Executive perspectives: restaurant experts offer advice for operators

Bryce Fluellen shows how Everytable’s unique franchising model tackles food insecurity, builds communities and fuels growth/profits; Blaine Hurst of Blaine Hurst Enterprises shares how recruiting among IDD workers is more than doing good: data shows it boosts core metrics across restaurants.

Bryce Fluellen, executive director of social equity franchise program for Everytable, presents during panel at RFIS Miami 2023. Image credit: Daniel Brown

This is part one of a two-part series.

At the Restaurant Franchising and Innovation Summit in Miami hosted by Networld Media Group, industry thought leaders shared strategies for success and growth in changing times in a series of miniature lectures sponsored by TASK. The first two presenters shared the methods they have discovered to build powerful business growth at scale while contributing to social good and helping people — all while navigating the unique challenges of the economy, job market and other challenges.

“What are you doing for others?”

Bryce Fluellen shares the Everytable mission statement. Video courtesy of Daniel Brown.

First up was Bryce Fluellen, executive director of the Social Equity Franchise Program at Everytable, which is based in Los Angeles, California.

“Everytable is a public benefit corporation healthy food company,” Fluellen said. “Our mission is to transform the food system to make delicious, nutritious food accessible and affordable to everyone, everywhere.”

Fluellen added that 25% of the population in L.A. was food insecure according to statistics gathered in July 2022. “That is two million people,” he added. “That is larger than most of the big cities in this country.”

He tackled the problem with a variety of initiatives, including a local pop-up to feed young people and talk about social issues.

“Serendipitously, at the same time, right up the road about a mile away, our founder and CEO Sam Polk had left his career as a hedge fund trader in New York, moved back to Los Angeles and wanting to do something more purposeful, binge-watched food documentaries and said that he wanted to do something about the problem of food deserts. He created a nonprofit called Feast, where parents from that same community will come together and learn how to cook healthy food.

“In a community where the average income is $13,000 a year, they would say the same thing that my kids said to me, ‘Sam, we love fresh foods. We love learning how to cook healthier, we know it’s better for us. But… we are working two or three jobs just to maintain, we are on the go. If you can create something that can compete with fast food, but is healthier, accessible and affordable, we would utilize it.’ And that was the impetus of Everytable.”

This is all possible thanks to a centralized production model, in which Everytable makes its own food with produce from local growers and does its own distribution with its own fleet, and which allows products to be produced for 50% lower costs than those of competitors.

“Economic insecurity is tied to food insecurity.” — Bryce Fluellen. Image courtesy of Willie Lawless.

“But we took it a step further,” Fluellen said. “We also created a tiered pricing model, not for charity purchases, but understanding that we can bring value to whatever communities that we’re in. So, you could get the same meal in a lower-income neighborhood for $2 cheaper than you can get in an affluent neighborhood, and all of our meals are priced between $6 to $9. I’m talking about chef-prepared meals that are made every day — salads, hot plates, smoothies, snacks, everything you can think of — to get at that accessibility and affordability piece that we talked about earlier.”

Thanks to its novel production, distribution and pricing model, Everytable is scaling up fast from the original 10 locations it started with in 2022. “We can currently have over 50 stores in Los Angeles, Southern California, and went to New York last year, where we have seven,” Fluellen said. “And we’ll have an additional seven stores between Los Angeles and New York by the end of 2023.”

Fluellen explained that this scaling success doesn’t just boil down to smart models and technology choices — it comes down to values, to the company’s why.

“Economic insecurity is tied to food insecurity,” Fluellen said, and while this was all a good start, he and Polk wanted to do even more to help establish economic mobility and generational wealth in communities. “We created a model called social equity franchising. What Sam knew from running a nonprofit is that there is a vehicle called ‘program-related investments’ — that because we’re a public benefit corporation and social enterprise, we have access to capital, where foundations could actually invest in us. So, over the last four years, we’ve been able to raise $9 million from foundations.”

This investment means Everytable franchisees can become owners with zero upfront capital and have a guaranteed salary for the first three years, with promising results as the company expands and with powerful stories of impact on individual franchisers like Dorsia, a mother of four from south L.A. who started with Polk’s Feast program before joining Everytable and whose picture Fluellen shared.

“We have 17 people in the pipeline and we have enough capital to scale this program to 60 to 65 franchisees over the next two years,” Fluellen said. “In closing, I would just like to share the words of Dr. Martin Luther King: ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?'”

“Joy is within!”

Blaine Hurst shared insights on recruiting team members with IDD at Delish Sisters along with his family’s experience raising a child with IDD. Image courtesy of Willie Lawless.

