ZC: We’ve hung onto place, and everything we have and everything we know comes from place. That is a natural differentiator. The way we have approached the building and everything we have done, from first principles and trying to put what we know into it, makes it different. We’ve been pretty relentless about ‘original with integrity.’ We as human beings need to remember we are not the masters of the universe — we need to make place lead. For business, I travelled a lot, but that’s a different hospitality. If you go to a beautiful ryokan in Japan, as you come around the corner you hear the bucket of water getting thrown onto the step because that’s the sign of welcome; we are ready, we are waiting for you, the step has just been washed. That is beautiful. I’d walk to Japan for that experience, but you wouldn’t do that on Fogo Island. That would make no sense.

RC: What prompted you to partner with the National Film Board to create a cinema and showcase films of Fogo Island? What’s been the response?
ZC: Our relationship with the National Film Board goes back to the ’60s, when we were almost resettled because Joey Smallwood’s reductionist government couldn’t see anything of value on Fogo Island once the cod industry was in trouble. Reductionist thinking is when you look at something in its part and you don’t look at the whole. His decision [was] very dangerous, because he was going to resettle the whole place until Colin Low [and] Memorial University came along and made these 27 beautiful little films.

RC: Giving back to the community is a core tenet of your philosophy and your success. How do you inculcate that into your staff?
ZC: I never think of it as giving back to the community. I always think of it as never taking out of it in the first place. Let’s pretend the Fogo Island Inn was not a social business. Maybe it would be easier to answer the question that way. I would approach it from — and every business should do this — don’t pay your staff as little as you can get away with; pay them as much as you could possibly afford. And they know that. I’m a big believer in sharing financial information with staff. Profit is not a bad word. Staff understand that, too. And, in everything, whether it’s buying lettuce or buying a chair, don’t just ask ‘Where am I going to get it the cheapest?’ because the price of cheap is paid in your community. Every single thing is connected. You are part of a whole.

RC: What keeps you awake at night?
ZC: The biggest thing I worry about for all of us, for Fogo Islanders, is that we are losing our sense of the sacred. We have lost track of the nature and culture part, and we are losing sacred. Fogo Islanders are naturally entrepreneurial, but not when it comes to taking market risk; it’s not in our history. We have a business-assistance fund and mentoring and trying to get people to be more interested in business. They tend to think about business as, ‘Well, that’s for other people, that’s for capitalists, or that’s for city people, we don’t know about business.’ And I’m like, guys, it’s just a little tool.

RC: Will you replicate the concept of social entrepreneurship elsewhere
in Canada?
ZC: Absolutely. We are working on … a toolkit that would be for other communities. If you’re trying to figure out how to belong in the world and how to flourish, what might you do and what might you learn from us? If you have imagination, which most people do, money will come. Not every community should have an inn — some communities are not all that hospitable. But maybe there are other things. If a community can define for itself, ‘What do we love about this place?’ and follow that little thread, it’s going to take you to something that’s of value and is sacred and worth investing in.

RC: What have you learned about leadership?
ZC: You are what you do. Who cares what I think or what I feel. The only way you can experience me is by what I do, so leaders need to remember that. We have had the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the information revolution. What we need now is a values revolution. So if you think about leaders now, we don’t need warriors, we need worriers. The classic leadership model used to be ‘masters of the universe: he’s the commander.’ We’ve already mastered the universe; it’s all done. Now we have to figure out how to put some things back together. So we need sensors, we need navigators.

RC: What’s the biggest challenge we face as an industry?
ZC: The biggest challenge is to stop commoditizing the sacred and find ways to build the sacred into our businesses. It’s all the little details that affect wholeness. We have to weave the business systems so they are healthier for each other. You know a cauliflower is a beautiful fractal and each little floret is just the pattern that repeats; it’s all connected by the stem — that’s our distribution systems and our business systems, our supply systems, all our regulatory systems — and those systems need to serve the florets. As business owners, operators, we have two roles: we are part of the stem, and we are also in a floret. But, in everything we do, keep the well-being of the florets in mind. That’s what I mean: reweaving what we think about our values revolution about protecting the florets.

RC: What advice would you give to people considering a career in hospitality?
ZC: Get a broad education. Yes, there are technical skills I wish I had gotten 20 years ago, but be interested and be interesting, otherwise why would I want to come and stay with you?

Volume 27, Number 4


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