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MUFSO Golden Chain panel Photos by Ron Ruggless

Put people first and plant the seed of leadership, say Golden Chain winners

CEOs say investing in people is more important than following metrics

This is part of Nation’s Restaurant News' special coverage of the 2017 MUFSO conference, taking place Oct. 1-3 at the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower in Dallas. Follow coverage of the event on and tweet with us using #MUFSO. Stay connected on the go by downloading the MUFSO app

Building a great brand depends on growing great leaders, and restaurant operators need to be deliberate about developing people who will stay, learn and carry brand values forward.

So said a panel on Monday representing this year’s Golden Chain winners, the exceptional executives from five successful brands. Joining them on stage in a conversation with Jenna Telesca, editor-in-chief of Nation’s Restaurant News, was John Miller, CEO of Denny’s Corp., who is the 2017 winner of the Norman Award, named for industry pioneer Norman Brinker, to honor restaurant executives who mentor and inspire future leaders.

At a time when the restaurant industry is struggling to fill positions, putting people first is more important than ever, said the CEOs.

“The longer you walk down whatever path you travel, you learn that people matter a whole lot more than whether you had to throw out a dish, or those other metrics you think matter,” said Miller (left).

But putting people first also means addressing inequities that have been built into the industry, said Miller.

“What goes on in America, what goes on in society, goes on in our business. We have our heads in the sand if we don’t understand that we carry with us unconscious biases,” he said. “We have not figured out how to create equities for women and minorities.”

Lisa Ingram (right), president and CEO of White Castle, agreed, saying each business has to set it’s own high expectations and develop diversity at all levels.

Founded in 1921, the iconic slider chain is family run. Ingram is a member of the fourth generation and great granddaughter of founder Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. White Castle has many employees that have been with the brand for as long as four decades, and many restaurant leaders started with the company as hourly workers, she said.

“We really try to build great leaders,” she said. “But I think leadership happens at any level.”

Working in the computer industry before she joined the family business, Ingram said she often looked up the corporate ladder for mentors. In hindsight, there were opportunities to learn from colleagues at the same or lower levels, she said.

Now all home office executives are asked to work in a White Castle restaurant to “have the opportunity to walk in the shoes of other people.”

Randy Garutti (left), CEO of Shake Shack Inc., said his brand is known for its generous employee benefits, but, he said, “It’s less about those packages and more about patting people on the back and showing them a mirror to see what’s inside themselves.”

Shake Shack makes leadership development a priority. At the company’s first leadership retreat in its early years, 18 people attended. This year, the retreat will include 700, and the company will spend about $1 million.

“That’s hard to explain to Wall Street,” he said. “But it’s the last thing we’ll cut.”

The Cheesecake Factory Inc. was named one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” by Forbes magazine this year, for the fourth year in a row. The parent to the namesake casual dining chain, along with Grand Lux Café and RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen, has about 40,000 workers.

David Overton (right), CEO of The Cheesecake Factory Inc., said, when they survey their staff, they find the No. 1 reason workers like their job is pride.

“They have a lot of pride in the company and what it stands for,” he said. “We strive for operational excellence that goes down to every level. It pulls them together.”

Similarly, focusing on common goals is a way Marco’s Pizza Chairman and CEO Jack Butorac (left) has built a relationship of trust with his franchise operators, he said.

“It’s about having common goals, aligned goals, and transparency,” said Butorac, who received MUFSO’s Operator of the Year award Monday evening. “If you’re transparent, they’ll trust you.”

When he bought the brand in 2004, Butorac said relationships were strained with master franchisees. The first step was making sure the management team was aligned on the franchise brand’s future.

Then Marco’s began bringing franchise leaders together at quarterly offsite meetings to talk out issues, problems and objectives--a move that has franchisees now on the same page as the corporate office.

Steve King (right), CEO of Dave & Buster’s, meanwhile, said the advice he often gives young people looking to get into the restaurant industry is to think strategically about where opportunities for growth might be.

“I think you need to start with the segment that you want to join, more so than the company or the position. And really look for a segment that has growth,” he said. “If you join a part of the industry that’s growing quickly, and you’re capable, you’re going to be given an awful lot of opportunity, and probably in relatively quick order.

“But the converse is also true,” he noted. “If you’re in a shrinking part of the industry, or a shrinking segment, it’s just going to be very difficult to be given the opportunities you deserve, irrespective of your talent and how hard you work.”

Dan Orlando contributed to this report.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

The MUFSO Premier sponsor is The Coca Cola Company

Presenting sponsors are: Blount Fine Foods, The Coca Cola Company, UNiDAYS

Kitchen Hero Cook-Off is presented by Texas Pete/TW Garner Food Company

The Hot Concepts Reception is sponsored by Rock & Brews

The Industry Awards Gala is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Daiya Foods, Natural brands

Pillar sponsors are: Alchemy Systems, Bloom Intelligence, Boylan Bottling, Cardlytics, Mainstreet, Inc., Nudge Rewards, S&D Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Weston Foods, Zenput

The MUFSO app sponsor is Steritech

Refreshment breaks are sponsored by Blount Fine Foods, Boylan Bottling, Royal Cup Coffee, Smithfield Farmland Foodservice, Sweet Street, Ventura Foods, and Weston Foods

The Supplier Exchange Luncheon is sponsored by Hale & Hearty, Bruce Cost Ginger Ale and Copper Moon Coffee

The Lanyard & Welcome package is sponsored by Hospitality Mints

MUFSO Breakfast sponsors are Moore’s Food Resources, Community Coffee and Natural Brands

VIP Dinner sponsored by Moment Feed, Pan Pacific Plastics and Rotella’s Bakery

The official music sponsor is Rockbot

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