Editor's note: This is just one story in a recurring series that features interviews with top-level execs in the fast casual industry. If you would like us to feature a specific exec, please make your request in an email to Cherryh Butler at email@example.com.
More than 70 years ago, Travis Dickey opened the first Dickey's Barbecue in Dallas, but the chain is just now hitting its growth spurt. Under the direction of CEO Roland Dickey Jr., the grandson of Travis, the chain has opened more than 100 units over the last year and has gone from 20 to 300 units since he took over in 2004. And Roland Dickey Jr. is just warming up. He has plans for another 100 by the end of 2013, not to mention an eventual "global domination."
He discussed those plans and why his concept stands out in a market "saturated with burgers, sandwiches and pizza."
Q: You opened nearly 100 units last year. After all these years, what made you believe that the time was right to grow so much at once?
Dickey: We’ve been around since 1941, and began franchising in 1994. We’ve always had offers to franchise but our family decided to take it slow to make sure we were offering the best franchise concept possible coupled with a seasoned support system. By 2011, I knew we had the winning combination of an innovative concept along with a team who could take our brand to the next level. We opened 60 locations in 2011, and just over 75 locations last year — the momentum behind our brand is phenomenal.
Q: Will you continue that growth pattern this year or will it slow?
Dickey: Our goal is to open 100 more locations this year. However, the Dickey family will never sacrifice quality for growth. Our brand has been around for over 71 years because we offer quality products and excellent customer service that keep our customers coming back. As long as we continue to meet this gold standard, we plan to introduce new locations.
We are tapping into markets that have been oversaturated with burgers, sandwiches and pizza and adding a new option to the table. Our support network is phenomenal at making sure we land in great communities where we can make an impact and share our great tasting barbecue.
Q: What do you look for in a franchisee?
Dickey: The most important trait in a potential franchisee is passion. The restaurant trade and especially the barbecue restaurant business is a customer-focused industry. We look for engaged owner/operators who are excited about our brand and the opportunity to share our story and food in their communities. We can train the rest. Not all of our franchise owners have a restaurant background. We have retired servicemen and women, accountants and former executives as franchise owners. The one thing they all have in common is the passion they have for their businesses and our brand. Good barbecue is good business when it's done right, and we're doing something that hasn't been done before — taking barbecue mainstream.
We are passionate about what we do and it shows through our nationwide growth. We were just named the Fastest Growing Fast Casual in the country by Technomic.
Q: When it comes to marketing to existing customers, what is your most successful avenue — social media, mailers, commercials, word of mouth, radio, media, etc.?
Dickey: We believe that creating a genuine customer experience is the key to our success. We can drive customers to our restaurants through marketing and advertising campaigns, but the food and service is what will keep customers coming back. From the interior of our restaurants, the wood-fire smell from the smoker to the tunes playing in the background — it all sets the vibe for the customer experience. Then once they taste our barbecue and meet our friendly staff, we hope to have a customer for life.
Our grassroots approach to community marketing is what sets us apart from other fast casual concepts. Dickey's signature brand of Southern friendliness and ability to be good neighbors by giving back to the communities we serve has created a bond with customers. Social media has given us another platform to engage with our customers. They tell us when we do something well and they definitely let us know if we don't — we believe this open dialogue allows us the opportunity to really get to know our customers and improve our business model in the process.
Q: Which is most important to gaining new customers?
Dickey: We understand people these days — customers and prospective franchisees — are craving authenticity. They don't want a concept that's made in the creative department of an ad agency, they want something real — and we're the real deal. We deliver slow smoked family-friendly food that is served hot, fresh and affordable. We slow smoke our barbecue on-site in each restaurant across the country. At Dickey's you get an authentic Texas barbecue experience with all of the efficiencies of a first-class national restaurant chain.
Q: As a third-generation leader, what have you learned from your family that you still incorporate into your business operations?
Dickey: My grandfather started Dickey's Barbecue, but it was my dad and uncle who really put us on the map. They are the true epitome of the American Dream, and I'm very proud to be part of it. They built Dickey's Barbecue the old fashioned way, by winning one customer at a time. My dad started the catering business by pounding the pavement and getting out in to the community meeting people. Last year, our catering hotline, 1-866-barbecue, did almost $3 million in business. Now that's success!
That same entrepreneurial spirit is still at work in all of our restaurants today. It's the passion for great barbecue and for our customers. What we do right hasn't changed and never will. We still pride ourselves on authentic, down-home food, served with our signature brand of southern hospitality. It's the difference between a good business and a great business.
Q: What have you done differently from them?
Dickey: Although we are a 71- year-old company, we strive to keep our brand fresh and unique. Our growing team has added many innovative ideas to our already rich history, such as our new restaurant designs, sustainable packaging, merchandising and technology innovations that add to the customer experience. This year, we are introducing whole meats into our product offerings as well as our proprietary tea and bread products. Dickey's will always be out front and making certain we offer our customers unsurpassed products and service.
I lead my growing team with a tough-as-nails, take- the-bull-by-the-horns leadership style that has produced exceptional results in growth and industry-best practices. We won't stop until we reach global domination.
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Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.