Maintaining restaurant relationships.

The restaurant industry is not for the faint of heart, especially if you’re operating in college towns. When the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the industry, many businesses closed and let their staff go. This week’s guest did the exact opposite. 

My job is to do what's best for my business, not what's best for me

Bret OliverioFounder Sup Dogs

Transcription

All In on Your People – with Bret Oliviero

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

Hi, I’m Katie Hankinson.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                          

And I’m Mickey Cloud.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group Podcast, where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever changing skies. 

 Welcome to this week’s episode of Building While Flying. My guest today is Bret Oliverio who is owner and CEO of Sup [00:00:30] Dogs Restaurant, which has two locations in Greenville, North Carolina and Chapel Hill, North Carolina; voted 15th best hot dog in America by Business Insider and importantly winner of the Barstool Sports Best College Bar in America, two years in a row. I’m excited to dig in with you Bret, and just hear a little bit about your story. Welcome to the show. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Thanks for having me. I appreciate that. It’s funny you mentioned the Business Insider 15th best hotdog in the country. I don’t even know how that stuff sort [00:01:00] of comes about. I literally woke up one day and a thousand people tagged me in a tweet. I don’t know how Business Insider found our restaurant or ranked the hotdogs, but it’s awesome publicity, so we’ll take it.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 Yeah, [inaudible 00:01:18] this hand of social engagement and how the wonders of someone tagging you in one tweet and there you go. So [00:01:30] let’s talk a little bit just from the beginning. You’ve obviously been running Sup Dogs for a while, but there’s a kind of  a sad beginning to the origin of the company or a kind of real family story to go with it. Would you share a little bit about how Sup Dogs was originally created and how you got involved? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah, sure. My little brother when he was in college sort of came up with the idea of Sup Dogs, which is specialty hot dogs, specialty burgers, cheese fries, cheesy tots, [00:02:00] beer liquor, like high energy, town, college environment, but still a restaurant. And he came up with sort of this pipe dream while he was at college James Madison University, and then he graduated and my sister went to ECU, which is in Greenville, North Carolina. And he was visiting my sister and found this little hole in the wall and sort of begged my dad to take out a home equity loan. I mean, our family, we didn’t grow up with much money, but my dad took [00:02:30] out a home equity loan and to my granddad chipped in a couple thousand bucks. And he started his dream of Sup Dogs in this little tiny rundown building in downtown Greenville, North Carolina. 

        So that’s kind of how it started; that was in August 2008. And then September 2011, he was coming home from work and his house is on fire. He went in to try to save his two as it was on fire [00:03:00] and never made it out. So he passed away in September 2011 which was one of those… Anyone’s who’s experienced same type of death, you get that shocking phone call that you never thought that you would ever get. And then three weeks later, my wife and I got married and then we both quit our jobs and [00:03:30] decided to move to Greenville, carry on Derek’s legacy, hope to open up new locations and just make the business and the restaurant as creative as it could possibly be. So that’s kind of how I sort of got thrown into it. 

       I’d never worked a day in a restaurant before. My wife had waited tables and had some restaurant experience, but we sort of just quit our jobs and [crosstalk 00:03:57] we showed up.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

That’s incredible. And what [00:04:00] an amazing way to memorialize your brother and to kind of carry on that legacy that he started. That’s an amazing story, but also super tragic. I’m sorry for your loss. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. Thank you. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    So you started out there in Greenville, you unexpectedly picked up that vision and concept from your brother that was also kind of new to you. What were some of those early days challenges of diving into the restaurant business when you knew nothing about it? [crosstalk 00:04:28] operations easy?

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  [00:04:30] I mean, think about my brother; he started Sup Dogs and he was 23. So imagine being 23 to 25 in a college town with beer liquor, girls everywhere. So his strength was he made Sup Dogs a cool place to go, but there were really no business practices in place. So that was obviously a main challenge when we got to [00:05:00] Greenville, North Carolina, but those early days, I remember… I’ve told this story a bunch, I just remember going in and coming home and being like, “I can’t do this. I don’t know anything about this business. I don’t know any of these staff members. I have no idea how to do anything.” Literally anything; order food, pour a beer, swipe a credit car, how does it show up in your bank account? I knew zero.

     So I remember coming home [00:05:30] and I was just sort of overwhelmed and upset. And I went to my wife on [inaudible 00:05:37], “I don’t know if I can do this.” And she just said… And she took a month off to sort of get our apartment decorated and try to create some sort of home life. And she just said, “Look, stop being a wimp.” Except she didn’t use wimp. She used some more vulgar words, “Stop being a wimp, show up, walk around, look at people, see [00:06:00] if that you’ll know if they want to talk to you. Talk to people, bring food to tables, say hi to the staff, just get in there.” So that’s sort of what I did, I just kept showing up every day and learning little by little and the challenge was just totally being foreign to everything relating to the city, the restaurant business, the staff.

