John Sheehan, co-owner and chief operating officer of Bloomington-based Doolittles Woodfire Grill and Porter Creek restaurants, worked in restaurants through high school and St. Cloud State University.
Sheehan, 48, always appreciated the dishwashers and servers, even after he became a general manager of a Doolittles in 1994, and a co-owner of the company in 2001. After all, he came from their ranks.
A health scare two years ago made him realize that life is fleeting and that he needs to be even more supportive to those who have made him successful.
“The employees probably see me more as an owner, and they probably listen too much to what I say,” Sheehan said the other day at the Golden Valley Doolittles. “I like them to think of me as a guy who works here. We’re together. I support the people who serve our guests.
“The difference with me today is that if I learn somebody needs help, I’m more inclined to go ask if I can help, than to ask someone else how that person is doing. I still get emotional when I think of what our employees did for me.”
In October 2011, Sheehan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Only about 6 percent of the people who contract the disease survive five years. Sheehan, who underwent surgery a month later, had a less aggressive type of cancer that had not spread beyond his pancreas. He remains cancer-free.
He is one grateful capitalist. The soft-spoken restaurant entrepreneur appreciates the 425 employees who have helped drive three consecutive years of record sales and profits since 2010.
Sheehan will never forget the cards, calls and support, even from people he didn’t know well, during the long weeks he was sick. Moreover, the post-cancer Sheehan doesn’t get upset when cut off in traffic, greets most mornings admiring the hummingbirds around his Shakopee porch, spends more time with his family, and tries to be an empathetic, generous boss.
“I think about cancer every day,” he said. “And whether today might be the day it comes back. I do have more empathy for other people. So when I hear about an employee who is sick, or has a baby with cancer, or a husband who fell down the stairs and is a quadriplegic, or a family problem … if they want to talk about it, maybe I can help. We say here that there is no higher honor than to serve others. I’m trying to do more of that.”
Sheehan wasn’t looking for publicity. He was referred to the Star Tribune by organizers of the Purple Ride Twin Cities. Hundreds of riders, including a team headed by Sheehan, raised a record $430,000 on Sept. 15 for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.
One at a time
Sheehan, who has lost a friend and brother-in-law to pancreatic cancer since 2003, knows he can’t solve everybody’s problems. He cites the venerable “Starfish Story” as motivation for trying to help one person at a time. In that tale, a young girl is tossing starfish that were cast on the beach during a terrible storm back into the ocean. A man approaches and observes that she can’t save most of the thousands of starfish on the beach. The girl seems crushed. Then she bends down and tosses one into the sea.
“Well, I made a difference to that one,” she said. The man, silently, starts tossing fish back into the surf. One at a time.
Sheehan had never missed a day of work for illness, other than a hernia surgery, until he was sick with cancer and recovering from the surgery. When he returned to work, he discovered a beautiful artwork made of stones and a glass butterfly to mark his path to better health. The work, called a cairn, was made by an artistic bartender and a lot of other employees. He meditates on it every day.
Joanna Hokanson, general manager of the Doolittles in Golden Valley, was one of 29 friends, employees and relatives who rode on Sheehan’s “Team Make a Difference” in the Purple Ride at Elm Creek Park in Maple Grove, raising more than $6,000 for the cause.
“I thought it was a good fit for me,” said Hokanson, who started with the company as a server.
Sheehan said he’s aware of the “fine line” between encouraging employee involvement and the implicit pressure there might be in supporting a charity favored by the boss. “But it was a positive response,” he said. “I’ve heard nothing negative.”
He pointed out that the five Doolittles and one Porter Creek restaurant raise money for different charities through menu promotions and other activities every month.
Sheehan, ever the entrepreneur, still hopes to double the number of restaurants over the next five years. “But if not, then not,” he said.
Regardless, serving employees and community causes fits the culture of a service business. And something is working at the growing restaurant company.
“We say our mission is to be a ‘citizen for life’ and to serve others,” Sheehan said. “Work should be part of being a human being. I just want to be part of a helping network here. I have heard stories from some of our employees that have brought me to tears. We can always do more.”