From its hot sauce bar to its business concept, Tex-Mex restaurant chain Tijuana Flats is definitely spicy. Just take a glimpse at the company's unconventional website (www.TijuanaFlats.com) and its line of T-shirts sporting bold sayings such as, "My butt is on fire," and you'll realize this is one company not afraid to push the limits. We caught up with founder Brian Wheeler to ask him some burning questions and find out what he does to ensure that the company's irreverent attitude and policies are preserved by the franchisees.
What kind of attitude do you foster at Tijuana Flats?
So many restaurants out there worry about image. They worry about if their managers have a nose ring or a tattoo and how they dress. Because of that, unfortunately, they miss out on a lot of great people. We just want [employees] to be excited and full of energy--somebody who wants to learn and have fun. I could care less if they have a nose ring or a tattoo, and most of the customers don't care, either, because if employees have warm personalities and work hard, that's what counts. We don't make them wear corny outfits. They don't come in with polyester shirts or goofy looking hats. We are out there in terms of our designs and our logos. We just had a shirt that came out that says, "Rock Out With Your Guac Out" and "Let Us Roll You Out A Fat One." We're sort of on the edge, but we're fun at the same time.
How do you pass on this irreverent attitude to franchisees?
It's important first to pick the right partners. When your partners believe in your concept and in you, then they usually pick up on [the attitude] pretty easily. Then it starts with the hiring and the right selection of the managers and finding the manager who is really nice and full of energy and has a big heart. That's what we'll take. And we'll exhaust ourselves making them successful. Then it goes to their selection of employees and making sure we do the same thing with employees. It's not like we have meetings where we sit down and say, "Let's talk about our culture." I come in and compliment them, and I try to get them fired up and let them know I care about them. It's just always top of mind. We're always trying to recognize our managers and employees. But it all starts with picking the right employees. We don't need an accountant out there running the restaurant who is more concerned about P&L.
So do you actually help franchisees hire managers and employees?
We do not get involved with the hiring of franchise managers. However, we do make a commitment to train any manager selected by a franchise partner. We treat these managers no different from our own corporate managers.
How do you go the extra mile to establish the culture and make sure your franchisees understand the concept you're trying to establish with Tijuana Flats?
[During training,] my partner and I get a bus, and we load them all in and take them to the first store and talk about [the franchise] along the way. It's neat. They really bond, and we get to know them. We'll never be too big to not do that. We'll always be at the conferences; we'll always give them that tour. They learn this company started from a 1,200-square-foot restaurant that earned $200,000 a year to 27 stores earning $30 million-plus. When I'm in the restaurants or my partner is in the restaurants, we know the employees. They see us talking to them, interacting with them, knowing their names and I think it sort of rubs off on them.
Have there been cases where you feel a franchisee hasn't fully embraced the culture and you've had to do something about it?
I wouldn't say I've had that [problem] with any of our franchise partners. I've had some general managers who would prefer to manage out of fear than out of respect, and I think that's really dangerous. It can definitely destroy the culture when you're screaming at your employees or saying, "This is the way to do it because I said this is the way to do it." And we just work with them and coach them and, if we can't get them to change, we'll just have to move on, but we haven't experienced that with any of our partners. We've been really good at getting quality partners.
How do you feel so far about the success you've had in preserving the culture?
I have a good friend who used to work for Nation's Restaurant News, and he told me a while back that once most companies hit about 17 to 20 restaurants, they start to lose the culture. He said that's just sort of the norm and you have to look out for it. We're at 27 restaurants now, and we've been able to maintain that. We really work hard doing that. Our area supervisors will go out to these restaurants and visit them once a month. A lot of franchisors send supervisors out maybe once a quarter just to fill out a report. We don't do that. We're extremely intense, but we're not very uptight. We work really hard, and we demand really good results, but at the same time, the employees and the managers definitely come first to us.
Being so involved in the training and in the individual stores has certainly helped you preserve the culture. How will you preserve the culture when you grow so big that it's not possible to maintain such a high level of personal contact?
The goal to preserving our culture will be difficult as we continue to grow. However, we feel the daily contact by the Area Supervisors and the monthly store visits will help develop the relationships with these managers that are critical in preserving our culture.
Can you offer any advice for others trying to preserve a company culture?
If you take care of your employees and your managers, everything will work out fine. If you go to a restaurant that has outstanding guest service, they didn't learn that through the policies, procedures or manuals. They might have picked up on how you have to dress and the basics of guest service, but when you go into a store where the guest service is just on point and they blow you away, that's because the managers are treating them with respect, they're having a blast at work, they want to be there and they're trying to make the right decisions. A lot of companies say customers come first. Well, we always say the employees and managers do. When we do that, for them, the customer will always come first.