      Derek my brother was a one man show. And then [00:06:30] when he passed away, we were sort of try to pick up the pieces. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 And dealing with loss and grief at the same time as actually having to put an infrastructure and figure out how to run a business, no mean feat.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah. And maybe I was sort of just instead of spending time grieving, I just sort of was just going to jump all into this business and not give myself a second [00:07:00] to even think about that stuff. I mean, ultimately we went on not to get too personal, my wife and I had to talk to somebody and get a little help for that. But mainly just 24 hours a day, zero thoughts of anything else except operating this business. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    So there you were, you were in brand new town, brand new industry, established the first store and I now know where this ended up because I know the current state, which is [00:07:30] you have these two locations, over a hundred employees, a really powerful brand. And you’ve built yourselves out to be that kind of local go-to favorite and strong brand from the beginnings that your brother began kind of with that student vibe. Can you talk a bit about some of the ingredients that help to get the brand to the strength that it is today?  

 

Bret Oliverio:                                    

     First off it starts with people. I tell everyone anyone can sell a hot dog or a beer but [00:08:00] what it comes down to is the staff and the people that work for your business. I mean, without that, we just have no brand, have no company; it sort of stems from the people that work with us, the company culture. And then I think instantly the customers that come to the door can pick up on that, does our staff want to be at work? Do we enjoy being around each other? Are we enjoying what we’re doing? And I think [00:08:30] the customers pick up on that. And then it does help as far as like brand and culture to be small ish. It is harder as you grow, even growing to a second location, knowing all the staff, keeping that sort of hometown feel because ultimately if you want to build a strong local following I think people in the community want to see the restaurant owner in the business [00:09:00] and it’s impossible. 

       I mean, we’re open 16 hours a day in two different cities, so it’s impossible to be everywhere. And then obviously social media helped, we worked in radio before I jumped into restaurants. So we did a lot of stuff on Twitter and… Back then it was really just Twitter, there was no real Instagram or Snapchat or anything like that. So I was sort of ahead of the game on Twitter and a little bit on Instagram [00:09:30] and someone’s Snapchat, and I think that’s helped a lot, especially just engaging 24 hours a day with people that visit our restaurant. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    And I think, I mean, it must help as well being in these college towns and having such an active kind of community of youngsters who are also living and breathing those platforms and kind of respond and engage when you’re out there speaking to them. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah, totally. And it also helps that [00:10:00] we’re able to be edgy. I don’t have to answer to anyone, if I post something on Twitter that goes the wrong way or I piss more people off than I should; it’s just my fault, no one’s going to fire me. I don’t really care.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

You haven’t got the corporate governance people breathing down your neck?

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah, zero. And my wife’s always pushing me, “We got to be edgy.” She always wants me to post like edgier and edgier stuff because we are in two college towns, people taking [00:10:30] shots and eating burgers. And so it does sort of lend itself to exciting and hip and fun. But I’m trying to be conscious of… It’s tough to really post something super edgy when like the mayor follows you and the moms and dads of our 20 year old employees. So my wife’s like, “We are not Chili’s, we are not [inaudible 00:11:00]. [00:11:00] We need to be edgy and different.” 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

You can take it up a notch.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                    

     Yeah.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                

       So you’re treading a fun, fine line there with your family friendly, but also being a bit more on the knowing side about what happens when booze and a ton of young people get together in a bar situation. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                      

   Exactly. And you can’t really, especially in college towns, it’s impossible to make money just off the college students and it’s impossible to make money off families and ignoring the college students. So really [00:11:30] marrying those two and sort of being fun and [crosstalk 00:11:36] for students. Yeah, it can be a tough mix. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    I read that you also do Doggy Jams. You kind of got involved in more of the events side of things too, which presumably helped to grow the brand and get a bit of notoriety for the restaurant. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. I mean, my brother started Doggy Jams before he passed away. And it was more like jam bands 50 to [00:12:00] 200 people in a parking lot drinking, bush light. And as the business grew, we’ve sort of turned it into a mainstream music event. Like Little John came and did a DJ set a couple of years ago, DJ Diesel, Shaquille O’Neal’s booked for April 1st, 2022. So I was able to take sort of my [00:12:30] background in putting on promotions and events at the radio station and translate that to our restaurant. But it’s tough doing an event for three to 5,000 people. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  I can imagine. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    It’s like a whole other big production on the side of running two restaurants, but I do think the interesting part of kind of you’re running social, you’ve got a whole kind of digital conversation going on, but the IRL kind of moments in time give you an opportunity to also connect to [00:13:00] something that’s broader than just the food you’re operating. It kind of takes you into that experience with music and togetherness and that whole vibe; it’s a nice compliment to what you’re doing inside the restaurants themselves.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. I mean, if you think about it, I don’t know, when was the last time you went to a restaurant with bad food? I mean, generally every restaurant has good food, right? And generally it has pretty good service. I mean, right now restaurants all over the country are sort of understaffed, but generally [00:13:30] food’s good, service is good. So now if you want to do well in the restaurant industry, you’ve got to have it all. I think you have to have awesome food, great atmosphere, the right staff, you sort of have to be an entire experience on top of… I mean, the days of the 1990s, where, “Oh, that place has good food, let’s go to…” There three times a week. Every place has good food.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

But the deco’s nice [inaudible 00:13:54] about the food doesn’t really cut it these days. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah, you got to have everything. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

