PAWS Magazine

 

Issue 51, Spring 2002

 

Working & Barking at Sur la Table

by Richard Huffman

Walk into the downtown Seattle headquarters of national kitchenware retailer Sur la Table, and receptionist Wendy Honsher greets you with a friendly smile. Behind her, a gentle commotion sprouts from a U-Haul packing box. Bear, Wendy’s young puppy, pops his head out, greeting visitors with a winning disposition and a let’s-play personality.

Down the hall, Luna, a shepherd-mix, patrols an office. Neo, another shepherd, is around the corner. Further on, Judy, a sweet little schnauzer, makes it known that she needs to go for a walk. On any given day, as many as 20 dogs may be found at the two downtown Seattle Sur la Table headquarters buildings, working alongside their human guardians. Welcome to the dog-friendliest company in America.

It wasn’t always this way. A Seattle icon for 25 years, Sur la Table’s philosophy was like that of almost every other company in North America: the workplace is for working, the home is for families and companion animals. But this all changed five years ago when husband-and-wife team Carl and Reneé Behnke bought the company with plans for an aggressive expansion.

When you own a company, you get to make the rules. Reneé and Carl knew that they would be putting in long hours as they grew their company from one store to 25 stores. They decided that It just wouldn’t be right to leave Danny, their King Charles spaniel, at home while they worked all those hours. A new rule prevailed: employees could, and should, bring their dogs to work.

For Reneé, it was a sound business decision. “Everybody here works really hard. Having dogs here allows the employees to work even harder and enjoy their jobs more.” says Reneé.

The office rules are pretty simple. Dogs are not allowed to bark. Dogs can’t run loose in the warehouse. Dogs must stay out of the kitchen, and everybody must keep their office space clean. A walk through the building seems to confirm that the dogs are doing their part to follow the rules. No barking can be heard, and although many of the dogs are given free reign of the offices, there are no roving packs of canines terrorizing the halls. The dogs seem to realize how good they’ve got it and act accordingly.

Their humans seem to know it too. The floors are fur-free, and the staff seems happier and friendlier than the people employed at the hundreds of other cookie-cutter workplaces in Seattle. “I know how lucky I am to be able to bring Luna to work,” says Susanna Linse, Public Relations Manager. “On those rare days when she stays home, my truck feels empty on the drive to and from work, and the office doesn’t feel right without her presence. I consider it one of the best benefits that Sur la Table has to offer.” Susanna ought to know. She has been working for Sur la Table since before the Behnkes and their dog-friendly policy arrived.

As an alpha female who has been around the offices longer than almost all the other dogs, Luna constantly has to struggle with her desire to run the offices exactly as she sees fit. “She’s been coming to work on a daily basis for close to four years,” says Susanna. “She used to start every morning by visiting Gerry Patterson, our catalog analyst. Gerry was probably one of her favorite employees until she saw Neo (a new shepherd-mix) standing in the doorway of his office. And ever since then she has refused to interact with Gerry. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a dog shun a person!”

Gerry’s loss has been Jaren Balzer’s gain. Luna adores Jaren, who heads the Information Technology department, but most of Jaren’s attention is directed to his golden retrievers, Hannah and Hector. Being golden retrievers, most of their attention is directed at the glorious ball sitting high up on the shelf.

For Jaren, Hannah and Hector are real stress relievers. “I have noticed that they can sense the times when I am working under stress or when we’re having a ‘crisis’ in the department,” says Jaren. “At those times they will come over and sit by my chair as if to offer their own kind of support. That action alone has a very calming effect and it tends to lessen my stress levels as well as those of others in the area.”

Having Hannah and Hector around also helps Jaren to better regulate his own work level. “I really believe that one of the major contributions that they make is that they force me to take a break during the day and get away from the office for a while,” says Jaren. “On the occasional days that I leave them at home, I usually end up working without a real break. “The break time (that I take with Hannah and Hector) away from the office allows me to step back and reflect on the projects and problems I am working on. I tend to be more focused and productive after those times.”

Just outside of Hannah and Hector’s domain are Czar, a Doberman pinscher, and Rose and Jasmine, two miniature pinschers. Rose and Jasmine endlessly circle Czar, nipping and goading him before pulling back, like supercharged electrons orbiting a neutron. They are all having the time of their lives, and Tom Jacobsen, Michael Sisson, and the others in the IT department all seem to be enjoying themselves as much as their dogs. “At one time we had my two goldens, the Doberman, a min-pin, and a pit bull all running around in the same office,” says Jaren. “It may sound distracting, but they were all very well mannered and got along together just fine. Vicious dogs are never allowed, and we’ve never had any fights or bites.”

