Sammie Flippen always works long days on Fridays.
As the new restaurant opening (NRO) general manager at a Noodles & Company in Colorado Springs, Colo., those are some of the busiest days for her location, and Flippen prides herself on lending an extra hand to her team.
One Friday in March of last year, there had been a snowstorm, which typically leads to more delivery orders. The end of her shift had rolled around, but the orders were still coming in, so the 31-year-old manager stayed a bit later to make sure her team was OK.
That is typical behavior for Flippen, who is known in her market for helping understaffed locations. But little did Flippen know that the decision to stay later would lead her to a lifelong best friend.
Flippen answered the phone, expecting a quick call. But there was a problem. The lady on the other end wanted to place a delivery order, something Flippen’s location does not do over the phone. When Flippen explained this to the customer, the line got quiet.
“She's like, ‘Listen, I'm 77 years old, I'm really hungry, I haven't eaten all day—I need help,’ and I was like ‘Yep, I'm gonna help you,’ so I dropped everything I was doing, kind of abandoned ship if you will, and went straight to our back-of-house computer,” Flippen said.
Flippen takes pride in serving everybody from the customers who visit her location to the associates who run the operation. But her service doesn’t stop at the four walls of her restaurant, so when she realized the lady on the other end of the phone was calling from Arizona, Flippen’s desire to help did not budge.
She learned the customer’s name was Lu and began trying to find a Noodles location near her home when another problem arose—Lu’s closest Noodles location was about 70 miles away. Flippen told Lu about the dilemma when she realized there had been another miscommunication.
“She goes, ‘I'm trying to order pizza,’ and I'm like, ‘OK I can do pizza.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, pizza? You got it, we got this,’ and the whole time she's like, ‘I don’t understand why you're being so nice to me.’ I'm like, ‘Oh, just let me take care of you,’” Flippen said.
She stayed on the phone with Lu while she tried to find a pizza restaurant that would deliver to her. Finally, Flippen went to third-party delivery apps and located a Papa John’s close to Lu. She ordered two large pizzas, gave the customer her cell number and refused to take her credit card details to pay for the meal.
“She starts crying, and I start crying,” Flippen said. “She's like, ‘I don't understand … why you're being so nice,’ and I'm like, ‘Well, you're hungry, and you said you needed help.’”
That is exactly the philosophy that drives Flippen’s leadership—a willingness to lend a hand with no hesitation. Now, Flippen calls Lu “Grandma Lu,” and they FaceTime once a week.
Stephanie Nguyen, Noodles’ area manager for Southern Colorado, said it’s typical of Flippen to drop everything to help.
“I don’t think she even hesitates, even thinks twice about it, or even really acknowledges that what she does is such a big deal for other people,” Nguyen said.
When a Noodles location in the nearby area became short-staffed due to wildfires, Flippen quickly left her shift and drove over to assist the struggling restaurant.
“She had multiple team members in evac zones that no longer had a way to get home or needed to get there to check and see if things are okay, and she just drove them and that’s just the kind of thing that she does,” Nguyen said.
Flippen said it’s a two-way street. She noted that helping other stores gives her the opportunity to get out of her four walls and learn from her peers.
“If you're in a restaurant every day and you see the same four walls, we do the same routine day in, day out—you kind of get blinders on to an extent,” she said. “One of my favorite things about the job is there’s always something to learn. There’s always something that could be better. I like challenges. I like being able to solve problems and being able to identify something and see if there’s an opportunity to make it better.”
Flippen considers herself to be a “Noodles lifer” and says that she plans to still be with the company in five years, hopefully in the training department. Her Noodles journey started 11 years ago with a position that doesn’t exist anymore—a salad server. She quickly cross-trained and was promoted to shift manager within six months. She remained in that role for several years before being promoted to assistant manager.
Flippen then served as general manager for about seven years and, in March, was promoted to the title of NRO general manager.
If you're in a restaurant every day and you see the same four walls, we do the same routine day in, day out—you kind of get blinders on to an extent. One of my favorite things about the job is there’s always something to learn. There’s always something that could be better. I like challenges. I like being able to solve problems and being able to identify something and see if there’s an opportunity to make it better. -Sammie Flippen.
Running a high-performing location
Flippen thrives in a fast-paced work environment, and her store’s operational standards are a testament to that fact. The unit has seen growth, even during less-than-ideal conditions such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, while facing labor shortages and supply chain challenges, Flippen was able to retain and increase her staffing numbers.