     So [00:14:00] with that in mind you mentioned a little bit about kind of some of the challenges.  You’ve kind of built this whole story with Sup Dogs. You’ve got the restaurant experience, you’re doing events, you’ve got social going on and then on [inaudible 00:14:18] comes the pandemic. And we know that the past year has been insanely challenging for small businesses and restaurant sector being right in the kind of heart of some of that pain. And you mentioned the challenge with finding [00:14:30] enough employees, which is literally countrywide right now. Can you talk about how the pandemic hit you guys and how you weather the storm over the last 12, 15 months? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah. I remember it was two days before St. Patrick’s Day, which is generally a big day in college towns. And we were the first ones in the community to close and I thought it was going to be for two weeks. So we announced that we were going to close for two weeks and [00:15:00] I thought everything will be figured out and we’d opened back up. But I made a decision from the beginning that we were going to continue to pay our staff in full, and that is servers, making the tips that they were used to making, hosts, food runners, cooks, management, even our cleaning crew. I was like, “You know what, I’m going to spend a ton of money to make sure these people can pay their bills.”

     And [00:15:30] it’s probably not that I’m like some crazy generous guy, it was more like, “I need to be able to sleep at night.” If I have 120 staff members who have worked hard for us for a long time, now none of them can pay their bills, how am I supposed to sleep? So that costs a lot of money, we just paid everyone to not work. And this was before the government announced… I didn’t think there was going to be one cent of help from anyone. And I sort of talked to my older brother [00:16:00] about, I’m like, “We’re just going to keep paying until it’s things so bad that we can’t.” That was kind of the decision we made.

 

Katie Hankinson:                   

    It’s tough [inaudible 00:16:10].

 

Bret Oliverio:                                

         And yeah, but then we were able to open up for takeout, which by the way, it’s impossible for any restaurant to make money just doing takeout no matter how great everyone thinks it is.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

Well, the whole delivery piece is also logistically challenging and it takes a giant slice out your margin. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah, totally. And most people don’t understand that. [00:16:30] And then the government stimulus came and that sort of helped. But at first it was… I always knew that our brand and our restaurant, we had been really conservative, financially saving money. I drive a 2012 Nissan, I don’t have boats or… You know what I mean? Most restaurant owners are pretty dumb with their money and they buy dumb stuff, but that’s not really us. So I knew we would be fine financially [00:17:00] and I knew the brand would survive. A hundred percent of my thought was, how long can we? And this was before like unemployment or any of that stuff. My thought was, how are our staff members; I mean, someone that has kids, a lot of them pay their own bills. It’s like, how are they going to continue to live their life? That was a hundred percent of my thought.  

    But it just hit us like a ton of bricks. I mean, 2019 was our best year [00:17:30] ever at both locations, 2020 had an awesome January, February, we’re going into spring, which the weather’s awesome and our Doggy Jams event and sort of the world came crumbling down on us. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Everything fell off a cliff. So during that period, it sounds like you were well set up in terms of a bit of a pool of money to carry you through that time, at least until stimulus came; [00:18:00] you were very preoccupied with thinking about your people and you switched to delivery. What are some of the other things, I mean, I guess we’re coming out of it now, are you now seeing sort of light at the end of the tunnel? And is it now more about the employment piece that you’re kind of having to dig into now? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah, to me, it’s pretty shocking what the government has done for a restaurant. So everything from PPP to restaurant vitalization, to tax credits [00:18:30] and all of that stuff we’ve really just passed on to our staff, which has been awesome. So what I thought and I was talking to my wife about this yesterday. I mean, I thought, look on unemployment was what, 4% in 2019. So even back then it was tough to find staff. So I thought, “You know what, we’re going to have a horrible year. We’re going to lose money. It’s a total disaster, but the good news is we’re going to have so many people that want to [00:19:00] work that staffing will be a breeze, it’ll be a weight off my shoulders.” And that’s always been sort of tough to navigate and I said, it’s gone the exact opposite, which is shocking. 

         So I think we’ve sort of come out on the other side. I’m incredibly proud of how we’ve handled it from a safety standpoint to keeping staff paid, just to adjusting [00:19:30] and we were able to do that, but just working 24 hours a day. I mean, there’s nothing else to it. There’s so many restaurants, they’re just, “We’re going to close for a month.” They’re closed for three months and figure it out. [inaudible 00:19:45] there’s working at this thing and thinking about it 24 hours a day. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       [inaudible 00:19:50].