One dog that no one could ever mistake for vicious is Cloe, a pug who is the princess of the Payroll department. Cloe spends her days in the office of her human companion, Peggy Ball, or wandering the other Human Resources offices looking for attention. Much of her time is spent working on her never-ending quest to fit two toy balls in her mouth at the same time. “She helps to make Human Resources more approachable and not so intimidating a place,” says Peggy.

Pugs tend to generate a lot of attention, and Cloe certainly generates her fair share. “She has certain friends from outside of Human Resources who come just to play ball with her, rub her ears, and get her running circles around the conference table,” says Peggy. “Occasionally I will look out my door and see someone from another department lying on the carpet holding Cloe, telling her how beautiful she is, or tossing the ball around for her.”

And like the other dogs of Sur la Table, Cloe is a great stress-reliever. “She has special friends in Accounting. If they are having a particularly stressful day, they will come down and grab her leash and take her for a short walk, then take her back to their office for a visit. An hour or so later, they’ll bring her back.” Cloe the pug: reassurance ambassador.

“She has sat in on more than one teary conversation,” says Peggy. “Her big brown eyes and soft little satiny ears have a calming effect even to the most upset person.”

Dogs are well known for their sensitivity to people. Some dogs, like Judy, a sweet little schnauzer who works alongside her human companion, Amy Holman in the Direct Marketing department, are sensitive in other ways. When the Puget Sound area was hit by an earthquake in early 2001, Sur la Table was hit much harder than most businesses. Judy, however, had been expecting the earthquake.

“She warned us about a minute before it happened,” says Amy. “She had been outside doing her business and we went back to my office when she started spinning around. I thought she wanted to go back outside, and I was trying to brush her off, but she just wouldn’t quit. So I got up and was about to go back outside with her when the earthquake started. So I picked her up and headed for a doorway. “It was interesting that after everything settled down, she was visibly shaken. Now, whenever I hear a rumble, I look to her for a sign.”

The king of all the dogs at Sur la Table is definitely Danny, and not just because he’s a King Charles spaniel. Danny is Reneé and Carl Behnke’s dog, and he has been visiting Sur la Table since the Behnkes bought the company. Danny’s health has faltered in recent years, but the staff at Sur la Table has rallied around him. Reneé clearly loves Danny and derives much of her strength from his presence.

“Dan plays a huge role in my life,” says Reneé. “He’s my friend. He gives me a diversion during the day. You have to get up and give him a walk and give him attention. He means so much to me. “I have a really strong interaction with animals,” continues Reneé. “And I really like people who like animals. Honestly, I think that people who can’t communicate with animals have something missing. We tell potential employees right up front that we’re dog people, and that’s the environment that people need to expect.” For most people who work at Sur la Table, it’s like a dream come true. “I think that a lot of people have worked their whole life to be in the position to have a dog,” says Reneé, “and finally they’ve found a place that will allow them to come.”

One of the Behnkes’ most important recent hires was Timothy Hopkins, the new CEO of Sur la Table and a dog person if there ever was one. Timothy’s new puppy, Pebbles, is the spitting miniature image of Danny. Pebbles has been an increasingly frequent visitor to Sur la Table, as she get a handle on the rules of the office and the need to piddle outside and not inside.

Reneé is such a believer in dogs in the workplace that she actively encourages other businesses to consider the policy as well. “We have lots of vendors who work out of their homes, who now bring their dogs in to visit when they come to our offices,” says Reneé. “Now some of our neighboring businesses are allowing their people to bring dogs to work, and our dogs get to visit with their dogs during the daily walks.”

The two Sur la Table headquarters buildings suffered extensive damage during last year’s earthquake. One of the contractors who worked with Elco Construction, which was hired to help repair the damaged buildings, was able to bring his black lab in to work with him every day. “He later told me that it was the best job that he ever got to work on,” says Reneé.

“Dogs bring a certain level of joy and energy that can be very infectious,” says Susanna of her dog Luna and the other office dogs. “They bring warmth, love, and laughter into the work environment as well as healing energy. If you’re having a tough day and you kneel down on the floor and hug and pet one of the dogs, it’s amazing how much better you feel.”

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