David Blackburn Loves His Brand! 2022 MVP Single-Brand Leadership Award
Name: David Blackburn
Company: Southern Rock Restaurants
Family: Married 37 years, 2 children
Years in franchising: 25
Years in current position: 10
David Blackburn is the Single-Brand Leadership MVP (Most Valuable Performer).
Selected for achieving brand leadership with one brand, his Southern Rock Restaurants operates 97 McAlister’s Deli locations, making him the largest franchisee in the fast-casual brand’s system.
In his more than four decades in the restaurant industry, the 58-year-old has been everything from a busboy at Bonanza to a CEO at a fine-dining establishment.
His Tennessee-based organization operates McAlister’s Deli shops in eight states: Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois, Virginia, and Indiana. And if that weren’t enough for this single-brand rockstar, he’s on the grow again with a 50-unit development agreement with McAlister’s.
Formative influences/events: When I was in 9th grade, I had an older brother who was a football star. I played tennis instead, became a top-tier player in Nashville, and was being watched by colleges. I had a friend who was working at Bonanza and encouraged me to apply. The manager, Jimmy Conklin, interviewed me and I started working a couple of days a week, ultimately giving up tennis to work in the restaurant. The tennis coach from Belmont College helped me get a scholarship for academics, and I went to Belmont for a year before dropping out to work in restaurants full-time. I also worked in an accounting firm for 2 years during high school and during that college year. Today, I own my own restaurants and an accounting firm focused on franchise accounting.
Key accomplishments: I have a fantastic family. I have been married for 37 years. My wife and I actually worked at Bonanza together. We have two kids and two grandchildren, and both of our kids are part of the organization. My daughter is the director of HR and my son is the integration manager for the accounting business. We have 97 successful McAlister’s locations and more coming online soon, including a 50-unit development agreement.
Next big goal: We are posturing to become a portfolio company and want to bring on other brands in the next couple of years.
Hardest lesson learned: People in the organization do not always react the same way that I do. My posture to start with was that what I do is successful, so I’ll make other people do it the same way. And I learned that didn’t work. I started to understand the path was less of a straight line and more of a guardrail. People have unique skills; some have stronger people skills, some have stronger business skills. However, they all have great skills to move our business forward. So I keep guardrails in place to do just that, to use those individual strengths to benefit our goals and protect the weaknesses. Forward is good. That is an important word in our business.
Best advice you ever got: I was truly a product of trial and error and spent time watching people fail as well as succeed, learning from them both. I worked with Phil Hickey, former NRA president, and he noticed that I took lots of notes on scratch paper. He gave me a Day-Timer to make sure I was keeping my notes organized and insisted I show him how I was using it for months. This really taught me the power of organization. I used a Day-Timer for 35 years till my smartphone caught up with me. That Day-Timer still sits on my desk as a reminder. Steve Hislop, who was my president at O’Charley’s, helped me understand that not everyone will behave like I do, and to find the strength in each person and protect the rest. This is how I developed the idea of the guardrails.
Favorite book: The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard.
Business philosophy: I appreciate analogies and use mottos to help deliver our messages. One important motto is: “Must be present to win.” Leaders need to be there to challenge, uphold, and manage the stores. If they aren’t doing this, it will reveal a gradual slide into mediocrity. Leadership must be present to win. I also like to look through the lens of “effective and efficient.” We put everything through this filter to grow our business at an accelerated rate—effective at all the standards that will protect and grow our future business, then how efficient can we be at being effective. This varies by store.
Management method or style: We have an inclusive environment. This doesn’t mean it is a democracy. We must make hard decisions and I am the one who does that. However, I have trusted advisors on the executive team and other leaders in the company who drive the best results.
Greatest challenge: Like all restaurant operators, we struggle with applicant flow, people who don’t show up, or who don’t really want the job. This is an exercise in futility and is wasted energy for our management’s time.
How close are you to operations? I turned over day-to-day operations to AJ Baird about 3 years ago. He has been in the McAlister’s system for 23 years. He runs operations and manages weekly calls with our area directors. I visit stores regularly. When a new store opens, I spend 3 or 4 days in the restaurant every time. New openings are so much fun and a great investment, not only for the location but also for our leadership and training teams.
How do you hire and fire, train and retain? We use several hiring sites, like Indeed and Facebook, and now manage the flow with a product called Paradox. Our in-store managers decide on the proper fit for their individual needs, as well as discipline, and terminate employees who can’t meet the expectations of our business. We have both an online training module and in-store training with our Certified Training Rock Stars. The fun environment with the proper standards, balanced with meeting the financial needs of the employees, has always been the best outcome for our retention.
How do you deal with problem employees? Lots and lots of coaching.
Fastest way into my doghouse: Being disrespectful to a guest or fellow team member.