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 And that’s what it takes to figure everything out, especially as everything’s changing and rules are changing and restrictions, but yeah now the number one challenge is [00:20:00] staffing the restaurant because we’re busier than ever. We had our busiest April and May at both locations. So we’re busier than ever, and it’s tougher than ever to get people to work. So it’s a really tough combination. And look, let me say this; a lot of people say, “Oh, it’s the government giving away free money.” And that’s part of it, there’s a lot of people that know how to navigate unemployment. But the other side of it is when the [00:20:30] entire restaurant industry laid off; I mean, we didn’t, but the entire restaurant [inaudible 00:20:35] laid off the entire workforce, those people went and found other jobs that were easier, better lifestyle and paid just as much, if not more.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  And they weren’t running around on their feet all day. And plus potentially, I think the other huge one is they’re looking back at some other drop potentially where they would drop like a hot potato when times got tough. It doesn’t leave [00:21:00] you inclined to go back and kind of take the same level of job security. I mean, obviously in your case, I think it’s phenomenal that you were able to keep your people paid right the way through whether they were working or not. And that’s a testament to your values and how you want to run a business. That’s certainly not the case across many others. So it’s like the opposite of biting the hand that feeds you. I’m not quite sure what that is. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah. And a lot of those people have stayed with us, [00:21:30] I think because of that. I mean, I couldn’t imagine just laying everyone off and then, “Okay, let’s get the band back together,” as you literally hung these employees out the dry and gave them no hope and no assistance; to me, that’s crazy. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

What have you learned that you would apply? Let’s hope there’s not a next time exactly. But the next time there was any degree of challenge, what are some of the things you’ve learned through this experience? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

No, I sort of always tried to take the approach of… A lot of restaurants and small businesses, [00:22:00] it’s one guy sort of barking at his employees and I think now more than ever, and I tried to be this way before the pandemic hit, but now more than ever, you have to pay your staff better than ever, or you have to treat them better than ever. You have to sort of be at the mercy of their wants and need as far as staffing and scheduling. [00:22:30] The days of the boss sort of dictating somebody’s life and when, and how they’re going to work are over. So I think that was happening prior to COVID and then COVID really just accelerated this. I’ve learned that you have to just… As much as I was trying to do for my staff before [00:23:00] the pandemic get to do more, if you want to keep great people around, otherwise they’re going to find other jobs or figure out a way to beat the system.

        And now more than ever, you just have to be all in on the people that work for you. And I was grateful before that people would take their life and dedicate that to my family’s business and our restaurant and my brother’s dream. But now I’m even more grateful than that, that [00:23:30] people decide to work for us. And we work incredibly hard because right now it’s hot or we’re doing more volume than ever, we have less trained staff than ever so the only way to do it is to treat people better than ever and pay them more than ever. That’s kind of how I’m figuring it out.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   Yeah. And I guess in some ways what you’ve been doing is this, be seen to be rolling your sleeves up alongside them; [00:24:00] kind of, it’s less of this top down, absent leader thing, you’re really kind of in the trenches with the team too. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. I mean, I feel like… I don’t know, the traditional thought is 10 years into this. Should I really be busting a table and running food and helping host certain days. But then over graduation weekend we were two hour wait, 300 people waiting [00:24:30] to get in at 11:00 AM. I’m in the kitchen cooking, making hot dogs for eight straight hours. So I don’t know, it sort of goes both ways. And then I’m still in there grinding every day. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   Yeah. I’m going to pivot a little bit a bit about your background. So you mentioned before that you had a background in radio, what are some of the skills or experiences that you bring across from that that help you in leading and running a business [00:25:00] like Sup Dogs today? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                               

          I mean, a lot of it’s marketing. When I worked in radio, it was you do an interview with a celebrity or an athlete, you hope to get one or two things that they talk about, it explodes on Twitter and people are talking about it. So just a lot of marketing and promotions and obviously putting on events; I did a lot of that at the radio station. And then even sort [00:25:30] of the last year that I worked in radio, I did a little bit of overseeing a small staff. So mainly marketing and promotions translated to the restaurant business. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    Yeah. And just understanding how all those things fit together. I think when you have a natural instinct for that storytelling-

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah, that and then another big thing is, I tell restaurant owners, when [00:26:00] they’re just starting out; like always trying to get, even if it’s… I mean, no one’s really watching local news anymore, but do all of those interviews. And even to this day, it’s been 10 years of that, there’s a story in Greenville or even Chapel Hill, a lot of times they call me, they want my opinion, my take on it. And I sort of spin it to in a positive way for our brand and our restaurant. And anytime there’s a… So obviously you’re doing the social and engagement, but then you’re also doing some traditional [00:26:30] media. Anytime there’s a big story about business or downtown or COVID news, I’m always texting with the news anchors and they’re coming out through an interview. 

    And that sort of stem from radio where you’re always, we worked a lot with television, I did some television stuff too; so working with local TV and local radio, that’s translated as well.

 

Katie Hankinson:                              

         I think that’s such a huge point for small business in smaller towns who just have a [00:27:00] disproportionate part to play in community in comparison to a company that’s like slap bang in the middle of a giant metropolitan city, like New York, you kind of get lost in the swirl. Whereas in small town you have this part to play in the conversation and such an obvious tie to the community, but as an employer, as part of people’s social days in their lives; I think that’s such a good call-out to say that participating in the conversation, [00:27:30] even if it’s not necessarily directly related to news of your business is such an important way to stay tied and relevant. It’s awesome.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah, definitely. And people tell me all the time like, “Thanks for all you do. Thank you for everything that you do for the community.” And I mean, we do a lot of charity stuff and donations, but not that much. So I think what people are thanking me for is just being in the restaurant-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    Being present.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah, being present, giving people an opportunity to come into the restaurant [00:28:00] have a great time and just trying to operate and run a business like it should be run; is a law in a community business. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    Yeah. What are some of your challenges? You spoke a little bit about sort of scaling yourself, should I still be busting tables? What are the things that you think about now as you’re scaling the business that you really want to tackle as we move forward into 21 and beyond? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                     

