Ballard Brands, Blue Lemon, Four Foods Group, Luna Grill, Mad Greens: The CEOs speak on the state of things

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Technology. Sustainability. Trendsetting menu items.

Clearly restaurant leadership these days has plenty to ruminate, but when it comes to the one thing that’s keeping leadership up at night, it begins and ends with labor.

That was the verdict of five brand leaders that took part in the CEO roundtable that closed off October’s Fast Casual Executive Summit in Seattle. Competition for workers in a squeaky tight labor market is fierce, with no signs of letting up and that’s got those at the top of the organization squirming to both, figure out how to attract great talent, but also to keep them happy and fulfilled.

In an hourlong discussion, session moderator, Xenial Director of Product Communications Michael Kowalski, put the following leaders through their paces to determine what is top-of-mind these days for the five very different types of brands, including:

  • Ballard Brands (170 restaurants, including Wow Café, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans, The Original City Diner and Boardhouse Serious Sandwiches brands) co-founder Paul Ballard.
  • Blue Lemon founder and President Aaron Day (Utah-based, six-location chain)
  • Four Foods Group (155 restaurants including Kneaders Bakery & Cafe, Little Caesars Pizza, Mo’ Bettahs, R&R Barbeque, Swig and The Soda Shop brand) President Shauna K. Smith
  • Luna Grill co-founder and CEO Sean Pourteymour (Mediterranean fast casual)
  • Mad Greens CEO Darden Coors (Colorado-based 32-location brand)

The subjects that are preoccupying these leaders minds ranged from food safety and costs to brand culture and relevancy, but that shrinking labor pool was by far and away the most challenging aspect of these leaders’ daily life.

“It’s the people,” Four Foods Groups President Shauna Smith said simply. “It’s the best part and the hardest part of running a business.”

Blue Lemon President Aaron Day added, “Labor and staffing is really challenging for us,” he told the packed house at the closing session of the summit. “Unemployment is at historically low levels, both nationally and locally, so the labor market is just hyper-competitive between employers.”

As a result, these leaders all agreed that they’ve had to pull some pretty inventive “tricks out of their hats” to meet the needs and expectations of those few quality candidates that are actually out there. That’s meant rethinking labor strategy and tactics being used at each brand.

“It’s a cultural thing for us,” said Luna Grill’s Pourteymour. “We have really had to evaluate how we’re perceived by our team members, and of course, there’s always the bonuses and those types of incentives, but today it has to be more than that. …

“It’s gotten to point, where it’s not just about how much more you can pay, but now we’re more and more trying to make it an experience for the team member … because in a restaurant you learn things you’ll use for the rest of your life. … So what we try to do is take our people and actually teach them how to be operators and be business people so even if they leave us and go to different career … they have an understanding of that and I think that brings a value proposition to the team member.”

That idea of making restaurant employment of any kind a pathway to higher-paying work — either in or out of the restaurant field — was being used as an employee benefit by most of the brands represented on the CEO panel, albeit in different ways.

“We’ve started putting in a pathway to the corporate office,” Ballard said. “And we’ve found some amazing people who are advocates of the brand who’ve worked their way to corporate that we just would not have known about without that policy.”

Four Foods Group’s Smith said her brands are working to provide a better workplace for all by working to provider better managers.

“Our goal is to rid the world of bad bosses,” she said. “With our leaders, what we’re doing is we’re actually bringing them into our restaurant support center (for) a 10-session (series), with each session teaching them how to be a better person and better leader. … In this way, we’re really teaching them how to get the best out of their people.”

The mighty meetings of the minds

Those kinds of regular meetings were cited by many on the panel as becoming increasingly important to how they keep their workforces on the same page to remain culturally and strategically aligned.

For instance at Ballard Brands over the next two years, leadership plans to continue its recently initiated Executive Leadership Team meetings because Paul Ballard said they have helped he and his two brothers get a clearer sense of where the entire management team wants the company’s brands to go.

“This Executive Leadership Team meets regularly … and it’s really added a lot to the company,” he said. “With three brothers running things, when this ELT meets, their voices are really starting to get heard a lot better.”

