Top independents offer lessons for chain operators

Donnie Madia; Photograph by Brian Willette

Kevin Boehm, co-founder of Boka Restaurant Group; and Donnie Madia, managing partner and owner of One Off Restaurant Group, are two of the nation’s savviest and most respected restaurant operators. On Monday afternoon, they’ll join Sara Rush Wirth, executive editor of Restaurant Business magazine, in a session called “What Can Chains Learn from Independents?”

kevin boehm

Kevin Boehm

Boehm and Madia recently touched on some of the challenges and advantages facing independent restaurants:

With the labor shortage, smart recruitment and retention strategies are essential. How have you adapted?

Kevin Boehm: We like to look for people in unusual places. For instance, one of our directors came from a background working for Microsoft and has applied those skills in leading our strategic initiatives team. Also, as your business grows, you build more opportunities for people. When we first opened Boka, we didn’t have positions like director of operations or head of social media, but as the business grew, so did our team.

It’s important to get creative to show your team how much you value them, so we do whatever we can to celebrate our people and make them feel acknowledged and appreciated. 

Donnie Madia: At One Off, we develop opportunities, resulting in a strong track record of cultivating hospitality professionals to go on and thrive in the industry both within our organization and beyond. Engagement is key; employees want to truly understand the inner workings of the organization. To accomplish this, we have kicked off a broad monthly meeting that, in the most transparent way, celebrates our wins and identifies our challenges.  Why? We want the strength of our workforce to participate in and collaborate on solving problems. This speaks to our culture which really does value every person within our business.  

How has your approach to marketing evolved in recent years? 

KB: In the early days we would pay for print ads, but now everything is almost exclusively PR- and social media-driven. There’s a cost to having outstanding PR and social-media practices, but it’s an investment that’s well worth it. At Boka, we try to tell the stories of each of our properties through a cohesive voice. 

DM: We recently hired an in-house marketing professional and a dedicated social-media coordinator to work in tandem with our PR agency. The three-pronged approach allows us to grasp a deeper knowledge of new trends.

Where do you think independents have the biggest edge over chain restaurants?

DM: One Off’s entire ethos is that with every restaurant we open, it’s a fresh, new idea. We are always breaking the status quo and challenging ourselves not to be repetitive. You can see that dining trends have shifted more this way. If you look at our market, there’s a huge transformation in airport dining—they know that diners want unique, local restaurants.

KB: Today’s society celebrates the unique and the individual, because consumers want to feel like they are part of something special, and that holds true with restaurants. Each of the concepts that we have opened at Boka Restaurant Group is completely unique from the others. Chains face a big challenge to overcome feeling generic and it takes a hyper-local approach to make each unit not feel so mass-produced.

Attend “Winning at the Restaurant Business: Insights from the Top 500” on Monday, May 20 at 2:00 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom (S100), South Hall.

This post is sponsored by The National Restaurant Association®

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