    I’m trying to figure out the direction [00:28:30] we go. I always want to be improving both of our current restaurants. Do we open up more? I’ve found a great spot in Raleigh that I know would be amazing. It would be a home run. It’d be packed. People would love it. But do I want to do that? It’s more so, what do I want to do? Do I want… And having a daughter changed everything, so if it was just my wife and I, we kept 10 locations and travel everywhere, it would be [00:29:00] easy. But now you mix in a daughter and that sort of changed everything. I want to be home more. So I’m trying to balance, what’s best for me and my family? Obviously we’re leaving money on the table and opportunity on the table by not opening new locations that I know would be a home run financially. 

      So am I going to regret not expanding [00:29:30] and not capitalizing on those opportunities? Or if I do it, am I going to regret not being able to be home more? And so just sort of that inner battles, what I’m facing right now, which is a great problem to have. Do I want to take on more successful businesses or do I want-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                 

      Do I want to have thriving, do loving family? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah, I don’t know. So that’s… And then I have [00:30:00] talked to some franchise companies that are interested in trying to franchise our business and that’s a whole nother level of, I have no idea if that’s something I want to do. So that’s where I’m sort of stuck because we’re a small business, but payroll is not small. The days are long. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   I think if there’s one thing that has been so much of a lesson in the last year where [00:30:30] it’s a truism that the only constant is change all the time, but change happens so much more fast and furious in the last 12 months. And I sort of feel like a big part of it is when you have decisions like that to make, the taking stock and determining like what you have and what your priorities are and how they stack up against one another needs to happen more regularly. Because to your point, your feelings about things might change, your priorities change and your deal [00:31:00] breakers change. So it’s kind of about that very rational laying out of all of those pieces before making an emotional decision. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah. And I don’t feel the needs, like when I got into this 10 years ago, I was like, “Ah, I’m going to…” I don’t feel the need to… I’m comfortable adapting and doing what is right as my life evolves. I don’t feel like I have to, because it’s my brother’s dream to have 50 locations, I don’t feel the need to do that. [00:31:30] The good news is, and Gary talks about this a lot; you sort of make your best decision and then do it. And you won’t know the other side because you didn’t choose that side.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   Because you didn’t.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    Whatever You decide is going to be the right thing.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah, exactly. And then I also, the thing that small business owner I’m constantly, and this is a tough way to live; I’m always worried that we are not going to get better and [00:32:00] somebody else is going to pass us by, I live in that. So it’s like every day, how are we going to improve? How are we going to get better? Because somebody else, and maybe I’m just crazy, but somebody else is going to try to open a business or a restaurant or a bar that’s better than ours and take what we have. So I’m always in constant worry of the, so how are we going to evolve and improve? And maybe that’s-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   Keep moving, I guess, as well. Maybe that’s expanding, you mentioned.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Maybe that’s expansion, [00:32:30] maybe it’s not, maybe it’s going the opposite way, I don’t know.  But yeah, that’s kind of what sort of takes up my brain as far as where our business is heading. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

     We talked a bit about this the last time too. I’m curious to know as someone who is right in the center of this kind of whirlwind in the restaurant business, what is your hot take on the future of the restaurant business? If you had to say [00:33:00] the restaurants that will succeed in the next 2, 3, 5, 10 years are… What are those features and aspects that you think would drive that?

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

The government has rained so much money down on restaurants which in turn a lot of it, it’s just a bailout. So a bailout of real estate. So a lot of restaurants didn’t pay their rent. Government dumps a bunch of money on restaurants, they’re able to pay their rent.  [00:33:30] So the government’s got so much money on restaurants that you’re going to see a ton more restaurants and bars open over the next two to three years. And then most of them will close. And the ones that survive are the ones that, A, have a great product and two, pay their staff well. And sort of leave those 1990s, [00:34:00] 2000s restaurant mentality of work your staff to the bone for as little money as possible so we can make this razor thin margin, hopefully… So the ones that will survive are the restaurants that treat their staff well, pay them more, have a good product and raise their prices. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   And when you say product, I think important to going back to the point you made before, it’s not just about the food, the product is [00:34:30] the whole experience, right? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah, everything.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    The brand, the environment, all the ancillary experiences. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. The weird part is I own two restaurants and we do sell millions of dollars in food a year. I don’t know anything about food. I don’t really know how to cook. I consider myself just… I enjoy operating a business. I’m not like some restaurant tour foodie or anything like that. [00:35:00] So yeah, the foods got to taste awesome, but it’s all about the experience, building a community, building a fan base. And so to answer your question, over the next couple of years, there’s going to be a ton of new restaurants and bars, staffing is going to be a major, major challenge, but two years from now, most of those places are going to close. The workforce will [00:35:30] hopefully open back up. And at that time, the places that went well; have a great product, pay their staff well, and-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                 

      Probably charge more.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah, a hundred percent charge more because restaurant food as a whole is just under priced everywhere.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

     Right. What are you most looking forward to in the next few months for Sup Dogs?

