Evolve or Fail: CEO Laura Rea Dickey on the Mantra that Helped Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Thrive
“Encourage innovation. Change is our lifeblood, stagnation our death knell.”
These are the words of David Ogilvy, a British executive who was widely known as the “father of advertising.” Ogilvy has attributed the success of his campaigns for brands such as Rolls Royce, American Express, and Dove to meticulous research into consumer habits, a move that prevented him from committing to one single technique in his career. While Ogilvy was speaking of the advertising world, his ideas on innovation and change can be applied to any industry hoping to achieve sustainable growth, even the likes of Texas barbecue.
Case in point, observing the work of Laura Rea Dickey at the family-owned restaurant brand Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. In her time of over a decade with the business, Dickey has transformed the company’s marketing strategy, integrating it with the technological innovations of the information age such as big data and artificial intelligence. In her current role as Chief Executive Officer of the world’s largest barbecue franchise she has been instrumental in navigating the company through the murky waters that are the coronavirus pandemic and the economic ramifications it created, and has made her mark on the fast-casual world by focusing on the company’s mantra of “evolve or fail.”
A foundation in family
While today the Dickey’s Barbecue Pit franchise has over 550 locations across 44 states and internationally, it all started in 1941 with a single smoker in Dallas, Texas. It was on that original pit that Travis Dickey, a World War I veteran, prepared his beef brisket and pit hams, taking as much time as he could to visit the front of his small restaurant to chat with his patrons and visit his wife Ollie. While Travis was slow-smoking his meats, Ollie would be behind the counter assembling and serving their sandwiches, along with sides of barbecue beans, potato chips, beer, bottled milk, and sodas.
Over the course of two decades Travis and Ollie turned their little restaurant into a popular local staple, but when Travis Dickey’s sons Roland Sr. and T.D. took over the business they saw that the restaurant’s popularity far exceeded a single location. Together they worked to expand Dickey’s Barbecue Pit to additional restaurants in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, but even as they reached their capacity for managing locations the demand for their father’s legacy of quality, hickory-smoked signature meats only kept growing. Rather than simply stagnate due to these limitations they made the decision to begin franchising, and Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants soon saw its first out-of-state location in Denver, Colorado, with many following after.
In 2006 the torch was passed again, this time to the grandson of Travis and Ollie, Roland Dickey Jr. Taking over as chief executive officer of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, he sought to again take the family company to new heights, eyeing a national push that saw the company become one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains in the country. Keeping the tradition of running the business as a family, Roland Jr. initially brought his wife Laura Rea on as a consultant to formalize marketing and community marketing, technology, and communications, but her business acuity quickly made her a vital asset, and she soon transitioned into the role of Chief Information Officer.
To accommodate for the company’s rapid growth the Dickey family made the decision to do a corporate restructuring. Roland Jr. became the Chief Executive Officer of the newly formed Dickey Capital Group which served as a parent company for all of the family’s business ventures and Laura Rea was made Chief Executive Officer of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants.
Innovating the fast-casual sector
While family has always come first for the Dickeys, their company also has a history of constantly seeking new opportunities to drive cash flow and growth – according to Laura Rea, Travis Dickey made sure every square inch of his restaurant was being utilized, even renting out space on the restaurant’s sign in order to help cover the start-up costs. Thanks to the strong foundation Travis and his sons created, Roland Jr. and Laura Rea have been able to build a business based on flexibility and innovation.
Although proud of their Texas roots, they have discovered through market research that it is important to be tactful when deciding how and where to display it. In one location, they originally painted Texas flags all along the walls, but soon found that evoking the feeling of a homey barbecue joint with wood beams and neon signs worked much better for a national brand. When expanding to new states, the Dickeys also have not shied away from catering to regional ideas of comfort food dishes. While in Texas cornbread and barbecue may not be synonymous with each other, in Iowa you rarely see one without the other, and so they developed a cornbread recipe that they would also later use in North Carolina to make hush puppies.
