Operator at Heart: And soon to be a franchisor?
- Name: Tim Gayhart
- Title: Owner, Operator, President
- Company: Gold Star Chili, Snappy Tomato Pizza
- Units: 1 Gold Star Chili, 7 Snappy Tomato Pizzas, area manager for Snappy Tomato with 13 locations
- Age: 50
- Family: Married since 1997, 21-year-old son, 17-year-old daughter
- Years in franchising: Franchisee since 1991, area developer since 2001
- Years in current position: 30
Tim Gayhart is a hands-on every day kind of guy. That’s how the multi-brand operator describes his work ethic and operating style. “It’s important to me that my staff and employees understand how much I care about this business. Because if they start to feel like I don’t care, then why should they care?”
The 50-year-old entrepreneur operates 1 Gold Star Chili restaurant and 7 Snappy Tomato Pizza locations in rural Kentucky communities. He also is an area developer for Snappy Tomato and has 13 franchised locations operated by other owners.
From his home base in Walton, Kentucky, Gayhart faced the Covid-19 pandemic, survived it, and is now coming out the other side.
He says the pandemic deeply affected his buffet business, but he also had to overcome increased competition from third-party delivery. “It increased our competition from just what’s nearby to including every other restaurant in the delivery range,” he says. Gayhart and his team fought back by relying on their drive-thru window service at Gold Star, offering delivery, and promoting their restaurants as safe places to eat and work, which he says gained the trust of the local communities.
Gayhart says he’s wanted to be in the restaurant business as long as he can remember and decided at age 14 he wanted to own one. He’s done that and more.
He’s still an operator at heart and loves staying active in his business. “I don’t want to be the stuffed shirt walking into the restaurant. I want to always be lending a hand where it’s needed and training my staff to do the same,” he says.
Gayhart’s career trajectory has progressed from multi-unit franchisee to multi-brand franchisee to area manager. Next up, he says, is becoming a franchisor. One of his goals this year is to purchase Snappy Tomato Pizza. Within a few years, he says, “I’d like to be sitting at the head of Snappy Tomato Pizza and have 100 restaurants open and moving toward 200.”
It’s all in a day’s work for Gayhart. “When you’re doing something you love, a job’s not a job, it’s a part of your life, and that’s how I handle all of this.”
First job: I started young, raking leaves and shoveling snow for schoolteachers and neighbors as a kid. My first paying job was a newspaper route. My first job in the restaurant industry was in May 1985 at a local pizza place. They didn’t have positions, so I did everything: made the dough, the sauce, answered phones, everything. I started there before they opened for business, and I have been in the pizza business ever since. Eventually, Snappy Tomato Pizza ended up buying the company and I continued with them.
Formative influences/events: I think a lot of people who are self-driven come from a place of not having a lot. I had to be the one who helped my parents out. From an early age, everybody was already turning to me to provide or solve issues that came up. I had to be the person who either provided—or didn’t. The experience definitely catapulted me to where I am now. I was always depended on to be a provider, and the desire to provide has never left.
Key accomplishments: My greatest accomplishment has been the ability to recognize opportunities. I was able to purchase my first store because I recognized that an existing store was suffering. I took that opportunity to the board of directors and requested their assistance in purchasing the store if they let me reopen. From that point forward, it was just a matter of working hard.
Biggest current challenge: I’m working to purchase Snappy Tomato Pizza in its entirety and also to expand the number of Gold Star Chili locations I own. Lots of moving pieces, especially during a politically turbulent time, and there’s just a lot to keep track of.
Next big goal: I’m looking forward to purchasing several more Gold Star Chili locations. I’ve been operating my current Gold Star restaurant with great success and I’d like to start growing this out.
First turning point in your career: In 2001, when I was able to purchase the development territory with Snappy. I had been opening and turning over restaurants at the time, and a big goal was to start getting some stream of income on the backside for all the effort I was making. Receiving the development territory was incredible and offered me an opportunity to grow in a way I simply hadn’t been able to previously.
Best business decision: Early on, I decided to take responsibility for all of the actions under my purview. It’s a strong trait for entrepreneurs to have: the buck ends with you. It’s on you to have the ability and the strength to move things forward. What’s good about this is that it leads to having enough confidence in yourself and your abilities that you can be comfortable with other people’s ideas and opinions and disagreements.
Hardest lesson learned: Accepting that sometimes a venture will fail. You may know you have a good brand and a good product, but there can be outside issues that cause the venture to end. It was a tough pill to swallow that not every location in the restaurant business is going to be a home run. It took me a couple of years in a couple of places to figure that out. You need to be able to know when it’s right to move on and not let it drain you.
Work week: I don’t have a work week. No day is any different whether it’s Sunday or Monday. When you’re the owner, you’re the end-all-be-all. You need to be available when any of your employees call you, to deal with any issues as they come up and assess the situation. Whether I’m working in the restaurant or on my phone, I’m always working. But when you’re doing something you love, a job’s not a job, it’s a part of your life, and that’s how I handle all of this.