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  [00:36:00] What am I looking forward to? Really just using this summer to figure out any and all staffing related issues because our busy time is the fall. Because you have two college towns, football season, awesome weather; so that’s when things are going to be insane. The tough part is more people are coming through the door than ever. So I’m trying to [00:36:30] sort of reinvent our staff and change practices and policies and at the same time we’re selling more than ever and more people are coming to the door. So just being to- 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

     Again, some nice problems to have, but it’s about juggling the ability to tackle them.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Awesome problems to have, but still nonetheless a problem. But look, it’s way better than the alternative, which is nobody coming to the door. Because that would be a real, real, real problem. My problem are, I can [00:37:00] figure out.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   If you’re thinking about Raleigh, we’ve got some Sasha team members who are local to that, so you’ll definitely have your first customers lining up for their Sup dogs.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  Yeah, that’s awesome. I love Raleigh and I know we’d do really well there. Yeah, so I’m just looking forward to getting a tiny, tiny break this summer, reload and then hit the ground running in the fall. And then I think the restaurant business [00:37:30] is changing every day. And it’s exciting for me, from an operator standpoint to make big decisions about what our minimum wage is going to be, our pricing, our food. So a lot of operational strategy. So I’m excited to take on that strategy, but it’s also kind of scary because I’m not a big corporation, I make a major decision [00:38:00] and I just kind of have to hope that it’s right operationally. But taking on those challenges, I’m excited to try to figure that out, even though it’s tough. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Well, I hope you do get that tiny, tiny break. And I’m excited to see where you net out, the growth of Sup Dogs to come. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                    

     I appreciate that.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                

       We have one last question. We love this [00:38:30] Building While Flying analogy for entrepreneurs because it speaks to the sort of nimbleness and foresight and flexibility that’s needed to operate in a small business environment, but also because pilots are renowned for having their kind of inflight checklists and training that keeps them cool when there’s a ton of pressure. So when your back’s against the wall where you have to make a tough decision for your business, which there have been no shortage of in the last few months, what is your internal checklist [00:39:00] or set of guiding principles that helps you get through? 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                       

  I always think to myself my job is to do what’s best for the business. So I make a lot of decisions every day that are not best for me; they’re uncomfortable for me, they’re uncomfortable meetings, they’re uncomfortable conversations. So I always tell myself, my job is to do what’s best for the business not what’s best for me. And then that can put myself [00:39:30] in some awkward situations. And ultimately, if I’m having a hard time sleeping at night, I try to tell myself that. Another thing that’s really helped is having a daughter. So you start to care-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    I love that.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 I mean, I care so much less about little stuff that before she was born would just haunt me. Now it’s, ” [00:40:00] Who cares? I get to go home to my daughter, give her a kiss and none of that stuff matters.”

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   I love that.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

So those are two things that sort of keep me moving in the right direction. And I just hope I keep making the right decisions and [crosstalk 00:40:18]-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  And like we said, as Gary says, you won’t know if you didn’t make the right decision because the decision you’ve made is the only decision you’ve made, you don’t even know what [00:40:30] would have happened.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

And another thing that he’s talked about which has helped me is he talks about 99% of stuff and small business is just meaningless. And I never really believed that, but I’m slowly coming around; the percentage keeps going up. I haven’t gotten to 99% of stuff doesn’t really matter but most of it just does it. I mean, if things aren’t running… I [00:41:00] know the last couple months have not been running as smooth as they should run, but the customer can’t tell when they come to the door, does it really matter? 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    As long as they have a great experience and come back and spend money with you.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Yeah. And then over time you sort of tighten that up and things ultimately get where they need to be, but perfection is impossible to achieve and you just kind of do your best and-

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 Things [inaudible 00:41:29].

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

Yeah. And [00:41:30] another thing that sort of helps me is I see these big chains, Texas Roadhouse, and all these other places, these massive empires, they had the same challenges and the same mess ups as we [crosstalk 00:41:43]. And one of our cooks came to me, he was like, “I just love working here way better. There’s systems in place and things are way more organized.” And he worked at Sonic, he cooked at Sonic, which is a big… [00:42:00] I don’t know if you know what that is?

 

Katie Hankinson:                                       

I do. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:42:03] work at Sonic.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

And I’m like, “Wait, so you think we run better than Sonic?” And he’s like, “Definitely,” that blew my mind. I’m like, “I don’t think we’re running that well at all but okay, awesome.” So we have made major challenges, but so do the awesome restaurants and the ones with 500 locations. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 Well, it sounds like you’re doing a ton of things right. And I think you’ve got such a loyal [00:42:30] following for a reason and you’re doing right by your staff and doing right by your business. So the foundations are there. I think it’s exciting to think, well, what’s going to come next?

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 Or it could all go away tomorrow. [crosstalk 00:42:43].

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Or it could go away tomorrow. 

 

Bret Oliverio:                                         

We’ll see. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   And then you can still go home to your daughter and give her a kiss.