Next up was Blaine Hurst, former CEO at Panera Bread, former president at Papa John’s and principal at Blaine Hurst Enterprises LLC, who was inducted into the Fast Casual Hall of Fame during the 2022 Fast Casual Executive Summit in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Citing his decades of experience in the food industry, data and conversations with many friends and colleagues in the industry, Hurst outlined the ongoing labor and labor cost challenges for restaurants, with an estimated 89% of operators saying labor issues remain a challenge, 62% saying they lack labor to meet existing demand and 79% reporting they have positions that are extraordinarily difficult to fill.

Hurst presented another set of statistics to illustrate a novel strategy he advocates to work around the labor crisis. As of February 2022, 79% of non-institutionalized persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD) were unemployed. By working to bridge the gap for this unfairly under-employed group, Hurst argued that restaurants can not only do good for individuals and the community, they can solve for much of the labor crisis while reaping many benefits that are unique to recruiting workers with IDD.

Citing his work in implementing the strategy at Delish Sisters (where he serves as an advisor) along with further data, a recent study, and his own family’s journey raising his son David while navigating IDD challenges, Hurst argued against reservations historically expressed in restaurant recruitment.

“These are very highly motivated employees,” Hurst said, while this hiring process shows that a location is invested in the local community and demonstrates that a brand cares about all employees and customers, regardless of ability types. Far from harming customer satisfaction, data indicates CX goes up 15% with the addition of IDD team members.

“What do you get when you hire somebody that’s intellectually disabled? You get somebody that’s very dependable,” Hurst said. “I have a son who is intellectually disabled. Does he show up for work on time? Half an hour early! Why? Because he insists on it. Is he willing to stay late? Tell him what time to close the bakery at our local grocery store. He’ll stay there until it’s done.”

In fact, Hurst says his son is so devoted to his job that the family designs activities and vacations around his work schedule. “I will not compromise his job for anything,” Hurst added.

An exemplary employee who is careful to keep all rules and meet expectations, including rules around cellphone use on the job, Hurst’s son illustrates what Hurst argues is the mutually beneficial solution for employer and employee when brands recruit folks with IDD. “They are they are some of the most motivated, highly productive, hardworking people you will ever have in one of your restaurants,” Hurst said.

“I’m saying joy is within. And for those of you who are in this wonderful industry, I want to encourage each of you to think about hiring the IDD. I will guarantee you, they bring joy every day to your workplace.” — Blaine Hurst. Image courtesy of Networld Media Group.

The Delish Sisters, a restaurant in the Shepherd Hotel in Clemson, South Carolina, is one of Hurst’s main projects, which he describes as a “labor of love.” Delish Sisters was conceptualized by partners from Clemson University and Clemson LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone), a program in which persons with IDD receive a full college education while earning work experience in the local community. “This as a place to learn about the hiring of people with intellectual disabilities in the hospitality industry,” Hurst said. “And it’s been a rousing success.”

However, Hurst cautions that recruiting IDD team members involves commitment, and shouldn’t be done carelessly or without preparation; it’s an investment, he says, and it’s vital to remember this isn’t just about doing good, it’s also about the data-based incentives for stakeholders and investors in the hotel and restaurant industries — benefits like profits, ROI and employee/customer satisfaction — along with retention, since workers with IDD tend to stay at a restaurant for 10 years on average.

Hurst closed with the story of his son’s last cross-country race. “David was not able to run the race like everybody else. He was dead last,” Hurst said. Staff were dismantling the finish line when the radio said a final runner was still on the course. When his son finished, elated, the family had tears in their eyes, Hurst said, and he made rounds to thank the staff members for their work, apologizing to the staff driver who had followed his son as the last runner in the race.

Said Hurst: “He looked up at me with a tear in his eye and he said, ‘Sir, you don’t have to thank me. I watched your son run this race. He stumbled, he fell, he got up. He turned around. He waved and he smiled. I watched your son every time he passed somebody along the course, he waved and he smiled. Sir, your son spread joy along the way, everywhere he went on this course. Sir, your son ran the race with joy.’

“I will tell you, that has become my personal tagline. Because so often we look for joy, and joy comes through the experiences we have, the promotions we get, the recognitions we get — that’s how we think joy comes.

“I’m saying joy is within. And for those of you who are in this wonderful industry, I want to encourage each of you to think about hiring the IDD. I will guarantee you, they bring joy every day to your workplace.”

Networld Media Group will host several other food-service summits this year, including the Pizza Leadership Virtual Summit July 26, 2023, the Fast Casual Executive Summit Oct. 8-10 and #QSRNext Nov. 9, 2023.

Daniel Brown is the editor of Digital Signage Today. He is an accomplished technology writer whose experience includes creating knowledge base content for a major university’s computing services department. His previous experience also includes IT project management, technical support and education. He can usually be found in a coffee shop near a large pile of books.

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