Exercise/workout: Usually, I work out about five times a week. I just built a gym on my land since Covid-19 started so I can be safer about it. I find it’s important to keep my energy level up. You can’t be sluggish as an owner. You’re the cheerleader and hard worker at your job, and you have to take care of yourself to do this.
Best advice you ever got: Two things: Don’t ever let $5,000 make you walk away from any deal. Early on, these dollar amounts were sticking points. Second, when there’s an issue to address, make sure you’re asking yourself the question, “What else could this mean?” and “What else is going on?” Sometimes the issue being discussed is not the deeper issue that needs to be addressed.
What’s your passion in business? I enjoy continued growth. Adding positions and opportunities to the communities we go into is an incredible experience. The opportunity to treat people with respect and give them a path toward growth, to help in their development and give them self-worth… this investment in people is just so important.
How do you balance life and work? I’ve found that if you think about it too much or plan too much, for work or for pleasure, you’ll talk yourself out of it. I always liked the sayings, “You never know how much you do until you do it,” and “If you need something done give it to a busy person.” I try to take advantage of opportunities while they come up and make sure I’m addressing everything. That said, when my wife says we’re going somewhere, it’s usually out of my hands.
Guilty pleasure: Working out, maybe? Or vehicles? I enjoy the chase of finding the right one and then selling it and doing it all again.
Favorite book: <Good to Great> by Jim Collins.
Favorite movie: I’m a slapstick comedy fan. “The Naked Gun” franchise ranks high.
What do most people not know about you? I don’t know. I try to be very open and answer people honestly when they ask me about myself.
Pet peeve: I really don’t like when it takes people a very long time to respond. I appreciate timeliness in responses. I hold myself to that and hope others treat me in kind.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I wanted to be in the restaurant business. I started early on. The guy I worked for was someone I looked up to at the time. He had high energy, exercised, and was a great salesman. So from the age of 14, I decided I wanted to be a restaurant owner. My parents always asked me, “When are you going to get a ‘real’ job?” but for me, this was always the goal, and I’m excited to be doing it.
Last vacation: Maybe 3 or 4 years ago, we went down to Savannah, Georgia. I love the community and atmosphere there.
Person I’d most like to have lunch with: Tony Robbins. I’ve learned a lot from him that I’ve been able to implement.
Business philosophy: Take care of the people who take care of you, and let them know that you appreciate them. It seems like a lot of people are afraid to praise and promote people who are succeeding around them. But this is a big deal to appreciate those who are working hard for you and let them know how much you appreciate their contributions.
Management method or style: To teach from within. Hands-on training. I want to always be lending a hand where it’s needed and training my staff to do the same. Whether it’s answering a phone, talking about strategy, or making food, there’s always something to do.
Greatest challenge: For me personally, it’s marketing. There are all kinds of experts out there, which is great because when you’re in the business, surrounded by those four walls, there can easily be a disconnect between running your business and promoting it.
How do others describe you? I don’t really have an answer for this. I’ve usually been the leader, the one doing the incentives and praising. I don’t usually get told by others how I’m doing. But I try to be fair, and I try to be honest and open about anything I’m doing.
One thing I’m looking to do better: There’s always room for improvement when it comes to implementing strategies. Making sure I’m finding the right people to take over specific responsibilities from me who understand what needs to be done, and then learning for myself how to rely on them better.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment: It’s not a defined process. I allow my employees to implement at a store level any ideas they may have to help promote the store and/or our services.
How close are you to operations? I’m hands-on every day. The last thing I want is for someone at one of my restaurants to think they don’t have someone to rely on or go to for help. Whether they’re overly busy, dealing with something broken, or anything else, I want to be present and available to them. They have to believe in you, trust you, and have respect for you. And if you’re not hands-on, the attitude just won’t be there.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Having the right information when we need it. Covid-19 was obviously a big deal. And having the tools involved and the resources and infrastructure of support for issues that may come up (or did come up) was paramount. It’s good when the franchisor is coming from a place of knowledge and respect.
What I need from vendors: Quality. Period. It can be a gamble sometimes when it comes to vendor quality. I want to be sure that the product is handled properly, that it’s handled with care from its packaging to its transport to its arrival at my restaurants.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? At the beginning of the pandemic, we immediately pulled back because we didn’t know what was going to happen. From that, we started to focus our marketing on our preparedness—sanitization protocol, providing safety for our customers and our employees, and that we are a safe place for people to come.
How is social media affecting your business? I’m no expert on social media, but where you show up on people’s searches is very important. Responding to customers politely, correctly, and quickly has been key. The ability to track the specificity of information has also been incredible.
How do you hire and fire? We’re always hiring because we’re always continuing to grow and improve. We don’t have to do a lot of firing. Usually, our employees are transparent about if they want to leave. Of course, I always want to protect our brand and make sure the customer is receiving the best attention they can, but we rarely run into rowdy or disrespectful employees.