Mad Greens CEO Darden Coors said her company made a similar observation in meetings conducted after the company’s founders transitioned out of the regular mix.

“We asked employees what their probs and complaints are at that (initial meeting). … It was very collaborative, so now we have a semiannual operations summit … and operationally, things flow from that,” she said.

“It could be something as little as (an employee mentioning) ‘I hate making grilled onions’ … and now we don’t do grilled onions anymore because it was just such a pain. … But we prioritize what’s key to the brand and set our (goals) from there. In the last 18 months, that’s really what we’ve done, is implement almost all their high-level (suggestions) from the field.”

Pain point: Off-premise ordering

At Luna Grill and Four Foods Group brands, off-premise ordering is getting the lion’s share of leadership’s strategic thinking for the next 12 to 24 months. Leaders of both companies said learning how to balance the in-restaurant customer’s needs with all those out-of-restaurant orders is taking some real creative problem-solving.

“At Luna, with the third-party evolution that’s happening and with our catering business booming, it’s causing an issue during lunch hour,” Pourteymour said.

“So now we have a situation where we have guests, who have only so much time, waiting because we’ve got so much on the grill. … So we’re trying to figure that out … and how we get that not to degrade the guest experience.”

Smith and Coors agreed, saying the new inflow of off-premise orders puts an even greater burden on their brands to get orders right before the food hits the customer’s hands.

“There’s so much to consider, but of all the things involved, we really want to nail the landing on ease, order accuracy and speed of service,” Smith said. “So we’ve even changed a few of our kitchens and even created an entire separate line …to accommodate those customers in front, so they don’t even know that’s happening in the back.”

Coors said Mad Greens already had a huge takeout load, but that has just multiplied with the popularity of online ordering.

“That has really added to that, so for us, it’s about getting the order right,” she said. “So asking, ‘Did the dressing make it in bag? Did the soup make it in the bag?’ … and all when the customer is still right in front of you.”

CEO words of wisdom

Before the session wrapped up, Kowalski asked the restaurant leaders to pitch in some of their best bits of advice for other leaders in similar roles. The responses spoke volumes about the wealth of experience the five restaurateurs brought to the discussion.

“I’m an optimist — I think we have a lot of good things ahead,” Ballard said. “But one thing I was told is, ‘Don’t get caught speeding.’ … So my mantra, with my brothers, is that we’re not afraid to say, ‘No.’ That’s really important to us.”

At Blue Lemon, Day said one of the best bits of advice he’s learned over the years is, “Never make decisions according to somebody else’s timeline.” Instead he said brand leadership should “be true to who you are and don’t deviate from that.”

Along that theme, Coors said she has learned that it’s easy with so many constant new initiatives and stores, for brand leaders to become over-occupied with the latest “new thing of the moment.”

“The new shiny object in your office is going to be the new store,” she explained. “So have somebody in charge of not … getting preoccupied with that and don’t make changes on the fly. … You’re going to have that space for 10 years and if you’re making construction changes as you’re going along, they’re not well thought out in the first place. … That just means your costs go higher and your timeline is longer.”

Smith said given the extremely crowded and competitive restaurant field at the moment, this is a particularly good time for brands to really nail down their operational foundations.

“There is definitely going to be a reset with some brands,” she told the audience. “So I think this is the time to implement those processes and procedures that will really help you last … because there will come that time where it’s survival of the fittest and that’s when it will count.”

Lastly, Pourtemour emphasized another kind of foundation: The basics of great restaurant operation, which he said amidst the onslaught of other priorities can get overlooked. He implored leaders to make special efforts to protect those key operational foundation pieces.

“Don’t forget the basics — service and food and quality,” he said. “And don’t take your guest for granted. To do that, you have to make sure your team members are really happy.

“If you can focus on that and make sure (employees) are having a great experience with you, then they’re going to make sure your guests are really happy. I think that baseline has to always exist and I think sometimes with technology and everything, we start forgetting about the core.”

The Fast Casual Executive Summit is set for Oct. 13-15 in Austin.


Republished with permission from QSRweb.

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