If founders, chefs and other creatives are the beating heart of the restaurant industry, then franchisees are the veins delivering their ideas to all corners of the globe. Franchising is critical to the success of the industry, allowing brands to quickly scale their big ideas using other people’s capital. And whether it’s a mom-and-pop restaurant owner with one or two franchised restaurants or a seasoned veteran whose influence in the industry is well-known, franchisees — with all their individual attributes, styles, and personalities — make a huge impact on the success of a business.
In this week’s installment of Franchisee Spotlight, we’re featuring Tom Shepard, a Noodles & Company franchisee and part-owner of Pasta Per Trio franchising company in Michigan programs, and one of Noodles & Company’s diversity goals leaders, who has been active in supporting DEI initiatives across the company, including as a member of the Franchise Advisory Council.
Store breakdown: 21 Noodles & Company restaurants in Michigan
“I'm one of those lifer restaurant people, I started off working in restaurants when I was 15. And here I am, 30 plus years later, started off just as a part time job, and wanted to kind of just make some extra money. Because I, you know, grew up in a probably an underprivileged area, and didn't really have a lot of resources. So I decided to get a part time job to kind of help myself help the household and everything. And I carried it on through high school. […] Carried through seven years of working at Burger King. I left with one of the leaders [there] who started a Church's chicken franchise and I started working there and I got into multi-unit there. From there, I ended up leaving […] and ended up spending some time at a Sbarro and did multiunit there and then I ended up with Noodles.”
The Importance of Leadership Mentors
“The turning point going from this being a little part-time job to really thinking, ‘wow, I could maybe [have a career] with this’ was for me when I was working at a at a larger fast-food restaurant, and there was there were three Black leaders that came in: the Gm, the assistant GM, and a shift manager. […] That was when I saw that people that look like me can actually be in charge, and it was just an epiphany that I look back on now […] They saw what I could really do and I took on the opportunity of a smaller leadership role and one thing led to another.”
The Journey to Noodles & Co
“Noodles has been an interesting journey for me, because I came on not as a franchisee, but as a general manager. I had the opportunity to help the Pasta Per Trio franchise and take on some higher-level opportunities for the long-term. We had always talked about how long-term, my goal is to get to ownership level. Although that was my goal when I was probably 20, but Noodles & Co really made it happen. The difference was when I walked in the door at Noodles, I was not looked at based on my age, based on how I dressed or based on my skin color, but based on my credentials coming in the door. From day one, I still remember going out to Colorado and sitting down with Noodles founder Aaron Kennedy and talking with him about what the brand is and what it’s made of. That left a long-lasting impression on me.”
Becoming a Franchise Group Part-Owner
“Pasta Per Trio has really, afforded me the opportunity to continue my leadership growth, taking me all the way to CEO and now part-owner. […] It comes down to my restaurant experience but also their willingness to offer me those opportunities to grow into different positions. You know, I've had mentors here like my mentor […] Then I add in Noodles and the unique support that they have offered me to […] be on different councils, to get in front of different people, and to help educate myself on the business that I potentially wouldn't have if it was a different brand.”
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in 2020 and Beyond
“I think 2020 shook everyone, and [especially me] as a Black man. […] I have a son who was 15 at that time and just about to drive and I started thinking about the things that could happen to my son. […] It forced me to think bigger picture of how I could use my position of influence to help others. I think Noodles has always wanted to offer that kind of support but [in 2020] they started the inclusion and diversity council and asked me to join as the franchisee representation. I was flattered but it felt like the right thing to do. It gave a voice to my group, my 400+ employees, but also the other franchise groups, and I’ve learned so much.”
Progress of Diversity in Restaurant Franchising
“I think we're taking baby steps. It starts with each company creating an inclusive and diverse culture and not just talking about it, but really focusing on it. Noodles & Co has done that and I think that’s what’s attracted people like me [to the company]. There are a lot of buzzwords out there, but it’s really about someone that’s going to read this article and say, ‘wow, there was a Black man who did not come from generational wealth who has the opportunity to franchise now.’ […] My whole life, I thought if I just worked hard enough, I would get there and that was about halfway right. But the other half is that you have to be with an organization that recognizes that and wants to forge those opportunities with you.”
“You can go out and do the marketing, and try to attract minority franchisees but you have to get people to come in and actually see the environment […] I hear this every day when I talk to people, that part of the reason why I came to work here is because I can be my authentic self. When you hear that, you know it’s not just on their tagline or marketing stuff, it’s actually happening. […] For me, having the opportunity to be on the inclusion and diversity council and the franchise advisory council allows you to learn more about the business at a bigger picture level, and get you in front of the people who can help you grow and become a better leader."
Being a Franchise Leader
“Being on the franchise advisory council, has really allowed me to not only build different relationships with Noodles & Co as a brand, but also with the other franchisees. […] As a council, we've been able to really represent the franchise community as a whole. We continuously focus on the growth of the franchise community, not only from a unit perspective, but also from a top line sales perspective.”