 

Bret Oliverio:                                        

 That’s a great point, but thank you for the really kind words; I really appreciate it. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 Well it’s been wonderful speaking to you, Bret. Thank you so [00:43:00] much for joining us and keep us posted on how things track for Sup Dogs. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Well, now that we’ve finished [00:43:30] that thoroughly interesting interview, we’re getting ready to land, but before we do Mickey and I catch up on some of the themes and topics that stuck out to us.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                         

 Yes, we liken this to the post game show where we break down the key lessons we all can benefit from, including us here at Sasha Group. Here is the Sasha sidebar. Hey, Katie [inaudible 00:43:54], great episode interview with Bret and Sup Dogs.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Yeah. Sup Dogs, [00:44:00] best college bar in America.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                          

Well done, for sure. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 Yeah, for sure.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                         

 It was interesting that he’s just like dove… I mean, obviously you just dove right into this industry in kind of some unfortunate circumstances. But he seemed to made the best of that situation. And now he’s deep in it and thought his perspective on the industry and just coming in at a little bit as an outsider is really interesting too, because he talked about how nowadays most restaurants have good food. Like that’s a baseline, [00:44:30] just expectations; you have to succeed in other ways, whether it’s the experience, the staff, the events you do and all that stuff. I mean, I’ve worked with some restaurants in my career especially in the casual dining sector is kind of in squeezed in a lot of ways. 

   And it’s because 20, 30 years ago, not every restaurant had good food and that’s just something a little about the evolution of kind of American palette [inaudible 00:44:55], or the dieters, or expectations or the opportunity for [00:45:00] good chefs to run a business, but even just that baseline. And I thought it was an interesting observation on the industry. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                               

        I agree. And I also just think that the other facets start to become so vital; like yes, good food, totally table-stakes then you move into the atmosphere, the vibe you’re creating, the fact that you and your staff are also having fun while you’re serving the food. And that kind of experience that you can lead people with. I think now in this world of social platforms, the fact that you [00:45:30] can continue to connection with your customers outside of the brick and mortar of your store is pretty crucial to the restaurant trade for sure. 

 

Mickey Cloud:                                     

     And then I think his perspective on the pandemic and then coming out of it now that we’re in the summer and that’s happening. And just what are kind of some of the takeaways from that, I thought were super interesting. Because we work with some quick service restaurant fast food clients, we work with some small businesses that are in the food and restaurant [00:46:00] catering space and things like that. And he was saying yeah, some people like to blame the stimulus checks for the labor shortage, but it really goes way beyond that. And that’s that I’ve seen [crosstalk 00:46:11]. What’s that?

 

Katie Hankinson:                                  

     It’s so much more complex. Yeah, for sure.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                       

   So much more complex. So I’ve got an entrepreneur friend to here in town who launched a restaurant incubator called Proof. And the idea [00:46:30] was that it was going to help chefs to test out a concept, get some real life customer feedback, test out their costs of goods and all the different things that it’s going to take before they have to go commit to a lease or buy a building or something like that. And opened it the Thursday before, the week before the pandemic started in 2020. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                   

    Oh my God.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                        

  But because he was an incubator, he had all this training and materials on how to run a restaurant. And he kind of started offering that training as restaurant recovery, [00:47:00] restaurant resiliency, to chamber of commerces, to economic development, arms of the local and state and federal kind of governments. And so now all across Tennessee into Georgia and Alabama is offering these different communities kind of restaurant recovery resiliency and obviously now 15 months later, the Proof is back open. So that [inaudible 00:47:22] is still, but he’s also got this separate line of business that’s going on. So I think and his perspective is that, [00:47:30] it’s way more than just the fact that there’s a stimulus check in and for people in this labor market, but that it’s how they’re treated.

     I think Bret kind of said it best, the days of a boss dictating somebody’s life are over; you’ve got to treat them right, you got to pay them better than ever, you got to look out for them fairly. And it sounds like Bret did that throughout the pandemic, but it’s something that if some restaurant tours or operators in this space think that when the stimulus checks stops coming, [00:48:00] like the labor market will write itself again. I don’t know if it’s that simple. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                               

        Yeah. I agree. Bret’s example, he has clearly… Laying awake at night, worrying about how to do right by his staff and has really worked hard to make sure they remain paid and looked after. And one would hope that coming out of this as things start slowly writing that the businesses who have really shown themselves to be on the side of their employees [00:48:30] will be the ones that recover well. But pretty difficult to imagine turning round and returning back to the boss who dropped you like a hot potato, as soon as things were tough. And I think as well, so many people have retrained, we’ve [inaudible 00:48:46] to something else. Maybe they don’t even want to go back yet because they haven’t got vaccines. 

       There’s so many different facets to it. I think as we see the next three months play out, half the country’s going to cease the stimulus checks three months earlier than the other half. There’s almost [00:49:00] like a little test going on right now, unfortunately with people’s lives. But it’ll definitely be pretty interesting to see how it plays out and how different employers actually look after their staff. There’s other examples in hospitality where people are starting to look at, “Okay. Maybe it’s not just salary that we offer, maybe it’s also about helping to grow people’s skill sets whilst they’re employed.” So if you work in a hotel, you get trained in basic marketing, even if you’re in front of house. [00:49:30] I think those things start to become really attractive in a tight labor market.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                      

    Yeah. Another restaurant owner that I went to high school with them and know him a little bit, he’s got a couple of restaurants in Charlotte and then in Charleston, and they’re more on the upper end of restaurants; but he’s added an initiative called tip the kitchen where literally on the bill, there’s like your total for the food, there’s your typical line, that’s gratuity and there’s a second line that says, “Tip the kitchen,” kind of making that distinction between your service and then [00:50:00] the kitchen staff. And then you have it line for total. And so even just getting that kind of built into the check and so that it shows up kind of in that order and all that kind of stuff.