The team went through a few weeks of uncertainty, but sales soon exploded as a result of off-premise orders. “We sang and danced through more high-volume, sales-record days throughout COVID than anything else,” she said.
Flippen took on the challenges of the industry with the mindset of putting people first and making sure not only the customers, but her team, felt taken care of.
“It’s incredibly important to me to serve the people, obviously, who come into your building, but more importantly, you’re at a service to your team members and the people you’re responsible for,” she said. “Your service you’re providing is that in-depth training, that development, personal growth.”
She tried to keep morale up through a light-hearted atmosphere and cracking jokes with her team. That work culture appears to have helped with retention—she noted that some of the people who applied in 2020 are still employed at her restaurant today.
In 2018, Flippen’s restaurant averaged $30,000 in sales a week and garnered $1.5 million annually. In 2020, the location saw an average unit volume (AUV) of over $2 million. And the growth didn’t stop there; her store now averages around $40,000 a week and more than $2.25 million in annual sales. Flippen’s restaurant’s performance led to her being included in the first group of managers to receive Noodles’ Restricted Stock Unit Grant, which is given out based on performance.
She attributes her store’s growth to simple adjustments she made early on, including following proper procedures and routines for processes such as prep and pull. She said she didn’t see results right away, but around 2018, she noticed improvements in food quality and team friendliness.
Investment in the community is another initiative Flippen says contributed to her restaurant’s growth. She has a goal of hosting a benefit night at least once a quarter, and said Noodles is very supportive of her efforts.
“I think really interacting and being involved with your community and caring about your community and making those adjustments to serve them better, have better food, have higher standards of quality food, have better standards of interactions—it made a huge difference,” she said.
I have regulars that have been coming in this building for the seven years that I’ve been here that know me by name, that I get big old warm hugs from. Even if they don’t come in very often, when they come in, it’s so rewarding to have that connection with the community and, more so, watching my team interact with those regulars. -Sammie Flippen.
Learning beyond her four walls
Another part of her job that takes her beyond her location is her role in new restaurant openings, which is a point of passion for Flippen. In the last two years, she has had the opportunity to travel to several states and help with about 10 new restaurant openings. She also spends a lot of time running training camps and mentoring managers in the area.
Watching her mentees go from timid in interviews to running shifts flawlessly is a point of pride for Flippen. She said that she still maintains relationships with the managers she has mentored, who often call her to share their successes or ask for advice.
Nguyen describes the work culture of Flippen’s restaurant as fun and supportive, with excellent communication between the front and back of house. Nguyen noted that Flippen has never met a stranger and that nearly every third person that comes into the restaurant is someone the GM is well acquainted with.
“I have regulars that have been coming in this building for the seven years that I’ve been here that know me by name, that I get big old warm hugs from. Even if they don’t come in very often, when they come in, it’s so rewarding to have that connection with the community and, more so, watching my team interact with those regulars,” Flippen said.
One of Flippen’s best qualities as a general manager, according to Nguyen, is the support she brings to her team.
Flippen celebrates diversity and said she wants her team to feel like the restaurant is a safe place to leave negativity behind. “I also believe in people being who they are,” she said. “I don't need people to be anything than that, other than what they are, and I'll support them.”
In addition, she is a member of Noodles’ Proud resource group, which provides support for LGBT+ staff.
“Being a member of the LGBT community, that’s something that’s really important to me,” she said. “I think that we live in a country and, definitely, a community where diversity absolutely needs to be celebrated, and aside from the celebration, I also think that diversity needs to be acknowledged and understood on a deeper level.”
The Proud resource group was particularly helpful for Flippen after a shooting took place last November at Club Q, an LGBT+ nightclub in Colorado Springs.
“It was really hard. I had a general manager that was there about an hour or so before the shooting started. My wife and I used to go there, at Club Q, gosh, almost every weekend when we lived closer to it,” Flippen said. “And I think for the other general manager and for myself that live here in the Springs that were affected by this, there’s nothing that speaks more about caring about your people and your community than having an open forum to be able to express that and grieve with those people.”
Outside of running a high-performing Noodles location, Flippen has an active family life. Flippen has been with her wife, Shinae, for 11 years, and they have a 12-year-old son. In their free time, their family likes to watch college football and especially enjoys spending time outside.
Despite her busy lifestyle, Flippen’s positive attitude does not waver.
“All of the stuff that she does within her four walls and her restaurant and helping them build sales and helping keep her team’s culture—all of that doesn’t even mention the fact that she has a younger son at home and a wife and has to balance all of that, and she just does it with a smile,” said Nguyen.
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