The restaurant industry was one of the industries most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the chief operations officer at Bottleneck Management, Mark Gray was saddled with the responsibility of keeping the business intact during the pandemic.
[1:27] John Corcoran introduces the guest Mark Gray.
[2:01] Mark gives an overview of Bottleneck Management.
[3:33] Mark recounts the state of operations at Bottleneck Management when he joined them.
[6:06] What particular incident can Mark describe as the watershed moment that brought about the need for change?
[8:11] Mark talks about factors to consider in launching new products or services.
[9:43] How did Mark convince other team members about streamlining their operations?
[10:53] Mark talks about the team’s big goal coming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
[14:04] How did the organization modify its goals to mitigate the challenges posed by the pandemic?
[16:07] Mark sheds insights into the organization’s goals for 2022.
[17:16] What strategies are the team implementing to increase their retention levels?
[18:49] Mark shares some advice on how leadership teams can align their employees with their goals.
Mark, who joined Bottleneck Management in 2019, has opened over 30 restaurants throughout his career.
Recording: Welcome to the Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks and giving your employees all the information they need to be successful at their jobs. Now, let’s get started with the show.
John Corcoran: John Corcoran here, co-host of the Process Breakdown Podcast, where we talk about streamlining and scaling operations of your company, getting rid of bottlenecks and giving your staff everything they need to be successful at their job. Check out some of our past episodes. Some of our guests include David Allen of Getting Things Done and Michael Gerber of The E Myth and many more. Of course, this episode is brought to you by SweetProcess. Have you ever had team members ask the same questions over and over again and it’s the 10th time you spent explaining it? Well, there’s a better way in a solution. SweetProcess is a software that makes it dropped dead easy to train an onboard new staff and save time with existing staff. Universities, banks, hospitals, and software companies all use them, as well as first responder government agencies using them in life or death situations to run their operations. Can use SweetProcess to document all the repetitive tasks that eat up your precious time so you can focus your team on empowering them and doing their best work.
John Corcoran: Sign up for a free 14 day trial. No credit card required. Go to sweetprocess.com, sweet like candy, S-W-E-E-T process.com. And my guest here today is Mark Gray. He’s the current COO of Bottleneck Management and formerly CEO of BarFly Ventures. He’s opened over 30 restaurants all over the country and what a relevant topic to talk about today, given all the operations and logistics challenges that the restaurant industry has had over the last couple of years and our topic today is leadership team alignment and goal setting. First, before we get into that market, just wanted to give you the floor so you can tell us a little bit more about what your company does.
Mark Gray: Great. Thank you. I appreciate being on the podcast. Right now we have 16 restaurants. We’re in six different states. We have four different brands but we also have an event venue out in Pittsburgh, where we do a lot of weddings and things like that. But we have our two main growth vehicles are Old Town Pour House and City Works. We have locations in Chicago, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Disney, Texas. So we’re all over. We’ve got a couple of marque downtown locations but yeah, that’s it, we’re craft beer focused, very sports bar themed. We like to take American classics and elevate them from a culinary standpoint, with a pretty robust beverage program.
John Corcoran: Yeah. Beautiful looking venues. I was checking them out on your website. Maybe want to pop in. They just look spectacular. So let’s talk about leadership team alignment. You joined the company a couple of years ago, three or four years ago and when you got there, you found that a lot of the teams were operating in a vacuum. What ultimately ended up was a disjointed result where the deliverable from the headquarters, from the office, going down to the restaurant had challenges and just not up to standards. So talk a bit about what things were like when you joined.
Mark Gray: Yeah. Things were just a little… First of all the department head team individual skill sets were fantastic. Everybody was doing a lot of great work but everyone was operating in a vacuum and so the cause of that is we were having a lot of really great ideas and a lot of really good individual work but the finished product that we were getting down to the locations didn’t have the feedback or perspective from other departments. So, if marketing had an initiative that was going out, it might not have gotten the input needed from either IT or training that was necessary so that what we sent down to the locations was going to be bundled in a way that could be executed immediately. There was a lot of things that was going to pushed down that had to be sent back for revisions, clarity.
