Zoe's Kitchen Inc. CEO Kevin Miles. Illustration: David Bleek
Kevin Miles, CEO and president of Plano, Texas-based Zoe’s Kitchen Inc., has led the fast-casual Mediterranean chain to 26 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.
The company ended the second quarter with a 4-percent increase in same-store sales, while many other brands faced economic headwinds.
Zoës Kitchen, which went public in 2014, has 191 restaurants in 20 states, offering dishes like hummus, kebabs and salads. Its sales rose more than 27 percent in 2015, as the number of units increased by nearly 26 percent.
Miles spoke with former Golden Chain winner Charlie Morrison, CEO of Dallas-based Wingstop Inc., to discuss the culture at the Zoës Kitchen brand. NRN’s senior editor Ron Ruggless also participated in the interview.
Charlie Morrison: You’ve built an outstanding culture [at Zoe’s]. Maybe you could shed a little bit of light on the importance of culture and the team within your organization and how that impacts your success.
Kevin Miles: I kind of learned early in my career if you took care of the team as an assistant manager or a general manager in a restaurant … the team wants you to win and they want to take care of you as well. Before the words “conscious capitalism” and all those things came out, at Zoe’s we set out to be people first. Really, it starts with the team and how you treat them. Giving them a core set of values and beliefs that they can believe in and stand behind. … As you know, with a rapidly growing concept it’s difficult. We’re hiring thousands of new team members each and every year. … Not everyone’s a right fit for Zoe’s. You’ve got to believe in what we believe in and what the overall team does. Making sure that that’s communicated is critically important.
CM: Who has inspired or mentored you in your career? What insights did they provide to you?
KM: I’ve had the privilege of working with some really great leaders in the industry. First and foremost, you know, the peer set that I’m in like yourself, Charlie, and other CEOs … The one great thing about the restaurant space is we’re all competitive but we’re all there to support each other. I found that that’s a great inspiration in and of itself. We’re not out to get one another and it’s great. …
It’s been a pleasure to work with the group out of Brentwood Associates as we were taking Zoe’s from a private, small, 20-unit chain to a public company. Just the insight that Brentwood has shared … a lot of wisdom and knowledge has been bestowed upon me by those groups of individuals.
I would have to say ultimately I’m going to sound a little bit like a broken record. The team is really what inspires me every day. I feel like if you get out in the field you can learn from each and every one of those people. … Staying engaged and really listening and hearing what they have to say is incredibly important. It truly is the insight that I try to remember every day.
Meet the other 2016 Golden Chain winners:
The industry's top challenges
CM: What do you think are a few of the top challenges the industry is going to face in the coming year?
KM: I guess the three things that pop to mind immediately is obviously the regulatory piece. You have the labor inflation things that are going on there. Labor has been a topic in the industry for years but most recently, I think, has really come into fruition. … It’s ultimately how do you build value with the consumer and how do you continue to build that loyalty with the consumer at the same time controlling restaurant level margins? At Zoe’s we’ve always talked about being a people-first culture and that’s the guest side of it equally as well as the team side. I think labor inflation continues to be a topic of discussion for the industry at least for the foreseeable future.
A couple of other areas that are outside of regulatory is really the consumer demand. … We’re living in this on-demand world today where the consumer is waiting for the box at the front door, at least at my house that’s how it works. How that works and how we prepare food and how does that food get delivered to those consumers today is just very different than what it used to be years ago. … Those are all opportunities for us.
I think the last thing that jumps out at me is just the adoption of technology in this space. In all of my years in the business technology was just something that you had to have as a POS, a glorified cash register. Today there’s so many opportunities you can get with the data and the customer segmentation and how we can use [customer relationship management] to better enhance our business.
Miles rings the opening bell at The New York Stock Exchange in April 2014, in New York City. Photo: Ben Hider/NYSE Euronext
CM: Where is your head on how technology … will have an impact on our business going forward?
KM: I’m optimistic about this technology in allowing us better insight. It’s going to allow us to identify and understand the segments of a customer. How can we implement very precise marketing programs that speak one-to-one to the customer versus one-to-masses that we’ve always done in the past. I think the days of throwing a TV ad up or radio spot, that’s not how the consumer today wants to be spoken to, specifically around the Millennial consumer. That consumer wants to be involved in the business, engaged in your business, and somewhat put their own thumbprint on your business and how you grow.
Ron Ruggless: What are you most confident about looking out on the horizon for the restaurant industry?
KM: I think for me it continues to be an opportunity to grow. I think the consumer today is looking and demanding high quality, clean, transparency in food. They’re going to reward those restaurant chains that are like us and Wingstop. They just want to know what they’re eating and I think that’s exciting for us in our space.
Then one really great thing is we’re not like retail. At the end of the day, going to a restaurant is still an experience. It’s where people come together. It’s where people celebrate life and celebrate life moments and fuel their bodies. I don’t think that goes away or shows up every day at your doorstep so to speak. I think we’ve got a great trajectory in front of us.
Charlie Morrison, CEO of Wingstop Inc., was named a Golden Chain Award winner in 2015.