If there’s one thing to be learned from interviewing top restaurateurs, it’s that leadership isn’t built on fortune cookie-style doctrines. It’s practiced through trial and error, and some of the most inspiring success stories are more a matter of luck and guts than wit and wisdom. To mark our third Leadership issue, here are some of our favorite contrarian insights from the leaders we’ve profiled over the past year.
1. You can kill a popular item if it’s for the greater good
Nixing Chick-fil-A’s famed coleslaw in order to steer toward less-processed options pitted David Farmer against the chain’s fans and owners. The herculean effort it took to pull off the switch has been worth it, Farmer told RB in May. Swaying suppliers, reviewing pricing and rethinking operations paid off in an enviable sales bump and “cleaner” sides outselling the slaw. “Customers have gone from counting calories to counting chemicals,” he said. “It’s happening, and not just for us.”
2. Don’t leave the table during a lucky streak
Ed Doherty, chairman and co-CEO, Doherty Enterprises
After a fortuitous venture with a portfolio of Roy Rogers units eventually went south, Doherty—a Marriott warhorse—cold-called Applebee’s to request a franchise. His lack of capital was met with hesitation, but the optimist was not deterred. “I got lucky,” he told RB; his request was fielded by a key Applebee’s player who took a liking to Doherty and guided him through the process. Fast forward to 107 Applebee’s and, much later, an empire comprising five franchised concepts and two original brands.
3. Low risk, big reward
Aziz Hashim, managing partner, NRD Capital
Having sunk his parents’ life savings into an Atlanta KFC, which would grow into several, Hashim became nervous having all his eggs in one basket—so he expanded into other area concepts. But his units were batted around by the economic woes of a single market. Lesson learned: He diversified into a multistate franchisee. Hashim has since translated the experience into a new business model—an investment fund that lets franchisees share the risk of brand ownership in exchange for chances to help facilitate growth.
4. Embracing the ‘I’ in team
Portillo credits his military background with instilling in him an appreciation for organization and training. That philosophy led him to buck the tradition of cross-utilization in favor of an operating model where employees stay in their lanes. At Portillo’s, people focus on their specialties—a structure the founder likens to a grid; jumping around from square to square leads to problems, he believes. “When [guests] place an order, a unique chain reaction is created,” he told RB. That chain reaction is key to the Portillo’s experience.