Mark Gray: It wasn’t executable at the time and so we just had to pull back from that. First of all, we had to slow things down but the most important thing was I think making sure that the office realized that we have to have alignment with how we think and different companies align themselves different ways. There are a lot of companies that will get behind and say, we are going to be very marketing focused or we’re going to be very HR driven or training driven. We had to realign our team to understand that in the restaurant world, the best way to get things done is to understand that we’re going to be an operations led company. So as we’re developing initiatives and tactics and things that we want to push down, the very first question we should be asking ourselves is, are restaurants going to pull this off?
Mark Gray: Are we going to be able to execute this initiative at a high level? Then beyond that, we have to make sure that before we push things down that each initiative and tactic has gotten the participation from the other department heads to ensure that all the necessary boxes get checked before we actually roll out. It was really shifting the mentality to make sure that our home office team understood that the restaurants, they’re our customer and we have to deliver to them a product that they can deliver and so just slowing things down, creating some systems, putting some systems in place to create that alignment was pretty critical.
John Corcoran: And were there any big incidents that stick out in your mind that you can share that-
Mark Gray: I can tell you-
John Corcoran: … the straw that broke the camel’s back or anything?
Mark Gray: Well, not the straw that broke but in my first couple of weeks here, I hadn’t been with the company very long and I remember I was sitting in a brunch tasting and for those folks not in the restaurant business, brunch is actually a very difficult meal period to pull off. Eggs to order at high volume. I know it sounds simple but it’s definitely not and people in the restaurant business will know what I’m talking about. It’s a meal period that you only do two days a week. So your cooks don’t have a lot of muscle memory. It’s just tough.
John Corcoran: Yeah.
Mark Gray: So we’ve been taking it on as an ambitious task. There’s a reason why a lot of restaurants don’t do it.
John Corcoran: Yeah.
Mark Gray: So I was at a brunch tasting that was spectacular. Every plate of food that was put in front of me, I just thought was so incredible. I was getting very excited. I was like, holy cow, this group that I’m with, they really get food quality. I was, through the whole tasting, I was just blown away and so impressed and then towards the end of the tasting, the discussion came up about when we’re going to launch this menu and everyone had settled on, well, we’re going to have this launch in three to four weeks. That blew me. I was like, what are you talking about? We need training materials. Are all the websites going to be updated by then? Are we going to have all of the necessary material? Have we tested any of these items in any locations?
Mark Gray: Have we gotten any guest feedback? Have we… So when I heard that we were going to go from a tasting to a rollout in three to four weeks, that was my introduction to say, okay, we have to look at our process for how we roll items out because I think that is indicative of how things have been done in the past and it just, we got to slow things down and make sure that we’ve got a real strong process for making sure that it goes much more smoothly and we deliver for our locations.
John Corcoran: And I imagine through that process then you figured out a way to roll it out, taking a little bit longer but in a way that would lead to fewer dropped balls when it ultimately gets implemented at the restaurant level.
Mark Gray: Yeah. It’s all about the timing of your innovation and how you plot that innovation out. So for us, we’re developing food now that we don’t have any intent of rolling out for another year. We’re that far ahead in our initiatives calendar. So we’re doing final tastings for products that aren’t, we don’t even have schedule to roll out until next October or November. So you just have to develop more faster initially and then you develop a pipeline of products based on seasonality and other things. Then you plot them into a schedule and do that well in advance.
Mark Gray: And that just gives all of your department heads the time that they need to develop all of the supporting backup materials. You can test products in locations, get guest feedback, get employee feedback, work out the kinks on the lines because sometimes even just setting up your kitchen lines are really disruptive if you roll out four or five new products. Well, how many new skews of items is that? Do old items need to come off? So there’s just a real process for doing that appropriately and we’ve got that down now but yeah, that was my first holy cow, this is all going to be live in three weeks. This is a very intricate menu.