How do you train and retain? The training process has moved into the digital world. We have the PlayerLync training platform with Gold Star, which has videos and tests, then certification, then hands-on training. The younger generation seem to resonate with this digital training. It helps engage them in their job. For retaining, I try to continue training and cross-training them toward growth and promotion. I want employees to know they can move up if they want. Between the praise and cheerleading and the opportunities available to them, people seem to stay longer.
How do you deal with problem employees? First, I always want to have a third party to the issue present. I work to be straightforward and direct about any issues, share ideas of how to grow and get past them, and make sure that everyone understands what the issue was and how to move forward.
Fastest way into my doghouse: Punctuality. Not being on time, or not being available for the shifts agreed to work.
What are the biggest impacts of Covid-19 on your business? The biggest impact was definitely on the buffet business. The second impact was the third-party delivery. Every restaurant learned how to deliver, and now the competition was more than restaurants in the immediate vicinity—it’s every restaurant in the delivery range.
How have you responded? We obviously deliver, and with Gold Star we were fortunate to have the drive-thru windows. We pushed our marketing around how we were a safe place to eat and worked to let the employees know that they were in a safe place.
Annual revenue: $10 million range.
2021 goals: Two main goals for this year: the purchase of Snappy Tomato Pizza Company, and to add another few Gold Star Chili locations.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Growth to me is defined by each location individually. I treat each entity as its own profit-and-loss center. For each location, I’m looking at my staff, if they’re willing and able and capable, and I’m making sure the restaurants are operating in a profitable manner. Then I’m looking to see if it’s possible to add another profitable venture.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? I’d like to be sitting at the head of Snappy Tomato Pizza and have 100 restaurants open and moving toward 200, and a successful cluster of five to seven Gold Star Chili restaurants.
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? I’ve previously owned a real estate company and did real estate on my own, too. I’d be interested in moving into new verticals again in the future, but when you know something and believe in it, it’s not work, and that’s where I feel with restaurants currently.
How is the economy in your region affecting you, your employees, your customers? Both employees and customers have been affected. Customers have received the stimulus money, which is good because they then went and spent it. On the other side, it’s hurt on the employment factor. It got very easy for people to not work and receive those funds. Definitely, there’s still an employment issue.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market? There are several smaller markets that have seen a tremendous amount of growth this past year. All of our restaurants have increased, or at least stayed the same, but several have increased dramatically. These locations have typically been ones that have existed in their community for some time. They have the trust of the customer already, and that was incredibly helpful during the pandemic.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? When I hear “change in the economy,” I think pay scale and what’s going to happen to people in the local community. I work to ensure that all of my employees and staff understand how important it is to treat all customers with extra respect, that these are people who are choosing to spend their dollars with us. Customer satisfaction has to be high. I want to reinforce to my staff, and through them to the customer, that they’re providing high value and high quality to everyone who walks through the door.
How do you forecast for your business? I believe that we’re going to stay at the higher volumes that we’ve seen during the pandemic. I think we’ve earned the customer’s trust and respect, and I think we’ll be able to increase from here as the economy rebounds. I think our future marketing will be received better too, because the community will have a greater awareness about what we’ve been able to do. People seem to be more aware of what you’re doing for them now than what you’ve done in the past.
What are the best sources for capital expansion? I’m not the best to answer this. I’ve always been reinvesting in myself and have been lucky enough to be able to use my profits to get loans for the next project.
What are you doing to take care of your employees? In today’s market, “taking care of people” means being flexible. Employees want to work when they want and have the time off that they want. Being flexible is key for this, being respectful to them and their needs. Through Covid-19, I wanted to give my employees the tools they needed to be safe in the restaurant and to enforce these rules so that every employee was, in a sense, taking care of their co-workers. During the first shutdown, we guaranteed everyone that they would have a job and a paycheck when things reopened. We also increased pay during the pandemic. I didn’t want to alter any of my employees’ lives unless I was personally feeling the effects already.
What laws and regulations are affecting your business, and how are you dealing with it? In the restaurant business, there are lots of laws and organizations to answer to: health department, labor department, etc. Covid-19 is the most obvious. New guidelines are driving our costs up: thermometers, sanitizer, etc. It’s another layer of protection for everyone, but also another layer of responsibility for employees. New labor laws, new minimum wages, all of this increases cost. It’s a lot of balancing and finagling making sure that we’re covering ourselves on every aspect. The tricky thing is that these laws get enacted, but as an employer you’re not always notified. So I’m constantly trying to go out and look for updates for these laws. As business owners, it’s our job to know these things.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? We bonus out quite a bit. We also create rewards like gift cards. We reward employees who rank highly on customer service, who stay after their shift when it’s busy, and who come in when someone calls off. I want to reward people for being excited about their work, and I want to make sure I recognize and praise my employees who stand up for this.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? I don’t currently have one. I don’t think I’ll ever not be doing something. I’m looking to continue as long as I can. I think I’ll always be an entrepreneur for as long as I live.
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