6 leadership ideas from cutting-edge chains

Executives from Cava, Tender Greens and Umami Burger share their winning strategies.

Tender Greens, Cava and Umami Burger have all earned a spot on the Future 50 listRestaurant Business’ annual ranking of the country’s fastest-growing small chains. So when leaders from these three emerging brands gathered for a panel during the 2018 Restaurant Leadership Conference in Phoenix, operators big and small paid attention to their winning strategies. Here are six ideas that are powering their success.

1. Foster personal growth

Tender Greens created an internship program for young adults who have grown out of foster care, said CEO Erik Oberholtzer. The Sustainable Life Project offers six-month paid internships on Tender Greens’ culinary team, after which participants are invited to apply for a job. This focus on community outreach attracts like-minded people to the chain. “A brand is measured by the company it keeps,” he said.

2. Give employees stretch assignments

Daniel del Olmo, CEO of Disruptive Restaurant Group, the parent of Umami Burger, is a big believer in stretch assignments. To allow staff members to expand their capabilities and pursue their passions, he will reassign them to another area of the company. Del Olmo cited the example of an employee who wanted to learn more about the beverage side of the business, so he created a 90-day stretch assignment for him to “spread his wings.” This strategy nurtures achievement in employees who may be struggling, he said.

3. Empower team members to improve experiences

Through the “Just Say Yes” campaign at Cava, employees are encouraged to give away something for free simply to improve the customer experience, said Brett Schulman, CEO of Cava Group. If a team member messes up the customization of a grain bowl, for example, he or she can create a new bowl without worrying about exceeding food costs. “It’s been very successful in teaching hospitality, knowing they have the full support of management,” said Schulman.

4. Develop customized loyalty programs

At Cava, the loyalty program is more about communication than a transactional exchange, said Schulman. Instead of relying on points earned, Cava tracks specific customer data to make the reward more personal. For example, a customer who always adds harissa to a bowl may get a coupon for a free jar of harissa from Cava’s retail line along with a recipe from Cava’s chef for using it at home.

5. Take a holistic view

Umami Burger was a hit out of the gate, but was losing traffic because of its lack of menu flexibility, said del Olmo. A new 360-degree plan focuses on four P’s: people, product, place and promotion. The chain is ramping up menu innovation and enlivening the experience in each restaurant. “First and foremost, know your customer,” he told attendees.

6. Slow the pace of growth, if necessary

Tender Greens is growing, but not too fast. “To build up our talent pool and supply chain, the pace of growth has to be kept slower,” said Oberholtzer. This is especially relevant with the brand’s emphasis on local sourcing as it expands. Before opening in New York City this year, Tender Greens had to plug into the local boutique supply chain—a move facilitated by its partnership with Danny Meyer. Chefs at other Union Square Hospitality restaurants introduced Oberholtzer to their farmer partners and he was able to get the local ingredients he needed.

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