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Leadership

Meet the least-known successful exec in restaurants

Boyd Hoback may be the most successful restaurant executive you’ve never heard of.

As CEO and president of Good Times Restaurants, the one-time busboy oversees a two-concept public company with wide-open expansion prospects and little of the financial trauma deviling higher-profile operations.

Good Times Burgers and Frozen Custard, the concern’s 34-unit flagship, has been one of the few quick-service chains to see its traffic grow, with same-store sales for the quarter ended Sept. 26 rising by 3.9%. Rarer still was the positive comp figure for sister concept Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar, a full-service upstart that bucked casual dining’s malaise to post a 1.4% rise.

More puzzling is why the spotlight missed Hoback when he made changes that were met with cymbal crashes when announced years later by bigger operations. Panera Bread Co. was heralded as a visionary for deciding in 2015 to strip additives from its food. Hoback led Good Times Burgers in doing the same—starting in 2003.

So why the low profile?

A one-job career

For one thing, Hoback hasn’t bounced from one operation to another. “I’ve never had to interview for a job,” says the 62-year-old. “I’ve had one job my whole life.”

The 47-year employment run began when Hobacck landed a busboy’s position at 15 with Round the Corner, a full-service burger chain operating in Colorado. He kept working there through high school and college, where he earned a degree in finance.

With good grades and a degree from the University of Colorado Boulder, Hoback figured law school would be his next step. He’d already bought his books and been accepted when the principals of Round the Corner suggested an alternative.

“The guys who I was working for said, ‘Hey, why don’t you put that on hold and let us show you the other aspects of the business?’—marketing, site selection, human resources,” Hoback recalls. “Once I made that commitment, that was it.”

Starting on a low rung of the ladder, Hoback says, has imbued him with empathy for the people working in GTR’s stores. “We don’t tolerate screamers and yellers,” he says. “We try to be non-corporate in our approach. We want folks in every level to feel free to give ideas.”

Rising up the ladder as the company grew showed him how a brand evolves.

“The part that really hooked me was trying to stay ahead of the curve from the consumer standpoint—keeping interest in the brand, particularly as the brand grows older,” he recall

Betting on something ‘out there’

Eventually, his employer decided that a younger, convenience-driven spinoff would be a good complement to Round the Corner. They hit on the idea of a quick-service restaurant serving burgers of a quality consumers associate with a full-service place like Round the Corner, but with more moderate prices. It was essentially the rationale for the host of better-burger fast-casual chains that would follow.

The result was the launch of Good Times Drive-Thru Burgers in 1987 (the name changed after frozen treats like Spoonbenders, a Blizzard-like concoction, became a signature). Hoback was tapped to head the venture. It would eventually outstrip Round the Corner, which fizzled into bankruptcy.

Good Times wasn’t without its downturns, either. The Great Recession walloped the brand, which at one point boasted about 52 stores. The plan to buy another chain’s stores and convert them into Good Times restaurants didn’t deliver the instant growth anticipated by the home office. At one point, in 2009, the company hired a financial advisor to explore a sale or other options.

But Hoback recalls how the team decided to ignore the odds and just forge ahead with an adjusted strategic plan. It included a bet the public would embrace a burger made with additive-free beef from ranches that used no hormones.

“It fit well with the rest of our brand,” says Hoback. “We always wanted Good Times at the high end of QSR. We really tried to make the connection between ‘all-natural’ and ‘tasting better,’ and to keep away from the whole healthier thing. It was only later that the whole hormone-free thing became of interest.”

The move, he acknowledges, was a little “out there,” but it fits the regional chain’s strategy, then and now. “We look at what the big guys can’t and won’t do,” Hoback explains. “The supply chain wasn’t there for the big guys to go to all-natural.”

The message indeed became a perceived point of distinction for Good Times Burgers, which is concentrated in Colorado (the only stores outside the state are two in Wyoming.) Operating in that environment, with its high real estate costs and tight, pricey labor supply, prompted GTR to start thinking about diversifying again, this time into something with higher volumes.

Casual dining? Really?

Hoback and his team looked at about three-dozen concepts in hopes of finding a good growth vehicle for the company. The intention was to stay away from burgers, but nothing they encountered seemed to fit.

Among Hoback’s restaurant friends was Dennis Thompson, the co-creator of LoneStar Steakhouse, Fox & Hounds and Bailey’s. Thompson had a new full-service concept called Bad Daddy’s that was getting attention in the Carolinas with its in-your-face attitude, lively bar and over-the-top Bad Ass burgers. Given a peek behind the curtain, Hoback saw a differentiated concept with high volumes (it now averages about $2.7 million in annual unit sales), healthy margins (currently at about 20%) and a modest footprint. Casual dining was tanking, in part because of commoditization, but Bad Daddy’s presented strong unit economics.

Good Times Restaurants struck a deal to develop stores in Colorado and leave the Eastern Seaboard to Thompson and his team. Good Times acquired 48% of Bad Daddy’s, and, after liking what it saw, bought the other 52% for $21 million.
“It’s worked out better than we expected,” Hoback says. “Lots of white space for this concept.” The chain today has 25 units, including 12 in Colorado.

The acquisition has made Good Times Restaurants what Hoback calls “a legitimate public company,” with annual revenues of roughly $100 million, institutional investors among its stockholders, and an infrastructure in place. “We’re well beyond the entrepreneurial stage, and that was one of the benefits of the Bad Daddy’s acquisition,” he says.

But the entry into casual dining has posed some leadership challenges. With Bad Daddy’s, “there’s this gravitational pull to do what the other guys are doing and we don’t want to fall into that,” he says. “We’re not doing a Bloomin’ Onion. You might see similar items on our menu, but we’re not going to copy what everyone else is doing.

“To remain true to that is one of my major responsibilities,” he says.

Culture care

He also cites an emphasis on maintaining two distinct cultures. Each brand has its own support team, and they’re different by design. A QSR chain like Good Times Burgers “is really a lot of little factories. We’re really process-driven,” explains Hoback. “Bad Daddy’s, on the other hand, is a very hospitality-driven experience. It’s an hour visit.”

Checks average $18.50, with about 20% of sales coming from the bar, “so we have some leeway” on the profit side, he notes.

Still, there’s a challenge “to keep the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed and not let get things wobbly, particularly at the unit level.”

Internally, Hoback says, the guiding principle is known as “fun and firm”—“fun at the unit level, but with firm boundaries and expectations in place.”

The approach echoes what Hoback says is his business philosophy: “Our bottom line is process-driven, our topline is people driven.”

His how-to book, he says, “starts with that, and being as clear as you can be. And, finally, defining a very clear path.

“We’re at a huge inflection point right now—we have said to our investors that we can grow our cash flow by 40 to 50% per year,” Hoback says.

The secret, he says, is “spending a lot of time to determine what is really important to our people, the ones who execute the concept every day for our guest.”

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