John Corcoran: Was it challenging at all for you to get the different teams aligned? What did you do? We joked beforehand about, was it trust falls? Did you take the leadership away for a retreat to talk about how we’re going to work through different ideas?
Mark Gray: Well, I was lucky in that I came into a team where we said maybe they were working in a vacuum a little bit but they were all incredible and they were all big picture thinkers. So as we started to collaborate and I started rolling out what the new processes might look like, the buy-in I got was really immediate. So I didn’t have to do a lot of convincing as far as what the go forward would look like. I think everybody, they were a little exhausted by how some of those things had gone the past and so they were really looking for a new way to get some of this stuff done. The ideas were met with really open arms and so that part for me was probably the easiest part of the whole thing.
John Corcoran: All right, so you have leadership team alignment and then once you have alignment amongst the team, then you can focus on goal setting. You said that the most important first step was creating overarching goals. Let’s talk about last year 2020, coming out of the pandemic, what was your big goal there?
Mark Gray: Yeah, well, we had coming out of the pandemic where there was a lot to do. It was such a unbelievable time for restaurants. Really every initiative that we had prior to COVID, we had to scrap that. We were scratch cooking at that point and really starting over so emerging out of COVID, it was all about hiring. That was the number one thing was just how do we get enough people in our buildings so that we can maximize the meal periods that are available to us. So our hiring initiative, again, every department had to come up with a list of tactics of what they were going to do to contribute, to getting folks to apply or getting folks that used to work us back in our doors because the restaurant industry, just so many people just opted out. They didn’t-
John Corcoran: Yeah.
Mark Gray: There was a lot of… COVID was still happening so the level of comfort of just working in restaurants and connecting with that many people every day, that was a tough sell. Restaurants weren’t busy. We were working under restrictions, seating capacity restrictions. Everyone had to wear a mask all day. So there was just a lot of uncertainty in the business. It just wasn’t an attractive job so we needed a marketing strategy for getting the word out. We needed a finance strategy because we needed to allocate dollars for hiring incentives and retention bonuses and return bonuses. So we had to get money allocated there. Then our training department had, probably the hardest task of all of it, is figuring out how we’re going to train a lot of folks who’ve probably never worked in the industry before. We needed to figure out a way to train them faster because we needed them on the floor quicker but we also needed to figure out how to train them better because we were hiring a lot of people without industry experience coming out of COVID.
Mark Gray: So we had all of our departments, all jump on those individual challenges and then we just plowed forward. Beyond that there have been a litany of challenges, with supply chain has been a real disruptor and then based on the municipality that you’re in, we’re in Texas and Florida and those have been a little bit easier for us to operate in but we’re also in Illinois, Maryland and Boston and those communities have been quite cautious about the virus. And just how do you balance that in different geographies but you have just one team coming up with all of these different specific game plans. It’s been a trick.
John Corcoran: Yeah, that’s got to be. That’s mind blowing, mind boggling how to manage all that. And then, so I also want to ask, you got overarching goals, so going into, let’s say 2021, you’ve got goals for the year and normally a process might be to break it down to a quarter, like here’s Q1, Q2, Q3, that’s what we got to do but when things are changing and COVID was ramping up and ramping down indiscriminately, you must have had to be nimble and change those dynamics and change those smaller micro goals?
Mark Gray: Yeah. I’ll give you the best example of that is we’re a very experiential concept where a big TV, sports craft beer were a great place to go for events. We book lots of parties. We’re just a very communal, very social concept. Over 40% of our sales are alcohol so you’ve got to be in our buildings to experience that and so while we had an off premise or to go strategy pre-COVID, it was such a minuscule part of our business. Coming out of COVID we knew that whole dynamic had to change. So, that was, to go wasn’t even on our radar and then all of a sudden it’s the most important thing we have to do. It’s just when those things come at you, you have to be able to react and get it done. But luckily we were in a situation that was so severe that everyone understood that, that was the pivot. There wasn’t any discussion, like we can’t do that or we shouldn’t do that. It was so obvious that getting that alignment was pretty simple.
