Jeff Chandler was born and raised in the restaurant business.
“My father was a pub and tavern owner back in the early ’70s. And so as a kid, I really grew up in restaurants on nights and the weekends—doing everything from emptying the pool tables to cleaning restrooms and making sandwiches.”
This was a major reason why the one-time D1 football player for the University of Washington decided to leave Goldman Sachs after only a year to take a bartender job back in the Pacific Northwest. “When we were pregnant with our first child, my wife thought I was absolutely crazy to give up a really nice desk finance job to go to work for a restaurant company. But I loved it,” Chandler says.
This decision ultimately led him to the RAM Restaurant Group based out of Washington, where he combined a background in finance with his passion for restaurants. Over the course of 20 years, he rose to become managing partner of RAM, which was ahead of the craft brewery craze by a few years. After selling that business, he landed as CEO of Opper Melang Restaurant Group, where he helped grow their Tex-Mex business before finding his way to Hopdoddy Burger Bar.
“I was on a restaurant tour in Austin with some other restaurant CEOs. And we went to Hopdoddy. And I remember being completely blown away with the experience, the vibe, the food, the people,” Chandler recalls. That was in 2014. A few years later, a recruiter coincidentally asked him about an opportunity to be the CEO of the burger chain and Chandler jumped at the chance.
Chandler recently spoke with Chief Executive to talk about the company’s growth strategy, challenges in the restaurant industry, what he learned from his head coach at Washington and more. Below are excerpts from this conversation.
What have been some keys to Hopdoddy’s growth?
I call it the three-legged stool. One, you have to have great people. You have to have a great culture and the ability to hire and track and retain great people.
The second component has been just finding great real estate and really understanding our concept, our business, our prototype, our footprint, and really working to define that so we have a really strong real estate development strategy.
Lastly, it’s just making sure that we’ve got solid unit level economics and that our model is tight and that we had the ability to go out and source other capital. And with our partnership with (private equity firm) L Catterton, that really solidified that component of it.
For us, it was about growing methodically, not growing just to grow. And that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about L Catterton is they have a passion and a pride to build things the right way and to do it well, rather than fast.
It’s been my third year here. The first year was really just building what we had and refining what we had. The second year, we put everything into place in terms of the growth and getting that built up. And now, we’re just continuing to refine that and then execute on the pipeline that we built, both in terms of people and locations.
What are some of the big challenges that you guys are facing in the restaurant industry and at large?
I have to mention people because that’s at the center of what we do. And the ability to attract and retain great people is our top challenge. And in our industry today, I think that’s one of the biggest challenges most companies have is sourcing talented people that buy into your culture and thrive in your culture. That continues to be our number one focus.
The cost of real estate and the pressure as we grow, I think that’s proven to be challenging as well. And I think just being patient. I think all too often, companies, they grow to grow. And they end up making decisions that they regret. And so, I think just having the patience and the discipline to grow the right way and to say no and pass on sites. And we pass on sites all the time, if we don’t have the people for it or if they just don’t fit the economic model. We just have to remain disciplined to not get sucked into the growth game.
How do you guys stand out in such a crowded market?
I think that’s one of the things that we do well is differentiate ourselves from others. And we do it in a number of ways. First, there are more reasons to come to a Hopdoddy, the fact that we do have a full bar and we put emphasis on our bar. We’re not a sports bar by any stretch of the imagination. But we do cater to that side of the business.
So coming in and grabbing a great burger and a beer, watching the game. For whatever reason, the bar component is an attractive and compelling part of the brand and the concept. I think secondarily with our burgers, we compete in the quality, uniqueness, and variety categories. So, we’re not built for speed and price and convenience necessarily.
And so that helps filter out some of our competition, as well. We play at a higher price point. And for that, I think we must and we have to deliver on a better experience. And so it is that experience that I think that can separate Hopdoddy from the rest of the fast-casual or quick serve burger joints. We have a term. And again, my team kind of makes fun of me for saying this. But we’re really not fast casual. We’re not quick serve. Our burgers take time. We make every burger from scratch every day. We bake our own buns. We grind our own beef and proteins. I have dubbed it unicorn casual because that’s…it really is something unique.
My belief is we will see more and more concepts continuing to focus on fine dining quality food in a fast-casual environment, but with casual dining experience features. So, it kind of blends all three of those together. And that’s really the pool that we play in.
How was your leadership style evolved since you’ve been in these prominent roles and as CEO before for your previous company and now with Hopdoddy?
I’ve always been a big team player. I played D1 football and learned great teamwork and discipline in that environment from a really great head coach, Don James (former head coach of Washington). And it’s amazing. He ended up teaching me more than I ever realized just about leading teams and people, whether it was on the football field or in the restaurants. And, I would say patience has probably been the one biggest thing that I can look at that I think has evolved and improved.
I think in this space things happen so fast. Like I said earlier, it’s a dynamic dysfunctional environment. And I think having the patience to say no to things, having the patience to take the right path, even if it takes you a little longer to get there, having the patience to invest in people, the right people, I think is the one thing that I have learned and I have evolved over the years. And I think, you know, building and selecting and curating really a team that buys into that approach kind of in a non-egotistical, non-self-centered way.
I think it’s just probably that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned over the last 25 plus years is not slowing down, but just pausing to make sure that we’re making the right decisions. And figuring out if we have the patience to invest when we need to invest in them and knowing when is the right time to put your foot on the accelerator and go.