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Four restaurant chain CEOs dish in Dallas

Building a strong corporate culture is key to running a successful restaurant company today, agreed four CEOs of chains.

Mike Hislop of Corner Bakery Café, Mark Mednansky of Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group, Charlie Morrison of Wingstop and Jeff Sinelli of Which Wich, all headquartered in Dallas, gathered for a panel discussion during the recent International Foodservice Editorial Council conference in that Texas city. The four execs shared their thoughts on company culture and other leadership strategies.

Among the observations they offered:

Put energy into creating a corporate culture

Which Wich has worked with several leading hospitality companies—including Disney, Union Square Hospitality and Zingerman’s ZingTrain—to establish and grow its corporate culture. It starts with the shirts and extends to the fast-casual chain’s philosophy of conscious capitalism, said Sinelli, who founded the concept. “Culture eats strategy for lunch,” he concluded.

Hislop added “there’s nothing more important than evolving the culture.” Corner Bakery, a fast-casual bakery-café, touts a “culture of recognition,” highlighting frontline employees, especially the GMs who manage one or more stores.

Culture at the high-end Del Frisco’s steakhouse group revolves around FEED—Far Exceeding Expectations Daily. The company sets the bar high for its employees but always puts them first. Although the universal motto in service businesses is “the customer is always right,” we make sure to take care of our employees first to foster longevity, said Mednansky.

Listen to customers and keep up with their demands

All the panelists said they promote open communication with guests. “Our guests are very passionate and can access me and everyone else in the company directly. When we take something popular off the menu, we hear about it,” said Sinelli.

Hislop has heard time and again from customers, “if you take this off the menu, I’m never coming back.” With today’s competitive landscape, it pays to listen, he said. “They want fresh, quality food in one to two minutes, and lots of fast casuals and food trucks are delivering that. We have to keep up.”

The primary guest at the Wingstop casual wings chain is the “very demanding” millennial,” said Morrison. “We connect through social media, listen to what they’re saying and respond. It’s taking the place of mystery shopping.”

“Our guests are very vocal and we constantly talk with the people who talk with our guests—our employees and GMs,” added Mednansky.

Adapt to regional differences

Trends and tastes are different in different parts of the country, said Hislop. For example, Corner Bakery serves Cuban coffee in its Miami locations. “It’s key to let franchisees have input into the menu,” he said. Hislop said he connects with the community in each locale by spending time with his franchise partners and working the floor of the stores.

Del Frisco’s chefs are “advance men” in every city in which a unit plans to open so they can visit restaurants and get a feel for local flavors. “Twenty to 25 percent of our menu is adapted to local flavors,” Mednansky said.

All the CEOs travel extensively to check out regional preferences and sample local restaurant menus. But cuisine is not the only thing that varies around the country. “Running a restaurant in California or Boston is harder than it is in Dallas,” said Hislop. “There are legislative and wage issues that are challenging to our economic model.”

Profits are not the only driver of success

Wingstop learned a hard lesson in 2012 when chicken wing prices went through the roof. “Instead of going crazy raising menu prices or sourcing a lesser product, we focused on our guest and stayed true to the brand,” said Morrison. “You don’t want to discount the brand.”

At Which Wich, “purpose over profits” is currently guiding growth, said Sinelli. “We want to get a share of heart—not just share of stomach,” he said.

Dallas is headquarters to several major restaurant chains and the panelists agreed that its location works in their favor. The area offers a large pool of talent, a strong economy, diverse population, a conducive entrepreneurial climate and easy access to every part of the country, they asserted.

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