John Corcoran: Yeah. But still changing the goals so frequently must have been just hard to get that feeling of attraction.
Mark Gray: I’m really looking forward to 2022. We’ve made it. I’m so proud of the team. We’re coming out of COVID in a pretty good position. Sales have really picked up in the last several months. So we had, the back end of our summer was really strong. We’ve had a nice fall. Our period 12 was pretty good, even better than it has been historically. So, I feel pretty good right now and I’m really excited. Hopefully these new variants don’t cause too much of a problem.
John Corcoran: So your goal in 2020 was to hire great teams and then the 2021 goal was to retain those teams. So talk a little bit about-
Mark Gray: 2021 was hire great teams, 2022 is retain.
John Corcoran: Retain. Okay.
Mark Gray: We’re looking forward to 2022 and our goals, two main goals we had in 2021 were hiring great teams and developing off premise platform. In 2022, it’s retaining those great teams and how do we diversify our off-premise platform. What are other avenues for us? We’ve done a great job getting to go and delivery launched. Now, what are we going to do to even expand on that? Is there a catering arm that we need to look at? How do we develop a grade for groups and get more family meals going? So it’s been okay. We’re executing our menu to go now. Now what else can… How does alcohol play into that? What’s our strategy going to be there? Do we roll out curbside? So, now it’s just about diversifying our off premise and then what are we doing now to retain our teams?
John Corcoran: And on the retention piece specifically, obviously some kind of retention bonus, financial bonus or something like that but what else have other departments within the organization been working on, on the retention piece?
Mark Gray: Yeah, again, it’s been an all hands on deck approach. Obviously when you’re talking about retention, you’re really relying a lot on HR and operations but we’re doing, I think we’re doing a lot of the things that everybody else is doing. We’re obviously starting off with compensation and making sure that we are competitively comping our salaried and hourly employees. We’re trying to be in the top 25th percentile of our competition. So we think that that helps create some separation there. We’ve obviously revamped all of our bonus structures and bonus programs to heavily incentivize the different KPI metrics that we put in place.
Mark Gray: Then we look at the work life balance piece. In our home office, we’ve gone to two day being able to work remote so we have three days in the office. There’s a lot of flex time there. We’ve increased all of our vacation time for all of our salaried managers. We just improved our insurance and benefits program. So it’s really been a very broad brush. What is every single thing that we think will materially impact our hourly employees and then we take a look at that and we execute the most that we possibly can in each one of those sections.
John Corcoran: Well, this has been great, Mark. Anything else you want to add in terms of leadership team alignment, advice for anyone listening to this, who wants to get their leadership team more aligned or on the point around goal setting as well?
Mark Gray: Just really creating that identity within your brand. You have to figure out, as a department head team, you are serving somebody and figuring out how to execute on their needs and getting alignment amongst your department head teams so that everybody is sharing in that vision, is really critically important. If you have a department head team that isn’t operating with the end in mind and understanding who is it that’s actually going to be executing on these initiatives that we are sitting in an office dreaming up one day, you have to be very sensitive to the folks that are going to be pulling it off and making sure that you put them in the best possible position to execute.
John Corcoran: Well, great. Mark, this has been a pleasure. Mark Gray, Bottleneck Management. Where can people go to learn more about you, connect with you and visit one of your locations?
Mark Gray: Yeah, you can definitely check us out on bottleneckmgmt.com. So that’s bottleneckmgmt.com and then any one of our concepts. They all have their own websites as well. So City Works, Old Town Pour House, South Branch and Sweetwater.
John Corcoran: Excellent. Mark, thanks so much.
Mark Gray: Great. My pleasure. Thank you.
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