Beyond the Menu Podcast

Beyond the Menu: Focus Brands

Welcome to Beyond the Menu, a podcast that takes a deep dive into the inner workings of the restaurant industry. Tune into each episode to hear from top tier restaurant operators and innovators who are shaping the industry, spearheading trends, and leading the way for the future.

In Episode 1, listen to Mandi Wooledge, Decision Logic’s President and COO, talk to Mike Dixon, CFO, and Garrett Fadden, VP of Retail IT at Focus Brands.

Episode Highlights

On Focus Brands Pivoting Post-Pandemic:

Mandi Wooledge, President and COO of Decision Logic

To start off with, could one of you talk us through what your team’s first reaction was to COVID? And how did that change by the weeks or the days or by the hours?

Mike Dixon, CFO, Focus Brands 

Obviously, this is an unprecedented challenge for everybody in the industry in every industry, not just the restaurant space. And so, for us the challenge (like everybody else) was to be nimble, to be adaptive, to try to figure out what’s going to happen next and react accordingly. For Focus Brands, as I mentioned, being in 60 different countries, we have quite a few locations in Asia, which were probably a good two months ahead of the U.S. in terms of feeling the impact from COVID-19. If anything, they just gave us some insight as to what was going to happen or what we could expect. I would say that what happened to us was probably more dramatic than what we expected. But certainly, we were probably a little more prepared than others. It didn’t have sort of that, that preview of what was going to come.

So, we were… we started internally what we call the business continuity team that was meeting daily during the early stages of the early days of March. So, we saw what was happening in January and February and knew we had to start thinking ahead for our businesses in the U.S. That business continuity team was made up of folks from all different functional disciplines at Focus Brands. And the initial meetings were very much of what do we think is going to happen? How should we react? But then the reality is somewhere around March 14, or 15th, when the economy basically shut down? We obviously like everybody else kicked into high gear, and it went from boy, can our store stay open? Can our office stay open? Can people work remotely? How can we protect the safety of our guests and our employees, and try to keep our franchisees in business? So, it was it was a whirlwind of activity, and it changed daily. So very, very dynamic time.

Garrett Fadden, VP of Retail IT at Focus Brands

I think, you know, based on having the business continuity team, the technology teams were pretty well prepared from an infrastructural perspective, knowing that there was a possibility that the workforce would have to be remote. For some time potentially. It was very interesting how things evolved, my team from the retail technologies side of things, had some preview to what was going on over in Asia, predominantly from the technology supply chain side of things with some big projects that we were working on and, and getting back ordered on some specific pieces of hardware that were coming in from overseas. And it’s interesting, because at that point in time, and hearing the stories about what was going on in other countries, the mindset at that point in time, late February, was I can’t imagine anything happening like this here in the U.S.

And then just a few short weeks later, weeks later, we ended up shutting down. And quickly the mindset changed to what should we be working on? What work are we currently working on that is going to become inherently obsolete? Is there work that’s going to become obsolete? So, we really focused on keeping the lights on. Run the business activities, doing everything we can to support the franchise community. And it’s interesting, because the analogy that I’ve used in telling a story to some people is, it was kind of like that moment when you discover you have a death in the family. And you have to stay calm in order to do the right thing. So, everybody else stays home. So that’s kind of what it was like at first.

But the teams did a phenomenal job preparing up front and reacting. And I think we’ve learned a lot through this journey, adventure, whatever you want to call it, where we are now. And you know, I’m happy that we’ve had the success we have over the last few months. But initially, it was kind of what is going to happen. How do we react?

Mike Dixon, CFO, Focus Brands 

And here we are. Just to put it in context, I think about back in March, we have a biannual franchisee conference where we bring together our franchisees from around the world as well as a lot of vendors like yourselves. That is a big deal. It’s three to four thousand people we were planning to meet in Las Vegas at the end of April. And I can remember in that mid-March timeframe, agonizing over should we have the conference or not. Now in hindsight, of course you wouldn’t have the conference. But at that time, we didn’t know what to expect. That was a huge decision. We had millions of dollars of deposits at risk and franchisees with travel plans and to call it off seemed like there’s absolutely no way you could call that off. But we did. And again, like I said, I’d say that of course you call it off that now it seems like a silly thing to even agonize over.

On the Impact Partners Have on Operational Success:

Mandi Wooledge, President and COO of Decision Logic

Some of the things that you’ve talked about, were really expressing a lot of the unforeseen challenges that you guys had to overcome and face throughout this very difficult and like you said, a very unprecedented time that we’ve all worked through. I know that you obviously choose the correct partners for your business. And that has tremendous financial impact, as well as operational impact as you guys are traversing these decisions that you make. What is it that you look for in partners to better your business and your operational choices? And how did that come to light that you had made really great choices throughout this?

