Anand Gala can remember working in his family's Jack in the Box restaurants when he was still in elementary school.
"As early as 8 or 9, I was going with my mother to work on weekends and holidays," he says. "I stood on a milk crate and worked in uniform as a cashier or cook. I've basically done every position in the restaurant, and that's where I learned the business: at the foot of my mother. It was truly a family business. My elder brother also went through all of the stages of operations and management. My father was involved, but to a lesser extent."
This early taste of the business gave him visions of grandeur. Today he operates more than two dozen Applebee's, Famous Dave's, and Del Taco restaurants in California and Arizona.
We last spoke with Gala when we profiled him in Multi-Unit Franchisee Magazine (1st quarter, 2010). We had a chance to revisit with him recently, ask him how he's fared during the recent economic down cycle, and listen to his take on the important role of consumer marketing in franchising.
Q: In spite of the economy, you've continued to expand your portfolio, opening two new Famous Dave's BBQ restaurants in California. Can you tell us about that decision and what the upside is to starting a new location in a down economy?
A: We've been lucky and we've been blessed and able to build a business with a conservative financial strength. That's allowed us to take advantage of what we consider to be the "once-in-a-generation opportunity" and combine that with the concepts that provide clear and distinct offerings that customers love. That is what has provided us the opportunity to grow, even in this very challenging economic environment. Furthermore, Famous Dave's understands the franchisee and developer challenges and has created incentives to minimize the risks we were all experiencing through reduced royalties. That really completed the formula for justifying new growth. The optimal formula is strong financial stability, great concept and food, opportunities presented because others were going out of business, and financial incentives offered by the franchisor.
Q: Tell us about your approach and perspectives on consumer marketing.
A: Our overriding philosophical approach we try to live by is that you can receive too much food and get too much great value, but you can never get too much great customer service. From a consumer marketing standpoint, great brands and great customer frequency are built and driven by great customer service; so the focus we operate under is on the guest, on the experience. Within each franchise brand, there are metrics and methods used to measure customer satisfaction, customer engagement, and customer loyalty. And they report back to us and use those results as a metric to drive our performance. Aside from that, we focus on creative solutions that are different than many mainstream marketing ideas. We try to find out how our guests are engaged - that varies by market. Some are more receptive to mainstream media, some are more receptive to social media, and others may be more receptive to alternatives such as email. We spend lots of time trying to figure out how best to reach various segments of customers. It's no longer any one-size-fits-all.
We are able to track trends, but by the time you compare trend data to industry norms, that trend is now mainstream. The key is to stay one step ahead of the mainstream and find the next growth area or method for customer engagement.
Lastly, I try to be a student of history. There are methods of marketing and customer engagement done outside of the restaurant industry that we can all learn from. You'd be surprised what tactics can be used. I get great ideas walking through grocery and convenience stores and observing how they are able to capture the customer's attention and motivate them to make a particular purchase in a very short period of time.
I am not a very creative marketing person but I have a good eye for what is creative and unique and can then figure out how I can modify or adapt to my situation.
Also one of the greatest tools when looking for ideas is the cellphone camera. I can't remember everything I see but I can take a photo. I have a huge database of pictures of ideas from a variety of industries and in various formats.
Q: What's next for you?
A: Very simply, I hope to continue improving our operations and our ability to delight our guests. If we can maintain our high expectations within our operations then we will continue to look for opportunities to expand within the brands we already operate.
Q: What is your idea of ultimate success?
A: I think I'm a work-in-progress. I can look back at the company and know that I've done the best I can and created an enterprise that my parents and founders would be proud of. There's a structure in place that gives me the ability to achieve the elusive "balance in life." That's my idea of ultimate success. Not the number of units, employees, or sales.
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