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Women in Foodservice
Nicole Tanner-Headshot- Swig Founder  (2).jpg Photo courtesy of Swig
Nicole Tanner, founder of Swig

How Nicole Tanner pulled from her experience as a mom to build Swig

Tanner has put a leadership team into place while moving into a founder role, but she continues to work to ensure her original vision — making people feel special — continues throughout the restaurant system as it grows.

Nicole Tanner has a story that isn’t atypical for a busy mom of five – running around from practice to school events and everything in between in a dizzying blur. One day, however, she had an “a-ha” moment that slowed that blur to a halt; she was waiting in a drive-thru line for her Diet Coke “fix” to fuel her through the day and she suddenly felt like a number.

“I felt like I wasn’t important even though I was coming in on a very regular basis. The service wasn’t super great, the speed wasn’t great. The product was good, but I thought I could do better. I thought I could create an amazing experience with a superior product and make people feel special in that drive-thru line,” Tanner said during a recent interview.

“Maybe that’s coming from the mom in me where I wanted to help people feel known and valued.”

The “mom in Tanner” also pulled from her deep experience in foodservice, working the frontlines at places like Sizzler and McDonald’s, and she decided the two combined experiences were enough to create her own business. In 2010, she opened Swig, a dirty soda concept, in St. George, Utah. There are now about 55 locations in five states.

Tanner has put a leadership team into place while moving into a founder role, but she continues to work to ensure her original vision – making people feel special – continues throughout the system even as it grows. To do so, Tanner focuses on empowering employees inside of each location.

“You have a new team member, it’s maybe their first job and maybe they’re uncomfortable talking to people at a drive-thru, and it’s getting them out of that comfort zone and helping them do some of these hard things like asking a customer if they want pretzel bites,” Tanner said.

Things like that may seem simple, but they require encouragement and leadership, just as a mom would guide her kids, she adds. And, just as a parent would want their children to eventually thrive on their own, she wants her employees to work their way up in the company, perhaps to a manager or district manager level.

“I’m going to give you the leadership skills to do that. I want everybody to feel like they are needed and special, but I am also going to hold them accountable like any mom would do in her home,” Tanner said. “I’m going to direct you with love but I’m also going to let you know what needs to be done. There is a standard and an expectation.”

Tanner said many of Swig’s managers are between 18 and 23 years old and managing their peers is one of the most challenging parts of the job, but – again – she pulls from her personal experience to guide them.

“It’s like at home when moms are having to get the siblings to work together. Everybody has to pull the weight,” she said.

Tanner makes it a point to note she’s hands-on and will jump into the line and help make drinks whenever necessary. Employees learn more effectively by seeing how things are done, she said. And although she’s moved into the role of founder and isn’t as involved in the day-to-day decisions, the balancing act continues, and the “mom guilt” still rears its ugly head sometimes.

“I’ve always tried to be present with my kids whenever I’m with them but there are times when we’re like, ‘ok, there’s an emergency and I’ve got to go.’ I think it’s taught them to live your dreams and work hard and there’s some sacrifice involved in that,” Tanner said. “It’s a juggling act for sure.”  

That juggling act has been worth it for Tanner, however – not only so her kids can learn the concept of hard work, but also so her employees can receive mentorship. Tanner said 85% of Swig’s restaurant-level leaders are women. She thinks such outsized numbers have happened organically because it’s a female-founded concept.

“The challenge is giving them that confidence that you can be both a woman and a leader, a mom and a leader, single and a leader, married and a leader,” she said. “You can do anything you want if you have the confidence in yourself and that’s what I try to instill.”

These are the same values she instills in her own children and so it’s no wonder she considers Swig to be her “sixth baby.” That baby, by the way, just started franchising and has already signed about 250 units across seven new markets. Swig also recently hired Angela Kavanaugh as its new director of talent and culture to put into practice Tanner’s vision of mentorship and leadership. It’s important for her to build on the foundation of this culture she’s created, all based on that initial moment of wanting people to feel “known and valued.”

“It’s really cool for me to see my baby Swig growing up and maturing like this,” Tanner said. “It’s like a proud mom moment.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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