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“You have to have good food, you have to be about guest service, and you have to be really good at your craft”

“You have to have good food, you have to be about guest service, and you have to be really good at your craft”

We catch up with the CEO of this international barbecue brand, to talk digital overhauls, overseas adjustments, and the importance of the family name

“We’re a very tech-savvy brand,” explains Laura Rea Dickey, CEO of international fast casual concept, Dickey’s Barbecue Pit. “I like to describe us as a very spry senior citizen, if you will.”

For any other brand, that comparison may come across as facetious at best, but for Dickey’s, which turned 80 years old this year, it’s a surprisingly apt one. The brand has been built with an ‘evolve or die’ mentality for a number of years now, and this has been largely driven by Laura, who occupied the chief information officer role before her current position.

One of Laura’s first major innovations for Dickey’s? Its SmokeStack software, which aggregates all customer data and turns it into actionable information for franchise owners and corporate alike.

“We had good data in some parts of the company, but it was all very siloed; it wasn’t actionable, and it wasn’t accessible in a timely manner. In 2008, after the recession, we put together a 12-year roadmap – we had to become best-in-class in technology in the same way that we were in our food, our folks, and our training,” says Laura.

“The first thing that we set out to do was SmokeStack. It was pulling all of the data available to us and putting it onto one big data platform, and making that accessible. We started to see some really great insights across the business where we could connect what our guests were telling us with marketing and advertising and inventory. Prior to our data initiative, we were getting sales data a week after the fact. Now, it’s real-time data updated every 15 minutes across the entire system.”

Staying ahead of the times

Laura’s approach as CEO of Dickey’s has centred around her knowledge and expertise of the latest technological trends; evident by the brand’s latest partnership with Combo Kitchen to bring 100 Dickey’s ghost kitchens to the US. Delivering good food is always objective number one at the organisation, but ensuring convenience is maintained is a close second.

“Our guests have led innovation because we live in an Amazon world where it’s ‘I want it when I want it, where I want it, and I want to access all of it from my smartphone’,” says Laura. “Guests have evolved expectations and restaurants aren’t immune to that. When evolving Dickey’s, we’ve not only had to meet the needs of our guests, but we also live in a world where Instagram eats first. Everything is tied back to how folks are interacting with their technology, which includes how they dine.”

The Combo Kitchen deal extends to the other brands under the Dickey’s Barbecue Pit family, including Wing Boss and Big Deal Burgers. Its aim is to build on the 550-plus Dickey’s portfolio that exists today, but as mentioned, Laura believes that the core of each location needs to be as recognisably Dickey’s as its original site in Dallas, Texas.

“You have a set of fundamentals – whether it’s for brick-and-mortar or a virtual kitchen – that have to be in place,” says Laura. “You have to have good food, you have to be about guest service, and you have to be really good at your craft.

“I think ghost kitchens are a wonderful opportunity to extend brands, and I think the market is much more palatable in the US, as so many more folks have become comfortable with third-party delivery where they’re not interacting with a brand directly.”

Putting an international foot forward

Dickey’s was founded in 1941 and began its franchising journey over 50 years later in 1994. But the Texan icon only began international expansion in 2018; today, you can find a Dickey’s in Pakistan, Japan, Singapore, the UAE, and soon, Australia. The question is, for a QSR concept on the up, why did Dickey’s wait so long to venture beyond the States?

“I definitely think that international franchising is something that we had as a goal for a long time. But it was about making sure that we had the fundamentals in place; that we could absolutely deliver on the Texas barbecue experience anywhere in the world,” explains Laura.

“It took us until 2018 that we felt comfortable that we could deliver on everything that we wanted the brand to be. So that if a guest was sitting in Dubai, that experience wouldn’t be that different than if they were sitting in Dallas, Texas in our original location.

We needed to make sure that we had a great local partner, which worked for us with our first international deal in the UAE. We also had the technology fundamentals by that point, as well as supply chain and everything else that we thought was truly necessary in delivering a Dickey’s experience.”

When travelling overseas, many brands – especially those in the restaurant industry – feel the need to adapt their offerings to suit a local market. But for Laura, this process was approached exactly like the brand’s ghost kitchen expansion; keeping the core of the experience the same was essential.

“In an international market, we look at it as us being a guest. It’s our responsibility to be conscientious and make sure that we make it a good place for the brand internationally. That included adjusting around 10 per cent of the menu to what was locally appropriate.

“We look at that as an adjustment but keeping the core experience. We still have the same processes and recipes, and you’ll interact with a certified pitmaster, but you may have additional side items available.”

Built for the long term

If the Dickey’s growth story shows us anything, it’s that putting the customer experience at the forefront of any kind of development is a must if you’re in it for the long term. This is the same across the brand’s tech enhancements, international adaptations, and even its internal hires.

The brand has had somebody with ‘Dickey’ in their name as CEO for decades, but being part of the family isn’t a golden ticket to the top. Instead, each and every person involved in Dickey’s executive team has proven themselves as suitable for their role.

“What I respect so much about my father-in-law is that he required that anybody who would work in the business, but was part of the family, to first go out on their own. They had to be successful; he required that of both of his sons,” says Laura. “There’s no separation between work and life when you’re wrapped up in the brand in that way, and that affects the investment that you make into the business because it’s a passion that we love. Each generation has left their own mark on Dickey’s, in their own way.”

Now under third-generation family management, Dickey’s has truly entered the digital age and shows no signs of slowing down its technology adoptions and enhancements. For Laura, keeping this evolution as streamlined as possible is the key to ongoing success: “Our philosophy is looking at how we can make the technology support the business, without having to ask our restaurateurs, partners, and customers to change how they interact with the brand.”

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