When an unfamiliar car took the spot where Dwaine Stoneroad usually parks his vehicle outside the O’Charley’s he manages in Charleston, S.C., customers acted as if they’d spied a “Going Out of Business” sign on the door.
“My car had to go into the shop and I got a loaner,” Stoneroad recalls, sounding as astonished as anyone that regulars had noticed. “They came in and said, ‘We weren’t going to come in because we didn’t see your car. We didn’t think you were here anymore.’”
It’s not a boast but a reflection of how much Stoneroad has influenced the operation, to the expressed delight of guests, employees and chain owner alike.
“I’ve been in the business 25 years. I’ve never met anyone who owns his restaurant the way Dwaine does,” says his boss, Tamatha “Tammy” Padgett, senior operations director for O’Charley’s. “He’s got a huge following.”
Popularity doesn’t propel a manager to General Manager of the Year, the award Stoneroad earned in the full-service chain category of Restaurant Business’ industrywide competition for 2023. What tips the scoring is how adeptly a unit chief handles the gazillion challenges of the job. And no one seems to relish a test of their mettle like the one-time sport star.
Put a ranking next to his or his unit’s performance and he won’t ease off until it’s No. 1. As Stoneroad acknowledges with pride, he won’t let up whether he’s vying for the most tour-bus business or the lowest food costs.
“If our company puts on a contest, I pump the staff up and usually we win it,” he says matter-of-factly. “I have the drive and want results and know how to get results.”
That includes running the tightest kitchen in the 104-unit O’Charley’s chain, hands-down, says Padgett.
Stoneroad even counsels fellow GMs as part of his training to move up the chain’s hierarchy. He recalls walking into a restaurant recently that had tied up money by stockpiling 16 days of supplies. “I said to the manager, ‘How are you going to drop money to the bottom line like that?’”
In terms of financial performance, his unit leads O’Charley’s in sales growth, with revenues running about 13% above the year-ago level, according to the company.
That’s due in part to a drive Stoneroad conceptualized and undertook on his own to land more tour-bus business. That, in turn, involved creating a special bus-tour menu for his restaurant and streamlining service to get the groups in and out within an hour.
“Any type of change, I like to pick his brain,” says Padgett. “He thinks greatly about how to get results, maybe in a different way.”
With every financial metric O’Charley’s uses to rate stores, she continues, Stoneroad’s unit invariably ends up with one of the three top scores.
One of the things Stoneroad seems to loath more than being an also-ran is getting to first place by acting like a drill sergeant. His first restaurant job was bussing dishes at age 14 in a family-owned independent where screaming and cursing at the staff were prime management tools. The 43-year-old has made it his prime directive to lead without raising his voice.
“I make that point in the job interview,” Stoneroad says. “I tell them, ‘This is an environment where you won’t get cursed at, you won’t get yelled at. I’m going to tell you when you do good, I’m going to tell you when you do bad. Then I’m going to tell you how to fix it.’”
Indeed, the GM says that talking with the employees, coaching them through a rough spot or teaching them how to handle a situation, is his favorite part of the job. It’s what he learned from being coached during a promising football career that included being recruited to play for the University of Pittsburgh.
Stoneroad chose the school because he wanted to be a dentist, “and they had the best dental school in the nation,” he says. He also realized he was unlikely to play in the NFL because he lacked the size of, say, his brother, whose greater heft landed an invitation to play for Ohio State.
To earn spending money, he got a job as a busser in a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. A manager realized that Stoneroad had skills that not only exceeded the demands of his position but were exceptionally well suited for restaurant work.
“He really took me under his wings,” says Stoneroad. “He said, ‘You’re really good at this. You like talking to people, and you understand how things work. You should really consider making a career in this.’ I went from busser to server to head server. [But] I really just laughed. I said, ‘I’m going to school for dentistry.’”
Stoneroad completed the undergraduate dental program and progressed to the clinical portion of his instruction, where he’d actually drill and fill the teeth of volunteers who wanted free treatment.
“I realized, ‘This isn’t for me, this is disgusting,’” he recalls.
He switched his majors to business and finance while continuing to work for Ruth’s Chris, shifting his energy and determination to a restaurant career. He landed a job at a Ryan’s Steakhouse.
“One day a man came in, a guy who had watched me, and said, ‘I love what you’re doing. You talk to people,’” Stoneroad continues. “He brought me into O’Charley’s.” He was 23 years old.
“I really thought it was a career for me at that point,” he says. “I like that it was fast-paced and changing every day.” He seemed to excel at it, moving up the ranks to become a general manager.
Along the way he met his wife, who is now also a GM for the chain. They coordinate their schedules to meet their responsibilities as parents to their young son.
“I work five days a week, but my phone is always on. My managers underneath me, they might work 43, 48 hours a week. I might work, 48 or 50. That’s it,” he says.
“A typical Monday, I get to work about 6, do an inventory, get everything set up, do some paperwork, mop the floor, go to the bank. And then it’s time for lunch,” he says. “Then we stock the line for the evening and hopefully get out by 5.”
“I don’t sit and wait around, I’m always on the floor. You’ll never see me in the office,” he continues. “We have a good time. We joke around, we play, and definitely compete. We’re very driven.”
His staff adores him, says Padgett. “They’ll take a bullet for him,” she remarks.
They also know what will set him off.
“My staff knows me pretty well,” he explains. “If I get upset, I start whistling. When I start whistling, they start puckering a little. They say, ‘Uh-oh, Dwaine’s whistling.’”
“The turnover I do have, it usually comes down to people being late, or a no call/no show,” he continues. “I don’t put up with it. It’s a matter of picking up the phone and being respectful. I tell them in the interview, don’t do that and you’re not likely to be fired.”
Stoneroad is currently training to become an area manager by visiting other stores and sharing his operational and financial wisdom. “I’ve been out of my store now two or three days a week for two or three months,” he says.
“As part of his development, he participates in a lot of director functions,” says Padgett. “He’s always thinking outside the box. He will definitely make it.”
Part of the role is recognizing talent, a task that has him wondering if his son, the offspring of two GMs, might follow his parents into the role.
“He’s only 4,” says Stoneroad, “but I told him, ‘The last thing you’re going to do is work in restaurants.’
“Then we went out to eat. He looked at the table and said sort of loudly, ‘Where’s my food?’
“I thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a restaurant manager.’”
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