On the subject of branding, one of the biggest challenges to owning a franchising business is maintaining homogeneity across every single location. From quality standards to atmosphere there are many ways in which deviations can occur, but the creation of the “Barbecue U” training program has ensured that each new-owner operator knows exactly what is expected of them before taking the reins. The two-week course was developed to be an intensive how-to on running a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit restaurant, taking the franchisees from open to close and everything in between. As the final test at the end of the program each person must cater a meal for the scrutinizing corporate team, displaying everything they have learned in their training.
Even prior to becoming Chief Executive Officer, Laura Rea Dickey was instrumental in transforming the way the company viewed information. As Chief Information Officer she worked across the company from IT to team training, managing the implementation and usability of information and computer technologies. Working with the big data and business intelligence service providers iOLAP, she developed a proprietary system aptly named Smoke Stack for the company. The system synthesizes data from point-of-sale systems, marketing promotions, loyalty programs, customer surveys, and inventory systems to provide real-time feedback on sales and other such performance indicators, innovating the fast-casual franchise sector in a way that hadn’t been attempted previously.
When Laura Rea became Chief Executive Officer of the company, she continued to implement advancements in technology that could give Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants a competitive edge in an increasingly saturated market. As delivery became an increasingly popular means for consumers to dine, she pioneered the company’s third-party delivery program, which contributed to positive same-store sales in all digital channels for three years in a row. The company has also taken Smoke Snack to the next level, launching a consumer app in the iOS store and utilizing Amazon’s voice technology within restaurant operations. Through Alexa, Amazon’s AI virtual assistant, operators can receive crucial sales data analysis without having to leave the kitchen and waste time running the metrics themselves.
Laura Rea’s focus on technology proved to be a valuable asset when the coronavirus pandemic changed the face of the restaurant industry in 2020. She shifted most of the company’s marketing budget to be spent on digital channels, and ensured the rapid development of an online ordering system to keep up with the shift from in-person dining to online, contactless delivery, and carryout. Additionally, thanks to the heavy investment in technology that had already occurred, it was one of the first brands to launch contactless delivery in March. While Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants had previously been known for its warm atmosphere that encouraged customers to stop by and stay a while, Laura Rea knew that it is in times of crisis, more than ever, that one should double down on what has served them best: evolving to keep up with the ever-changing world.
The company mantra wasn’t the only focus during the pandemic though. The company’s purpose statement is “to do both well and good in the communities in which we do business” and Laura Rea sought to lean into this both in dealings with customers and those under the Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants brand. She cut franchise royalties by 50 percent when covid first hit, aiding the owner-operators with cash flow and ensuring they had the ability to retain employees. Within the restaurants themselves, two promotions were run to provide aid to their communities, with first responder sandwich donation packs becoming a new menu item that could be purchased to donate sandwiches to first responders, and Laura Rea and her husband Roland Jr. personally matched every sandwich sold. Additionally, they ran a limited edition first responder Big Yellow Cup, with a portion of the proceeds being donated to first responders and frontline workers.
Laura Rea’s commitment to evolving has seen her internationally recognized. Both Forbes and the Wall Street Journal profiled the Smoke Stack platform, and she has been called one of the “Top Women in Technology” by the Dallas Business Journal. She was named one of D Magazine’s “Top 500 CEOs,” and for four years in a row she has been designated one of Fast Casual Magazine’s “Top 25 Movers and Shakers” list of executives. Nation’s Restaurant News put her on their “Power List” and she was also named one of the fifty most influential women in foodservice by the magazine. Most recently, her work with Amazon’s voice technology within restaurant operations saw her receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hospitality Technology.
We have entered the information age, where access to and the control of information is the defining characteristic of this current era in human civilization. Laura Rea Dickey was one of the first executives within the fast-casual franchise space to realize that digitized information such as artificial intelligence and big data had practical applications outside of the tech world, and thanks to her implementation of such technologies Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants has been able to maintain a competitive edge and experience rapid growth in a relatively short period of time. In the information age, the companies that know their consumers best are the ones who get ahead, and Laura Rea’s commitment to data-driven results means that the company is well-positioned for whatever the post-pandemic world will bring. For Laura Rea, her sights have always been set on evolving, because it was never an option to fail.