What have been the biggest impacts of Covid-19 on your business? This scared us to death. Did the end come and we didn’t even see it coming? The response from our government was overwhelming and daunting: shutting down dining rooms, having to lay off staff, and figuring out how to respond. We had to make changes in our operations and hope that the overall plan would be productive in the future. We are proud to see how our business recovered. Where we are today is a testament to how our teams worked to do more with less and honor the brand promise.
Why do you think you were recognized with this award? It’s an honor to be recognized for the Single-Brand Leadership award. We’ve been committed to growing the Southern Rock Restaurants portfolio with new McAlister’s Deli locations since 2011, and we are excited to expand the brand’s presence further in the coming years. I believe we were selected because of our many company contributions to the brand—and to Focus Brands—since becoming a partner 11 years ago. In 2021, we opened the chain’s 500th location, helping accelerate McAlister’s closer to becoming Focus Brands’ first billion-dollar brand. Last year we also signed development agreements for an additional 36 Deli locations, bringing our total development to 65 more locations.
How have you raised the bar in your own company? From day one, our team has striven to be effective and efficient. To accomplish this, we’ve prioritized and executed the fundamentals. We ensure that all our restaurants are clean, welcoming, and approachable, while also providing our staff with training and resources to set them up for success. As we’ve continued to expand, we’ve had to optimize our processes to ensure operations remain efficient across our portfolio. Our collective team works hard every day to help our restaurants meet the needs of our guests.
What innovations have you created and used to build your company? To support our goal to optimize operations at all our locations, we’ve developed scheduling and labor tools to help guide our team throughout the day and provide the necessary amount of coverage for each daypart. Furthermore, we are continuing to pay close attention to the evolving needs of today’s customer. And because of the increased demand for contactless dining experiences, we’ve recently been testing self-serve beverages. Through these tests, we’ve not only observed a speedier operation, but our beloved Sweet Tea has become the hero of the dining experience. To make our restaurants more accessible for our guests, we also leaned into McAlister’s updated capabilities, encouraging customers to download and use the revamped mobile app to take advantage of curbside pickup and delivery options. When restrictions began to lift, we implemented the brand’s new tableside dine-in ordering, where guests can take a seat at an open table and use the app to place an order and pay.
What core values do you think helped you win this award? In a recent interview I said, “If you’re not serving a guest, serve someone who is.” This motto has been ingrained into our core values. We believe that we are all support for the store-level operators who give it their all each day. At times, our locations may have fewer staff than we would prefer, but this commitment and support has created a devoted operations team with a lot of tenure and experience that helps deliver on our promise to the guest.
How important is community involvement to you and your company? We have been a longtime supporter of St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and have conducted more than 25 fundraisers for the organization over the past 15 years. Although St. Jude’s has been our primary donor recipient, we also look for ways to give back to local schools, churches, sports teams, and organizations assisting in the recovery of tragedies that occur in the community. Additionally, we are a national partner with the American Red Cross to help feed those in need during crises in the cities and towns we serve, as well as in surrounding areas.
What leadership qualities are most important to you and your team? To be successful in the hospitality industry, I believe it’s critical to provide hospitality back to those who work for your company. We are organizing a convention in Las Vegas for our store and office staff, and I’m excited to see 152 smiling faces enjoying the entertainment we have in store for them. I also plan to share a few fundamental messages to show how much their work is valued, and to keep them motivated to continue to perform.
Annual revenue: We are eclipsing the $2 million per location mark in revenue.
2022 goals: To finally breach $200 million in revenue and attain a 12% EBITDA.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? We hope to grow guest counts annually as well as have the appropriate menu price increases for inflation. We have always judged being effective as growing sales at an accelerated rate, not just inflation rates.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I think in 5 years we will have 250 locations or more and be wondering how to get to 500. If we can do that while maintaining our culture and having fun, wouldn’t that be awesome!
What are you doing to take care of your employees? Listen, listen, and listen. Let’s make sure we meet the financial needs of each person, not only with total compensation, but also with enough hours. We offer vacation pay, insurance, even 401(k), but nothing is more important than a flexible work schedule to help our team balance their needs with family, childcare, and school.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? Labor inflation began to be way above average in 2018 and accelerated even more in 2021. We have kept up with rising wage demands in each community and implemented sign-on bonuses for many of our locations. When you find a good formula that works for your location, you must advertise and spend enough to get to the front page for the exposure you need. Many job seekers will not spend the energy to search pages of ads. Get to the first page and make sure your offer is compelling.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? Well, since they are cracking down on the Grand Caymans and South Dakota, I will continue to invest in our leadership so they can take more and more of the reins and continue to invest in our business and my trust, so that when I do step aside someday the great work will continue. I look forward to hearing reports of Southern Rock Restaurants’ growth and dominance in the industry 20 years from now. Maybe I will ask for a royalty. That would be great!
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