Mike Dixon, CFO, Focus Brands 

Yeah, I mean, clearly all of our vendor choices are made with who’s going to provide the best service, who has the best pricing, but more importantly, we’re looking for people that are committed to our business, our success as well as their own. And really that did come to the forefront in this COVID situation. We’re seeing our vendors step up both financially in terms of helping with deferred payments or abated payments for us, for our franchisees, as well as technologically, or just changing their priorities to what’s most important for Focus Brands, its customers and its franchisees at this point. That was very encouraging to see. Like I said that shared commitment to success is that critical factor for us in all our vendor decisions, but to see it really come to life in this situation was great.

Mandi Wooledge, President and COO of Decision Logic

That’s awesome. Now, Garrett, your team especially really had a project that really crushed it with that vendor partnership. And, you know, the exact things that Mike was speaking to, can you talk a little bit about that?

Garrett Fadden, VP of Retail IT at Focus Brands

Sure, yeah, we’ve got a lot of projects going on, as, as always. But I think one thing that Mike mentioned is very important is the essence of partnership, right? One of the things that we definitely look for is to be able to partner with our vendors and treat it as a shared success model where we all have a vested interest in the success of both organizations with regards to you know, the project that you’re referring to, it’s a, it’s an implementation project of new technology. And what is interesting about this situation is, we learned right out of the gate, that there was going to be store closures and that the volume was going to be low in the stores that were actually opened. But we decided that it might be a good opportunity to limit the risk of change management, by implementing new technology while the volume was low. And you know, with a combination of three or four key partners of ours, we’ve definitely had success, and we continue to have success through this project. And, you know, really, there’s a lot of risk at stake with, you know, traveling and going to locations and implementing things. But everybody has come to the table with best practices to keep the employees safe to make sure that we’re wearing masks and gloves and staying apart six feet at minimum. But it’s been a good experience to see how much our vendor partners have supported us and have been willing to go along this journey with us for the success of everybody involved and come out the other side with new technology. And, you know, with a potentially new business model in some cases.

On Implementing Innovative New Technology During a Trying Time:

Mandi Wooledge, President and COO of Decision Logic

Yeah, I think that even in one of your locations with that big project, I think that there was a switch to a kiosk location that couldn’t have come at a better time. And I know that that was something that the team was really looking forward to implementing on your site. Um, talk a little bit about that lunch.

Garrett Fadden, VP of Retail IT at Focus Brands

Absolutely. So, we have a new concept store in the Moe’s brand that’s in Pittsburgh. It’s the “kiosks”, only location for kiosks, I believe, but it’s all brand-new technology. You know, the, the ordering process is predominantly through a kiosk, there is a point-of-sale terminal on the counter. But implementing new technology during this pandemic was kind of a groundbreaking event, right? We’ve had, you know, vendors do development of new product capabilities on the fly through this adventure and implemented in this store all since this pandemic has started. The downstream impact of that in this particular location is that we’re actually getting data that we’ve never gotten before for the Moe’s brand, because you don’t actually bring up all of the ingredients that are on, say, a homewrecker burrito. Generally, in a typical mall location, they just bring up the burrito and move on. And this location since the guest is ordering it themselves through a kiosk, we get all that modifier information, which leads to better data in a back office system.

And you know, now that we’ve implemented Decision Logic in a store, and we have the, you know, actual versus theoretical numbers, tied to actual ingredients, and in the products that are being sold, we can do better analytics, better forecasting for ordering, better inventory control, which leads to better cost control overall, and more profitability. So it’s amazing to see how this came together. When a lot of the work hadn’t been started, when, you know, the country started to shut down. So, it’s been amazing what’s happened and what our partners have brought to the table and done to support us.

Listen to the full episode above, on your favorite streaming platform, or watch our companion video for the episode.

Meet the Guests

Mike Dixon, CFO, Focus Brands

Mike Dixon is the CFO at Focus Brands and has been with the company since 2016. With 20 years of experience in the industry, Dixon has worked with several concepts, ranging from full service to quick service.

In his role as CFO, Dixon is responsible for the development and execution of the financial strategy for Focus Brands, as well as overseeing several other support service functions.

In dealing with shifting operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dixon said, “We adapted quickly to the changing consumer preferences resulting from COVID.”

“The challenge for us was to adapt these changes effectively and efficiently, knowing that guests will be back in the restaurant once COVID has passed, but they’ll also want to take advantage of those new channels that we’ve created.”

Garrett Fadden, VP of Retail IT, Focus Brands

Garrett Fadden is the VP of Retail IT at Focus Brands. He has been in the restaurant industry for over 20 years, and with Focus Brands since 2016.

In his position, he works with the technology systems across the Focus Brands enterprise, primarily with point-of-sale (POS). Throughout his career, Fadden has worked at multiple levels of retail IT including POS installation, support, database maintenance, and management.

“Being here at Focus Brands and in the franchise business model has been an exciting journey.”

Focus Brands is a leading developer of global, multi-channel foodservice under the iconic brand names of Auntie Anne’s®, Carvel®, Cinnabon®, Jamba®, Moe’s Southwest Grill®, McAlister’s Deli® and Schlotzsky’s®.

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