Successful brand leaders share advice, tips and industry insight

| by Travis Wagoner
Successful brand leaders share advice, tips and industry insight

Pete Turner, left, founder, Illegal Pete's; Gerry O'Brion, speaker and author of "What Big Brands Know"; Tom Ryan, co-founder and chief concept officer, Smashburger; and John Offerdahl, owner and founder, Offerdahl's Cafe Grill.

It's not often one can hear three fast casual restaurant operators and a speaker and author share their insights about their industry, much less all four in hour. That’s what happened during a session called "Four: 15" held in late October at the Fast Casual Executive Summit in Miami.

Attendees heard four 15-minute, thought-provoking talks from Gerry O'Brion, speaker and author of "What Big Brands Know;" John Offerdahl, owner and founder of Offerdahl's Café Grill; Pete Turner, founder of Illegal Pete's and Tom Ryan, co-founder and chief concept officer of Smashburger. The session was moderated by Dave Brewer, COO, cooking solutions, of Middleby Corporation.

O'Brion was the first speaker and he brought with him a wealth of information, saying that the American fast casual food sales growth has increased 600 percent since 1999, and that 1 million restaurants will open by the end of this year. Many will fail, however, unless brands "Find ways to give your customers more of what they want and less of what they don't," he said.

He went on to talk about the importance of a restaurant operator's brand, which includes the front-line staff.

"Your brand is built on the front lines with each transaction," O'Brion said. "With fast casuals, there's great food, an inspired environment, no disengaged servers and your customers can refill their water whenever they want to. That's all built on the front line. However, the pay they receive often does not reflect the impact they have on your restaurant."

O'Brion also talked about the millennial generation being of great importance to the fast casual concept.

"Ninety-two percent of millennials believe business success should be measured by more than just profit," O'Brion said. "What are you doing to make this happen? They want you to do more than just make money."

From there, O'Brion explained what he calls the "restaurant formula." A fast casual operator must have a restaurant "type” and a "category," which, according to O'Brion, equals the "commodity."

"What’s your big idea?" O'Brion said. "What’s your 'because?' There is power in the 'because.' "

To illustrate his point, O'Brion used Papa John's Pizza's slogan: "Better Ingredients. Better Pizza."

"The 'because' is better ingredients," O'Brion said. "The 'idea' is better pizza. Make your 'idea' and your 'because' believable and repeatable."

The next speaker was John Offerdahl, restaurateur and former All-Pro linebacker for the Miami Dolphins NFL team. His concept, Offerdahl's Café Grill, has six locations in Florida. The fast casual is the creation of John and his wife, Lynn , who started a tiny bagel shop serving oversized, fresh-baked bagels in 10 varieties. The first Offerdahl's Bagel Gourmet shop opened in Weston, Florida, in 1990 during the heyday of Offerdahl’s football career and grew to 10 stores before he retired from both football and bagels in 1995.

Filling his days with golf, family and friends wasn’t enough for Offerdahl. He missed the restaurant business, and in 2000 decided to open a new version of Offerdahl's by expanding the menu and developing the Offerdahl's Café Grill fast casual concept a new concept. The restaurant serves up fire-grilled steak, chicken, salmon and shrimp served over rice or quinoa. There are also salads with a signature homemade dressings and sauces, and a bakery café with an assortment soups, sandwiches, coffees and fresh-baked gourmet bagels, croissants, baguettes and pastries.

Offerdahl repeatedly emphasized a lesson he learned as a child. Sitting on his nightstand was an old sign depicting football players wearing leather helmets and engraved with a quote by President Theodore Roosevelt: "In life, as in a football game, the principle to follow, is: Hit the line hard! Don’t foul. Don’t shirk. Hit the line hard."

It became his philosophy for life. He began attending college in 1982 at Western Michigan University as a walk-on football player. Four years later, in the 1986 Senior Bowl, that walk-on stopped 1985 Heisman Trophy winner and NFL legend Bo Jackson in a goal-line stand.

Offerdahl took his inspiration from "hit the line hard" into his restaurant concept.

"Prioritize your purpose and put it into action," he said.

