LAS VEGAS — You haven’t really worked in the restaurant industry if you haven’t had a near-death experience, Cava CEO Brett Schulman joked during a panel at the Restaurant Finance & Development Conference on Tuesday.
Schulman’s quip, in reference to the stress he felt after buying “melting ice cube” Zoe’s Kitchen in 2018, was met with chuckles onstage and in the RFDC audience. The rules of the restaurant sector are sink or swim, and Schulman said he had worried the acquisition would “drown the business overall,” and that the transition from leading about 70 restaurants to over 250 overnight was “very painful.”
During the same panel, Golden Corral CEO Lance Trenary spoke of how scary it was to adapt his buffet business to survive pandemic dining room restrictions as fellow buffet chains went under.
Today, these fears are in the rearview mirror. Cava completed its conversions of Zoe’s Kitchen units and posted a Q3 revenue increase of 49.5% to $173.8 million, and Golden Corral is attracting new franchisees. But there is still plenty keeping restaurant CEOs up at night, like unbussed tables, Trenary joked.
Schulman, along with Caribou Coffee CEO John Butcher and Chicken Salad Chick CEO Scott Deviney, dished to conference attendees about the concerns they can’t shake.
Caribou Coffee’s CEO doesn’t want scale to compromise franchisee quality
“What keeps me up at night is twofold. One is just looking for all cracks in things that can break when you're scaling a brand. We opened up 84 new locations last year and we're knocking on the door of triple digit [new openings] this year, and we have big expectations for next year. All of the systems, processes, everything has been designed so that in 30 years it still works really well. … So that’s what we’ve been working hard on for the last couple of years, is to identify [problems] so we can get ahead of [them] for our franchise partners,” Butcher said.
“The second piece is just inviting the right franchisees into our family. Franchising, as you know, is a marriage. We’ve said no probably 10 to one compared to who we’ve said yes to, because we want to make sure that we find partners that are right for us. I think right now, this is probably the most important phase of our company’s history.”
Cava’s CEO feels responsible for workers’ professional and personal fulfillment
“What keeps me up at night? Everything,” Schulman said. “I think right now though — we’re all corporate-owned restaurants — I think it’s the mental health of our teams. We’re living in a really challenging world. And I’m worried very deeply about the burnout of our team members.”
“We’re very focused on making sure we’re supporting them both personally and professionally because all of our team members are looking to us as leaders now, not just to lead them in their professional careers, but really give them leadership in their personal life because they’re not getting it from traditional institutions. So that’s something we’re really focused on.”
Chicken Salad Chick’s CEO fears regulations, poor employee treatment could stifle industry growth
“The restaurant industry in general has been a wonderful launchpad for so many different people — millionaires are people who used to wash dishes, all this great stuff. Franchising is the American dream, with the backstop of a franchisor behind you. If you do it well, it’s very very lucrative, and you can change people’s lives. And like what happened years ago, when we kind of took manufacturing and blue collar jobs out of the U.S., right now, I think there’s an attack on our industry,” Deviney said.
“Some of [this trend] is [the industry’s] own fault because we treated employees not very well … and those people are leaving to go drive for Uber Eats or Uber or Amazon. They’re finding anything to do other than work in a restaurant because [the industry] didn’t treat them very well. But also you have political things going on that are attacking what you pay people — they are trying to make this industry not what it is, which is a great launch pad for careers. That’s what bothers me.”