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Making Lemonade and Making Magic

Published February 21, 2018

When people ask me about my experience in the restaurant business, or ask me about the success that Chipotle had in those rocket ship growth years, or how we were able to grow at the rate were able to, I always go back to the same thing. People Development. Investing in your people has always been, and will always be the silver bullet to growth and scalability in the restaurant business, but it’s also the silver bullet to running a solid restaurant company that doesn’t have growth plans on the horizon. Being intentional about how you develop your team will keep your concept from becoming stagnant, or worse, slipping into mediocrity.

Every restaurant company knows that people are the most important part of the equation, but not every restaurant company is willing to make the investment. There is no other way to ensure consistent, long-term growth without making people development the top priority in any organization.

Making Lemonade

When I moved to Texas in 2005 to take over the Austin, Houston, and San Antonio markets for Chipotle, the best way to describe the team I inherited is that they were tired, disengaged, and lost. Texas had long underperformed. Pre-IPO, we all saw each others numbers and it wasn’t hard to look at the Cost of Sales numbers and know there was a big problem. You can only say ‘I’ll keep working on it’ for so long before you just give up, and in many ways the team here had given up because the results continued to get worse in almost every area of the business.

I knew that coming in as a new leader was going to be a huge undertaking, but I was excited to be a Director. I was excited to take on a new challenge. And I was excited to tackle that challenge through my team. Last year I wrote a post on how to lead when you inherit your team. In that post I talk about some important things you have to do when you begin leading a new team which I’m listing here as bullet points, but feel free to read the full post for more details.

  1. As you prepare to work with your new team, set aside time to sit down with every single individual to get to know them.
  2. As you sit down with each team member, ask some of the same questions to each person, to establish a baseline of where the culture is in the organization.
  3. Do your best to wait 30-days before you make any aggressive systemic changes, especially if you are new to the company on top of being new to the people.
  4. Use your first 30 days to build your 90-day plan.

After doing these key things, I recognized very quickly that we had some lemons. We had leadership vessels in the form of people on the team that were low performers. Once I had conversations with everyone on the team, visited every restaurant, and reset expectations, I began to respectfully remove the low performers. And then I made lemonade. We were in a situation where we had Assistant Managers who were far better than the General Managers. We had General Managers who were far better than the multi-unit leaders that were overseeing their restaurants. So we made lemonade. We elevated leaders who on paper may not have been 100% ready, but they had the heart, grit, and determination to do great things, and were on board with the direction we were going.

Making Magic

As the new leader to the team I inherited I learned very quickly, building on my experience in Kansas City, that making the magic to turn around a 33-unit market was going to be rooted in having honest conversations with everyone on the team, and resetting expectations of what great performance looked like. I took this new group of leaders, and along with my newly rebuilt leadership team, we began to look at our 1000+ team members at the time, who were serving guests in our restaurants everyday, and began to evaluate them to figure out who were going to be the next generation for leaders for our region.
But I needed a secret ingredient to make the magic I was looking for to help our region and our team to get to the next level, and that secret ingredient was right in front of me all along. Building on the success that we had in upgrading our talent at the GM and Multi-unit level, we realized that we had some amazing leaders working everyday in our restaurants on salsa, tortilla, grill, and cash, that had the potential to be outstanding leaders for us. They just needed us to help them get there. So after hearing about the incredible success that In N Out had achieved through their focus on promoting from within and building an amazing culture where employees wanted to work and be super successful, we went for it.

I will never forget when I got on a plane to Houston and met with my leadership team and told them that I wanted us to start an Internal Career Fair process, where we allowed the best team members from our restaurants to interview for positions in the career path that had just been launched. I had no idea what that looked like, or what we were going to do to make it a reality, but my team rallied and we created a process where we began creating excitement about the career opportunities with Chipotle. The hours spent in those one on one conversations are where we learned about our employees on a much deeper level. We heard about their families. Their struggles. Their hopes. Their dreams. We heard why they thought they’d make a great Kitchen Manager. Service Manager. Apprentice. General Manager. They showed off their restaurants. They developed their replacements.

They were so proud, and they had every reason to be.

All of these conversations led to more focused and intentional conversations with Development Journals, where they were able to own their personal development, set and accomplish goals, and take the next step in their career. And that’s where the magic really happened. All of a sudden the development plans for our region exploded. Between 2008-2012 we opened more new markets than anyone else in Chipotle, in more new states than anyone else. Nashville, Birmingham, Columbia, Little Rock, Baton Rouge…over 100 restaurants across 4 years…and we promoted every single person from within to fill those positions! Now that is magic.

Creating such a strong succession plan and pipeline allowed us to grow at a remarkable rate while maintaining the culture of Chipotle. It also allowed us to open these new markets with seasoned operators who not only understood the culture but could execute a great experience that translated into fantastic first year sales and comp sales growth.

People Development and Culture. Do not let those two words become just buzzwords for your organization. Invest in your people. Train them well. Help them set goals personally and professionally. If you do, people development and culture will take your company, organization, market, patch or division to heights you never dreamed possible.