Regarding his customers, Offerdahl said, "We’re in the business of making people feel great. Doing it right is the long road, but it's the right road."

He closed by stating, "Figure out your purpose, put in a little pep, and get the prize!"

Following Offerdahl was Pete Turner. His Illegal Pete’s restaurant has six locations in Colorado and one in Tucson, Arizona. Illegal Pete's, a Mexican fast casual concept, serves all-natural, antibiotic-free, hormone-free meats. It features all-natural, preservative-free tortillas, including a whole-wheat option, and using fresh produce and dairy products.

"Everything at Illegal Pete's is hand made from real ingredients, by real people," Turner said. "From burritos, bowls and tacos to chips, cookies and margaritas, it's all made right here. No microwaves, no shortcuts."

Turner opened his first restaurant in 1995, in Boulder, Colorado.

"I wanted to create a fun and energetic atmosphere with music playing, employees having fun, and I wanted to include our customers in the fun," Turner said

Inspired by the name of a bar in a novel, he chose "Illegal Pete's" to convey the unique, countercultural atmosphere he wanted to foster. It was also a personal choice.

"The name resonated with me for the obvious reason that my name is Pete, but of equal importance, it was my father's name," Turner said. "He was also a bit of a good-natured hell-raiser in his day, and he was my moral support during the months leading to opening and the two years of operation up to his death in August 1997."

Turner spent his 15 minutes talking mostly about his employees and customers.

"We try to balance a healthy profit with doing the right thing," Turner said. "We believe in taking care of our people."

He went on to explain "Illegal Pete’s 2015 Living Wage Initiative," which was enacted on June 1 — without a price increase to menu items.

"It was the equivalent of each employee getting a $3,000 raise," Turner said. "The initial cost set us back negative 3.20 percent. But now in October new sales are up by 3.60 percent, and our projected gains are 5.45 percent for a net company impact of plus 2.25 percent."

Illegal Pete's Living Wage Initiative means a full-time hourly wage sufficient to provide the necessities and comforts essential to an acceptable standard of living, which, according to Turner, includes "housing, food, clothing, healthcare, education, savings, leisure and free time with family and loved ones."

The result of the initiative paid off.

"We have an engaged, motivated staff and customer loyalty," Turner said. "We also recruit the best talent, get positive publicity, give our employees the ability to plan for their future and have fun! I hear our front-line employees talk about being able to buy homes and cars, and that feels good."

Turner also stated that 1-in-10 people in the U.S. are employed by the restaurant industry. That's 14 million Americans and growing.

"As we plan for our successful future, we ask for our employees to do the same," Turner said.

The final speaker was Tom Ryan, founder of Smashburger. Ryan's fast casual burger restaurant has more than 300 corporate and franchise restaurants operating in 32 states and five countries.

"In the mid-1990s, people began adopting the aesthetic part of food into their lives," Ryan said in beginning his address.

He also discussed his three key truths that have helped him succeed.

"First is the concept of fast casual," Ryan said. "Are quick serve restaurants ready for the next generation?"

"Second is food with a story," Ryan said. "That story needs to make people feel good. It involves your ingredients, sauces, how you treat the animals you use and how you treat people."

Ryan then explained his third key truth and belief: the age of 32.

"There’s something magic about 32," Ryan said. “You're not too old to be too old. Modern brands need to study what works to stay perpetually 32. Every few years you need to re-evaluate your stores’ music, décor and employee attire. Your food needs to have a story."

Ryan concluded by stating his three "mandatories" when running a restaurant.

"One, you need a strong, consumer-facing model," he said. "Two, you need an effective business model. And three, you need a shareholder value and structure. Value, food quality and experience are resonating with consumers."

Topics: Customer Experience, Employee Training, Fast Casual Executive Summit, Marketing, Merchandising, Workforce Management

Travis Wagoner

Travis Wagoner spent nearly 18 years in education as an alumni relations and communications director, coordinating numerous annual events and writing, editing and producing a quarterly, 72-plus-page magazine. Travis also was a ghostwriter for an insurance firm, writing about the Affordable Care Act. He holds a BA degree in communications/public relations from Xavier University.

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