    It’s been something he’s been working on and he’s been rolling it out. And I was looking at Twitter from last week, just checking up on in on that and he said in the eight weeks that they’ve added that across their restaurants, over $200,000 in added earnings for their kitchen teams, which translates to about $60 a shift in earnings [00:50:30] above their normal pay. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                               

        It’s such a big deal, especially now. It reminds me a little bit of, you know Danny Meyers? The Union Square group, a whole group of different hotels, I think.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                       

   Restaurants.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   I mean restaurants in New York and beyond, and they tried abolishing tips all together and breaking the gratuity into the check, which is what it gets done in France and various other parts of the world. And they actually stopped, the reason why it was because [00:51:00] tipping is by nature, extremely discriminatory; it kind of results in a lot of power plays in politics and an unfair distribution of pay. And the idea was that the baking it in would mean that the people in the kitchen and the back get as much of a look at it as the front. Really, like your friend’s initiative, but he actually stopped it during mid pandemic because he didn’t want to remove the opportunity of people getting as much [00:51:30] tip as they could possibly get in these tough times. But it’s interesting to see how people are playing.

 

Mickey Cloud:                                       

   There’s a certain percentage of the tip division that gets matched by the restaurant. So it’s not just like it’s all coming from patrons. It’s a patron plus management thing.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                      

 And you’re also seeing other industries contributing to restaurant recovery. I think a big conversation in the next 12 to 18 months, I think it’s probably going to be how [00:52:00] cross sector, different industries begin to help cities and towns regenerate. Because things like restaurants are such a giant part of the fabric of a local town or a city that it’s in everyone’s interest to help them recover. You don’t want kind of desert wastelands where there’s no restaurants left, it kills the vibrancy of it all. So I think there probably going to be a lot of motivation on that. [crosstalk 00:52:26].

 

Mickey Cloud:                                          

And Bret talked about that a little bit in the conversation about like [00:52:30] people call him and say, “Thanks for all you do for the community.” And he was like, “We don’t do that much. We’re just here.” And that matters though, because it’s such a fabric of the culture and especially for something like Sup Dogs, which is unique to just two college towns and kind of the vibes that you kind of get when you’re just looking at their content online and the fact that he’s trying to push it to be a little more edgier and appeals to kind of college crowd. Yeah, I think when people were saying thanks, sometimes it’s just thanks for being [00:53:00] here. 

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Yeah, I think so. It sounds like the city is really rooting for him. He’s got such a lot of fans and I really hope that whatever he decides to do yet, whether it’s scale or just double down on what he has, that they go on to great things. 

 

Mickey Cloud:                                         

 Yeah. So maybe our question for the week is what is our audience’s, what’s your favorite college bar or restaurant? Sup Dogs is certainly playing into that. [crosstalk 00:53:26].

 

Katie Hankinson:                                    

   I love that. Yes. List of favorite college bars across [00:53:30] the nation. 

 

Mickey Cloud:                                         

 Thanks for joining us gang in for Building While Flying with the Sasha Group today, I hope you learned as much as we did. We’ll meet you right back here next time for another flight. If you’d like to hear more about how business owners and brands are navigating these times tune into the next episode. And if you’re so kind, please rate and review us; plus we’d love feedback so let us know what you think, what you’d like us to into next on Building While Flying across brands, businesses marketing and more.

 

Katie Hankinson:                                     

  Original music [00:54:00] by Fulton Street Music Group.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

 

Bret Oliverio is the owner and CEO of Sup Dogs, a high-energy college town restaurant, with two locations in Greenville and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 

Sup Dogs was the pipe dream of Bret’s older brother Derek. But after Derek passed away after a sudden accident in 2011, Bret and his wife quit their jobs to carry on Derek’s legacy. After several years of growth, challenges, and success, they faced their toughest challenge yet: the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.

 

In this week’s episode, Bret tells Katie the origin story of Sup Dogs, and shares what it’s like going into the restaurant industry with no background or experience. Most importantly, Bret breaks down the impact of the pandemic, beyond just the shift to takeout and delivery. He talks about his focus on his employees and staff, and making sure they were taken care of during this difficult time. He says that current staffing problems across the country are multifaceted and not due to just one factor. Lastly, he talks about what he sees in the future of the restaurant and service industry, and shares what other owners can do to stand out and retain great staff.

Other in-flight topics:

  • Sup Dogs’ origin story
  • Operating a restaurant in college towns 
  • Maintaining a strong brand 
  • How a background in radio helps in the restaurant industry
  • Taking care of your employees during the pandemic 
  • Treating and paying your employees fairly and “better than ever” 
  • Challenges of hiring after the pandemic
  • The future of the restaurant and service industry

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