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A year-end month-long research project exemplifies how much the Eastern Standard staff has embraced the culture.

Borrowing an idea from his kids’ Advent calendar, Harker several years ago split the staff into teams who profiled the 20 regions of Italy on the 20 weekdays leading up to Christmas. The next year the Eastern Standard Advent calendar featured Maine, and some employees drove 150 miles to research craft beer there. Last year’s calendar featured the 14 counties of Massachusetts, sending some staffers to Nantucket to research whaling, while others visited Berkshire County to study wines.

“It has become competitive,” says Harker. The lessons on Italy, Maine and the local community have obvious relevance, but how do lessons and discussions on politics, current events and sports affect guest service?

“Let’s say we’re going into a series with Seattle,” says Harker, noting Fenway Park is around the corner. “They might learn about Seattle, how it was founded, things that shaped the city and products from there. They come out of lineup and have a table of four with Mariners hats. Is that server going to feel more motivated to share? That table is going to leave saying, ‘Wow, something is a little different here. The server just dropped some Puget Sound knowledge.’

“All of that is confidence. A confident server is a server who gets involved when they see that opening.”

The end result for Harker, beyond the Beard nod, has been eight years of success, including new concepts Island Creek Oyster Bar, The Hawthorne (an acclaimed bar) and the soon-to-be Row 34 (a more casual oyster bar), and employees who have been far less likely to leave. His top management team has been intact for five years, which helps with continuity and encourages others to stay, too.

“The number one reason we try to dig deep into culture is guest impact, but employee retention is right behind that,” he says.