Paying it Back While Looking Forward Helps A Restaurant Chain Thrive During Covid-19

Chief Executive Officer

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Guest: Chris Gannon, the co-founder of Bolay, a fast casual restaurant group based in Florida.

Episode in a Tweet: The Bolay restaurant chain relied on its people and its higher purpose to reinvent itself during the pandemic.

Quick Background:  When he started out in the restaurant business, Chris Gannon’s goal was to open one great restaurant at a time. His mix of incredible flavors, first-class hospitality, and high nutritional value was such a success that in only four years Bolay expanded to 15 locations.

And then Covid-19 hit. With indoor dining suddenly off the menu, Chris and his team had to make a major pivot that would allow them to sustain the business through the pandemic while also laying the groundwork for a successful future.

On today’s show, Chris Gannon explains how transparent leadership, all-hands-on-deck teamwork, and a commitment to community building have kept Bolay on track to make BIG happen.

Transcript: Download the full transcript here.

Keys to a Successful Pandemic Pivot from Chris Gannon

1. Surround yourself with great people.

Chris Gannon says that the restaurant business is a people business. And he learned the value of having great people by watching his father Tim grow Outback Steakhouse and other successful restaurant chains.

“My father was dedicated to having the best people around him and winning,” Chris says. “And if you don’t have the best people around you, you’re not going to win. You might come in second, but you’re not going to win. And we at Bolay believe in winning. We have a very winning spirit, we’re a very competitive company, and we believe in putting winners on the team. That was something I focused on, and continue to try and pride ourselves on.”

Chris has worked with his entrepreneur coach to refine the kinds of questions he asks prospective hires during the interview process. By digging deeper and zeroing in on those “Whys” that drive people, Chris ensures that he’s only hiring talent that will enhance his team-centered culture.

“We look for passion first and foremost,” Chris says. “We want people that are committed. One of our pillars at Bolay is we’re dedicated to the recruitment of knowledgeable and committed team members. We don’t have employees at Bolay, we have team members. Finding the right people is an art. What we don’t know, we learn quickly. What we lack, we surround ourselves with. We’re very quick to admit our holes, our weaknesses, and we’re very humble. And I think that combination of humility, hard work, passion, perseverance, and team work, it’s a recipe for some pretty amazing things to be accomplished.”

2. Inspire your team and be inspired by them.

Reflecting on the early days of the pandemic, Chris says, “I knew it was going to be difficult. My brain just kept going to the worst case scenario. It was just a roller coaster. There was some days we’d talk with our banker and it was perfectly great, and then the next day, ‘We’ve got to prepare to liquidate assets.’ It was just getting worse and worse. It was just difficult to come into the office every day.”

chris gannon

Chris Gannon: If you don’t have the best people around you, you’re not going to win. You might come in second, but you’re not going to win.

I think all CEOs can relate to that feeling. It’s lonely at the top of a business, especially when the responsibility for making impossible choices falls squarely on your desk. One of the best ways to cope with that pressure and see the clearest path forward is to remind yourself of what your business is really trying to accomplish.

That’s one reason why Chris decided he needed to ramp up his company’s socially distanced communication rhythm. He remembers, “Getting on the Zoom calls with our entire restaurant group every couple days to touch base, my team would say, ‘Why are we doing so many? We don’t need it.’ I needed it. I needed to see their faces, what we were fighting for. I needed that passion. Every single person had a family or a mortgage or some form of responsibility, and we went to fight for them. And it was seeing their faces that gave us courage. We just got to work. We were here late every day, and we reinvented Bolay overnight. We reinvented our labor model, our food model, our ability. We cut every expense that we didn’t need. We got real smart. And the team came together. And the most beautiful part about the whole situation was that everybody did it with smiles on their faces. They did it with passion, and I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life.”

3. Go on offense.

As Chris and his team “got smarter,” they made a key switch that not enough companies are making six months into this pandemic: they stopped playing defense and started playing offense. They pivoted to takeout and pop-up cooking events so that they could bring their product to people who weren’t willing to travel during lockdown. They cut expenses and paid their vendors. But there was one line item on the chopping block that Chris decided to save.

“We were about to do a whole new technology launch,” he says, “a new online ordering system that was going to cost a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of development. And I didn’t want our team to not have a project to work on. And this was the most important one. So we doubled down. We said, ‘Let’s keep going. Let’s keep working on this IT project.’ And it was probably one of the smartest decisions we made because as we came out of it, everybody’s doing online ordering right now. I think we timed that technology wave perfectly. And I would attribute that to really helping us.”

In a recent roundtable with CEO Coaching International coaches, we discussed that not enough companies are using pandemic downtime to make the key investments that are going to help the business not just survive, but eventually thrive. Too many CEOs are just trying to ride out the storm until things “get back to normal.” Instead, CEOs need to identify areas of their businesses that might be changing forever. Update your tech, retrain your key talent, and start looking forward.

4. Pay it back.

One of Chris’ mentors taught him that if you’re able to give, then give, without judgment or reservation. Even as Bolay was struggling to make its own ends meet during Covid-19, Chris’ restaurants continued their tradition of donating meals to charities while also extending support to hospitals and displaced food service workers. The hope and goodwill that Bolay had made a mission of spreading came back to the business in a BIG way.

Chris Gannon says, “During the pandemic, everybody that we had helped at some point came back to us and said, ‘Hey, how can we buy? We want to buy a catering package from you. We want to buy some food to donate to this school.’ And it was amazing when you give how it comes back, especially when we’re facing complete shutdown. That’ll be a lesson I will always talk about, and I will teach my kids and grandkids and as many people as I possibly can that wonderful lesson I learned. Always pay it back. Any time someone pulls me aside for business advice, I try to give it, because someone gave that time to me. I believe we make our world a better place just by helping each other out.”

Top Takeaways

1. Don’t give up. No matter what business you’re in, there’s a path through the pandemic if you’re willing to make tough choices and adapt.

2. Invest in your business now. Waiting out Covid-19 is not a strategy. Build the infrastructure that’s going to allow your businesses to start a successful new phase.

3. Spread some hope. Businesses and communities that support each other will be stronger on the other side of the pandemic.

Resources Mentioned:

Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise by Horst Schulze

Transcript: Download the full transcript here.

The Bolay restaurant chain relied on its people and its higher purpose to reinvent itself during the pandemic.
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