Like many folks getting into the restaurant business, Tad Peelen (pictured here on the left with his business partners) made a switch after spending many years in a different field. He was in corporate communications at American Airlines for seventeen years before helping start Joe’s Real BBQ in Gilbert, AZ in 1998. Tad talked about unraveling his corporate mindset, the dilemma of debt, the value of technology, unconventional marketing, and how to retain great people. He’s done an amazing job of helping turn Joe’s into an institution in his community. Here are a few of the pearls of wisdom Tad shared…
Don’t Bring Corporate Tools To Your Indie. (Tad had spent seventeen years in corporate communications before helping start Joe’s) I was surprised along the way at a whole bunch of things that I hadn’t counted on. I came in with expectations that were perhaps unrealistic. For instance, I thought that if you took the twenty-seven page employee manual, and had it translated to Spanish, that the resulting Spanish manual would be an awesome tool for every Spanish-speaking employee on your payroll. And I spent thousands of dollars, and had everything translated. Only to find that most of my Spanish-only speaking employees weren’t going to benefit much from that. The whole written thing wasn’t doing much for them anyways. They learned verbally. They learned by being shown. So when you have this corporate mindset that you can fix everything with money, or you can fix everything if you look at it correctly…that truly turned out not to be the case. What I needed to do was to get in my employees’ shoes, and figure out what was going to work best for them. It’s not the same as it is in the corporate world.
Give Your Employees The Tools For Success. We were thinking about having the best possible tools to give our employees the best possible chance of success. And with independents, I think that is one of the places where people tend to perhaps fall short.
Build An Institution. I think the thing we thought about – that perhaps not all startups think about at the inception stage – is that we very much endeavored, from well before we opened, to create an institution. We didn’t want a restaurant. We didn’t want a family restaurant. We didn’t want a place that people liked. We wanted to create an institution. So we struggled with, “Is that prideful? Is that boastful? Is that realistic? Is that smart?” So we chewed through all of those issues, and we decided that we undoubtedly wanted to create an institution. We decided to create a place that you would feel you must take people to when they come in from out of town. A place that endures. A place that has longevity. A place that will be there after ten years, and twenty years, and fifty years. We were not out to create a successful business that could be sold for a lot of money. But rather we were out to create a successful business so that we could pass it along to other generations, and ensure the institution is still an institution after we’re gone.
Don’t Let Conventional Wisdom Rule. We didn’t let conventional wisdom play much of a role in our decision making. We’re Christian guys who meet every week, and pray before we start our partner meetings. And we leave those things to Him. It’s either going to thrive or die. It’s really out of our hands. What we’re tasked with doing is making good decisions that are in the best interest of our customers and our employees.
Offer Great Benefits To Keep Great People. We thought early on that we probably couldn’t afford health insurance for our employees. So we thought about it, and prayed about it. And we said, “You know what? It’s the right thing to do for these employees. So we’re gonna do it. And if it’s successful, it’s going to accomplish the goal of retaining those people who came to work here for that reason.” If we had any shot at retaining people in the long term, and having a truly fulfilled, happy, vibrant work force, it was going to take making some decisions that weren’t necessarily initially in the best economic interest of the three of us.
Social Media Can Help Make Personal Connections. Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare help our business in a few ways. Most importantly, they allow us to put many more names with faces (or avatars) of our customers. When we see someone tweeting a photo of their lunch, we can make sure we get by the table and make a personal connection. We made personal connections before, but these interactions initiated by happy diners are really fun and lead to interesting conversations. Facebook users are awesome and passionate about places they frequent. We offer a generous Mayor incentive on Foursquare (a free meal) and love seeing people talk about how they want to knock the current Mayor off their perch. As trite as it sounds, the “social” part of social media allows us to make more personal connections and relationships. We think the time investment is worth every minute.
Unconventional Marketing Can Generate Huge Results. We spend a bunch of money on marketing. We just don’t do it in conventional ways. We have an annual Customer Appreciation Day when we open our doors and serve as many people as we can for free. We streamline the menu, offer canned sodas instead of fountain drinks to keep things moving along, and have served more than 6,000 free meals during the day of the promotion. Free Days around here usually mean someone is getting a free meal every six seconds we are open. It’s a pretty cool thing to watch. We do this to thank our loyal customers for their patronage, and at the same time attract new customers. The buzz created by this annual event is pretty overwhelming. We’ve had years when every TV news channel in town picked up the story, as well as radio stations, blogs, and the social media crowd. Obviously feeding 6,000+ people isn’t cheap, but we think the investment pays off pretty quickly. It doesn’t take many converted first-timers for this approach to pay off.
The Schedulefly Crew