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Bar Louie CEO Tom Fricke Dishes On Managing Growth

Tom Fricke is CEO of Bar Louie, a national chain of neighborhood-style bars featuring hand-crafted cocktails and food, and his first year on the job has been a busy one.
bar louie
Bar Louie CEO Tom Fricke.

Tom Fricke is CEO of Bar Louie, a national chain of neighborhood-style bars featuring hand-crafted cocktails and food, and his first year on the job has been a busy one.

In his first eight months in the chief executive’s chair, the company opened its 132nd location, and is aggressively planning more growth and franchise opportunities in the year ahead.  Bar Louie was also recently named a top food franchise by Entrepreneur magazine and was also featured in the Barclays Capital 2018 Industry Report as a Top 20 Fastest-Growing Private Chain.

Fricke spoke with Chief Executive about how he’s managing rapid growth at Bar Louie, the challenges of running a business in the rapidly-evolving food and beverage space and how his personal leadership style has evolved over the years. Here’s what he had to say:

On managing growth

It’s just such a great point in time in the history of Bar Louie. I’ve been here eight months now, and I think Bar Louie is in an inflection point period. We’ve come off a period of really strong growth. We’ve just opened our 113th corporately-owned bar with 19 franchises, so it’s been a tremendous period of growth.

We’re at a really interesting period now where we’re stepping back for a second. We’re thinking through the lessons, all of the things that we’ve learned and what we now understand about Bar Louie from the sites that we’ve opened. And we’re taking these mods that really kind of bring in the talent and energy at the executive level. We have an almost completely new executive team that has the skills and the energy and the insights to take Bar Louie to that next level. At the same time, we’re fixing the foundation of the business.

We’re still growing, and we’re really looking forward to this next stage as we get ourselves in the position to really get to that next level. So, it’s just such a great and exciting kind of a year.

The challenges and opportunities in the bar/restaurant business

What excites us, and what really brought me to this brand, is that we have such an incredible environment. When you come into a Bar Louie and it’s busy and people are having such a great time, and it’s just such a great place to congregate, it’s an atmosphere, it’s an environment I just had never found anywhere. That was really exciting to me. I think that the challenges we face are any different than anybody in the space.

The pace of change is accelerating at an increasing rate every month. When you think about all of the innovation, you think about information flow, you think about trends that are emerging, it’s such a dynamic environment right now that you can’t take anything for granted because every day you wake up, something is different in the environment.

The other big challenge is the immediacy of the information for the consumer now, and how much smarter and informed our consumers are. We always say every guest is important and one of our big initiatives is to make sure that every guest has a five-star experience. With the information they have at their fingertips, the things that they see, it just is so important that we take care of every guest because if you don’t, it resonates through social media, it resonates through everything so quickly. It just means you’ve got to be on your game every day, every guest, every deal, every plate. And it really has helped us focus and sharpened our focus.

On company culture at Bar Louie

We just spent last week away as an executive team, getting off-site and thinking through how we see the next three years playing out. The very first thing we tackled was just reviewing our values and coming up with a new way to articulate the key values for Bar Louie, because we think it’s what drives our culture. We have five values that are central to everything we do. The first is growth. And we’re absolutely committed and focused on growth, not just about business, but of our fan base. We’re focused on the growth for people. We want to make sure that they continue to develop and have new opportunities and challenges.

The second thing is that we focus on service. We serve our guests and we serve our community. We love it when our teams are very involved in community activities, community charities and community events. And we serve each other. And we’re very big on making sure that we take care of all three of those constituencies.

The third, and what I think is really unique about us is we value different thinking. We like to think differently. And the challenge that I’ve laid out to the core team, to our service teams, to everybody, is that I want every guest at some point in their visit to Bar Louie to say the word “wow.” So, we should always be thinking about how we redefine the experience, how do we redefine the offering, so that people are blown away about something we do or something that they experience or something they taste. We value people who think about things differently because you can’t get that wow experience if you do the same things over and over and over again. So, we’re constantly pushing ourselves to approach the guest experience in a new way.

The fourth thing is, we act with empathy and integrity, and we don’t have to say any more than that—we do that at all times. And then the fifth, is we have fun because we have such a dynamic environment. If our people aren’t having fun, if they aren’t enjoying being at work, our guests won’t either. And we’re in the business of providing people with this great experience. And we believe that, in fact, so that we should be having as much fun as the guests over the course of the evening. And that’s really what drives us.

How his personal leadership style has evolved

When I think of the challenge of being a CEO, how my style has evolved and what’s important to me, I break it down into four things. Number one, I think I have to be visible. I’m the chief cheerleader, I’m the chief strategist, I’m the chief spokesperson for Bar Louie. And I want to be as accessible and open and visible to the team as I possibly could be.

And that’s why I spend a lot of time in the markets. In fact, we just opened up our White Marsh location in the White Marsh Mall outside of Baltimore. So I’m actually speaking from the GM’s office today. I’m going on a tour a couple of the bars in the DC area as a way to welcome them and talk to them about how the weekend went. So, I try to be as visible as I possibly could be and I always have been.

Number two, I’m always trying to learn new things. My experience is that the more you understand the business, the more you understand the people, the more you understand. To me, the most important part of the business is that intersection where the business meets the guest or the customer. And, you really have to understand that intersection if you’re going to be successful. And so, I like to go out. When I was at HMSHost, for example, I went through chef training with a couple of our partners because I wanted to be able to understand when you’re in a steakhouse and you’re looking at the guest experience, I want to understand how the back-office works.

With Starbucks, I went through coffee master training. I believe I was the first C-level licensee to go through coffee master training because I really wanted to understand. Not only does it help me understand how the brand works, how the business works, it sends a really important signal to the organization that you take product quality and the delivery of the product to the guests seriously.

I’ve been to bartender training, so I really continually want to learn the business. And my experience, the solution to the problems we face, I believe there’s an elegant solution to every problem that we face. There are a lot of times that solution exists, but it exists in other businesses or other industries. And so, I am constantly reading and sometimes it exists in history. I’m constantly reading, and constantly trying to update my toolkit so that when we confront issues, we have the latest and greatest thinking about how to address it. And I think it allows you to be that creative guy.

Third thing is analytics. You can’t run a business nowadays without great analytics. So, I’m very much into data and trying to understand what’s happening in the business. Then I think the most important thing where I’ve evolved is just the idea of balance. And I think, the biggest challenge CEOs have is being balanced in their approach.

You’re constantly trying to decide whether you should be patient or impatient, whether you should be demanding or understanding, strategic or tactical. And at different points in time, you’ve got to be one or the other, but it’s always important to try and remain centered. And I think trying to understand when you move in certain directions and when you come back to a more balanced position is the real trick in being a successful CEO.

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