Serving Food & Community: Texas restaurateur is passionate about people
Name: Drew Gressett
Company: 1788 Chicken
No. of units: 37 Zaxby’s, 26 Hat Creek Burger
Family: Wife Shelby, children Lucy Bell 10, Laine 8, Winnie 5
Years in franchising: 5
Years in current position: 5
Drew Gressett’s journey into franchising began with a food trailer in Austin, Texas. He opened the windows on his mobile diner in 2008, serving up burgers, fries, and shakes and building a following among locals. His own Hat Creek Burger was off and running.
Within a few years, he was opening Hat Creek Burger restaurants and catering events all over the central Texas city. Today, he operates 26 of the burger restaurants, characterized by friendly and helpful service, play yards, and burger patios. He’s taken the company from its origins in central Texas to markets in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio.
By 2016, Gressett was looking for something else to diversify his business. He found it in Zaxby’s, the Athens, Georgia-based chicken brand. He opened his first location and has never looked back, eventually growing his Zaxby’s holdings to 37 locations in Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
“Zaxby’s offered me a concept that had the stability and longevity that complemented my own company,” says Gressett, president of 1788 Chicken. Networking introduced him to another Zaxby’s franchisee, and the two partnered to begin acquiring Zaxby’s locations in the Southeast. “The community and the culture of Zaxby’s has been awesome,” he says.
Gressett will be the first to tell you that hiring and developing a good team is key to growing the business. “I want them to feel empowered,” he says. “One way I do that is by tossing them into the deep end, but provide a life raft.”
This year Gressett says he plans to continue working his development pipeline for both Zaxby’s and Hat Creek Burger in an effort to increase efficiencies and profitability for both brands. “I’d also like to find another brand to invest in that would bring even more diversity to the company,” he says.
With his track record of success as both an independent entrepreneur and a fast-growing Zaxby’s franchisee, a third brand in his portfolio is a pretty safe bet.
First job: Working at a golf course as cart boy, cleaning golf carts, picking up range balls, and escorting bags to their carts.
Formative influences/events: No question that my dad has been a huge influence. He taught me business, was a constant sounding board, and provided mentorship. He is always a phone call away to help navigate or work through challenges or for celebrations. He also is in franchising and involved in burgers and chicken.
Key accomplishments: Personally, marrying my beautiful wife and starting my family. Professionally, getting into the Zaxby’s system with my first store in 2016 was a big moment.
Biggest current challenge: Hiring, training, and retaining the right talent and people is a constant challenge.
Next big goal: Develop several ground-up Zaxby’s, expand Hat Creek, and find a third brand to acquire to diversify my portfolio.
First turning point in your career: Opening up the third Hat Creek in 2011. Acquiring our first Zaxby’s in 2016 was an equal and similar turning point.
Best business decision: Getting into the Zaxby’s brand and taking Hat Creek to Dallas.
Hardest lesson learned: If you build it, they won’t always come. You need discipline on real estate and site selection. I’ve had more wins than defeats, but would always prefer all wins.
Work week: Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m., market travel, and seeing my stores week in and week out when I can.
Exercise/workout: Very often. I can’t function unless I have done something—running, mountain biking, weight training. I spend a decent amount of time on the Peloton.
Best advice you ever got: Assume the best in others.
What’s your passion in business? There are a lot of reasons I do what I do. I enjoy spending time with my team and hearing firsthand what’s going on. The people side of it drives me. The relationships within our organization are a passion of mine.
How do you balance life and work? I have a great team that allows me to work my own schedule. I can work from home or in the field. My family and kids always come first, but my family also allows me to do my job. I can blur the lines when I need to and work in the presence of my family.
Guilty pleasure: Weekday golf. (Ha-ha, it takes 4 hours to play a round.)
Favorite book: Lonesome Dove.
Favorite movie: “Lonesome Dove.”
What do most people not know about you? That I am a homebody.
Pet peeve: When my girls play volleyball against the wall.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Professional basketball player.
Last vacation: North Carolina mountains, hiking and relaxing.
Person I’d most like to have lunch with: Magic Johnson.
Business philosophy: Build the right team, empower your people, and apply pressure.
Management method or style: Toss ’em in the deep end, but provide a life raft.
Greatest challenge: Keeping everyone motivated, and communicating with direction while we grow.
How do others describe you? Motivating, hands-off but helpful, loud, high expectations.
One thing I’m looking to do better: Slow down and provide clearer direction. Take a little more time to explain and direct my team.
How I give my team room to innovate and experiment: This goes back to my management style: Throw ’em in. I want my team to use their minds and expertise to bring thoughts and recommendations in areas where my skill set isn’t the best.
How close are you to operations? Very.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor? Culture of the franchisor and clear communication.
What I need from vendors: Timely deliveries, thought partners, and clear communication.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How? No. We have a very community-driven marketing strategy, so we always try to be community partners.
How do you hire and fire? HR leans on third-party tools to vet the right candidates and get them through the right process. We fire when team members don’t meet expectations and are not willing to make the necessary changes to be part of the team. We free them up to seek employment elsewhere.
How do you train and retain? We train the front and back of the house with our materials and programs. We have a culture element that is also part of our training. As far as retention, we expect our supervisors to foster an environment and culture of relationship. This builds loyalty and allows space for communication, growth, etc.
How do you deal with problem employees? We try to correct and retrain when we can. We want to allow a chance to improve. Be forgiving to a point, but know when it’s time to move on.
Fastest way into my doghouse: Bad or lack of communication.
How did Covid-19 affect your business? Thankfully, we are a drive-thru business so we had the opportunity to stay open. This presented an opportunity to become faster and more efficient in the drive-thru.
How have you responded? Our dine-in portion is starting to return, but the positives from the drive-thru will remain.
What changes do you think will be permanent? See above.
Annual revenue: N/A.
2022 goals: Continue to grow with our development pipeline for Zaxby’s and Hat Creek. So 2023 is a big year for stores opening! Continue to find ways to drive efficiency for both brands.
Growth meter: How do you measure your growth? Increased profits.
Vision meter: Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? In 5 years, still growing this business to 100 units each and potentially adding that third brand. In 10 years, more of the same.
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not? Nope. I am open to other opportunities, but food has been the main focus.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers? In the Southeast we have been lucky to remain strong. We have a good demand for our products.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your market? Yes. Store growth has increased over the past 18 months thanks to the drive-thru. Our burger brand has had nice year-over-year growth over the last 4 to 5 months.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business? You keep your head down and keep treating customers and employees well.
How do you forecast for your business? With a week-over-week and year-over-year look at labor forecasting, and a year-over-year forecast for 6- and 12-month budgeting. It’s a bit of an imperfect science to predict.
What are the best sources for capital expansion? Community banks and flexible and patient investors.
Experience with private equity, local banks, national banks, other institutions? Why/why not? Yes, we have worked with most.
What are you doing to take care of your employees? It all goes back to the relationship piece: competitive pay and opportunities for growth.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)? Just making sure we are competitive and fair so we can retain our people and acquire the best talent.
What laws and regulations are affecting your business and how are you dealing with them? Not a ton of issues in the markets we are in. We work with the necessary parties to be fair and compliant.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees? We have employee of the month in all our units, various bonus programs for high performers, quarterly district manager outings with recognition to lead performers, and weekly shoutouts to team members who have gone above and beyond.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place? I am “in it to win it” and not currently focused on an exit strategy. I’m hoping to keep this in the family, whether it’s bloodlines or partners currently in the business.
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