Boston Market's CEO, George Michel interviewed by the Opportunity Coalition's CEO, Brian Watson


Brian Watson:    Welcome to the Opportunity Coalition podcast. Today we have George Michel, who is the CEO, also known as the "Big Chicken," of Boston Market.

George, welcome to the show.

George Michel:    Thanks for having me here, Brian.

Brian Watson:    George, let's start off with on your business card, it says that you're the Big Chicken; and I love that. So tell our listeners a little bit more about that.

George Michel:    You know, when I first started here, I noticed that employees when I went to the restaurants -- because I always loved going to our restaurants and speaking to our employees, engaging them in the discussion, getting their point of view of the business -- that when I introduced myself as the CEO and President, sometimes there is the fear factor or the fact that these young kids are not interested in the title. 

And then I looked at our business and the idea came to me, why not call myself the Big Chicken? And it really results so well with our employees that most times when I go to the restaurants and I introduce myself as the Big Chicken, I get a big laugh. Usually, eight out of ten times, the employee wants to see my business card because -- is this for real? Show me your business card. And a few actually wanted my business card so they can show it to their family and friends. So it breaks the ice, and it allows me to get own to their level and talk to them just as a person to a person. That's why I've changed the title, and it's worked really well for me in communicating with our employees.

Brian Watson:    I think it's fantastic. I've seen a lot of business cards in my day, but never one with The Big Chicken on it. So I appreciate that.

George, for our listeners, most everyone has heard of Boston Market. But would you mind giving us a little bit of background about the company and where you've come from and where the company is going today?

George Michel:    Sure, Boston Market started as Boston Chicken in Boston; and that's where the name came from. We've been in business for 29 years, celebrating our 30th anniversary next year. We started as a home meal replacement with very small restaurants. They were primarily takeout restaurants. And the concept really took off in the '80s and became the darling of Wall Street at one point, and it grew very rapidly.

And at that time, there wasn't much competition in people being able to pick up a meal, take it home and practically put it on the table ready to be served for the family. So it was a concept for busy moms and busy parents looking for a solution to their busy lives. And we grew very fast. At one point, we added other proteins; and during that time, the name was changed to Boston Market.

With such a phenomenal growth, that led to basically lack of execution in the restaurants and lack of focus on operations and standards; and the company got into trouble and actually went into bankruptcy at a certain point and got delisted from the stock market. Then the company was picked up by McDonald's, who owned it for seven years. And in '06, an equity fund group, Sun Capital Partners -- who I work with at this point, they're the current owners of Boston Market – acquired the concept from McDonald's. And in the last four years, we've been really focusing on turning around the business and improving the customer experience in our restaurants. And we've fine-tuned our menu.

We've had some great success. You know, we've enjoyed comparable sales growth of about 28% the last three and a half years. That's same restaurant sales. And for the first time in seven years, we opened our first new restaurant in 2013. 

Now, myself, I've been in the restaurant business for over 44 years. I started as a part-time burger cook at an A&W restaurant in Toronto, Canada, when I was going to university. And that really funded my university studies, and I grew up with that chain and ended up as CEO of the company after 20 years of being with the brand. And I moved to the States to run A&W International and have been in the restaurant business ever since then. 

I've worked for brands such as Burger King for eight years. I've also worked for Brinker in their international division, which comprised brands like Chili's, Macaroni Grill, at that time On the Border, and Maggiano's. And then I also spent, with Sun Capital, two years running a coffee business in Canada, and I moved to Denver in October 2010 to actually lead and run Boston Markets. 

So that's a bit of my background and a background about the company.

Brian Watson:    So the company obviously went through a roaring period of growth. And my understanding that it got up to about 1,700 locations or so around the country, and then it had its challenges that it went through and decreased the amount of locations. And my understanding is that it's on a growth period again. And, obviously, you stepped in at a very crucial time for the company. Talk to us a little bit about that in terms of when you stepped in, how many locations were there from the height, and what you are putting in place to make Boston Market the company that's a known name and that a lot of people want to go and visit.

George Michel:    Great, Brian. You know, the concept grew through developers at the height of growth. And when we went into bankruptcy, all of the developers were acquired. In a number of cases, restaurants were shut down; and a number of restaurants basically were taken back by the company. So when I stepped in, all of the restaurants were company owned and operated with no licensees or franchises in the system.

So when I came in, in October 2010, we had about 515 restaurants; and currently, we have 460 restaurants. So we had to go through a period of closing some of the underperforming restaurants that did not do well. And in some cases, closing restaurants as visas were expiring because those restaurants that were opened 20-22 years ago were in the wrong place. You know, markets move and trade areas shift in a lot of cities and towns. So we had to look very carefully at our portfolio and do that.

At the same time, we looked at our business; and there was a transition from the growth period through the acquisition by McDonald's and then when I stepped in, in that the focus was on turning the business into a fast food concept whereas originally it started as a fast casual concept. So we decided that the best thing to do is to go back to our roots and operate the restaurants as a fast casual.

So we implemented America's Kitchen Table, which was mainly a focus on better service. And at the same time, we introduced plates and real cutlery in our restaurants, as opposed to plastic ware because as you can imagine, it's very hard to cut into a chicken with a plastic knife and fork on a plastic plate.

We also invested some money in updating some of our restaurants. Well, the changes we made resonated extremely well with our customers. So between November 2010 and the end of 2011, we enjoyed some tremendous success with our comp sales. You know, we reversed the negative trend that we had been experiencing for quite a while.

At the same time, we looked at our menu offering. We took out menu items that were not selling. We eliminated some costs from our operations that were not necessary. And we really redeployed some of those savings into additional service at the restaurant, as well as training of our employees so that we can focus on the guest experience.

Then we also made a commitment to reduce sodium levels in our food. And so in 2012, we took away all of the salt shakers from all our restaurants and placed them on a counter where it was not easy for a customer to access a salt shaker and add salt to the food. And we made a commitment, working with the University of Colorado Health and Wellness Center, to reduce sodium by 15% on our menu. And we've been able to achieve those targets this year, and we're very pleased with the work we've done on sodium reduction in our food.

In 2013, we introduced ribs to our menu. And we believe that chicken and ribs go very well together. That has also been met with tremendous success by our customers. And then I went around in 2013, and I did a tour of all of our restaurants across the country. I spent one and a half months visiting restaurant managers across the country to learn from them, to engage them but, importantly, to find solutions for how we can take the service to the next level. We called those meetings the Big Chicken Chats. I learned a lot, but it allowed me to interface with every restaurant manager across the manager in a month and a half. Really, it was a win/win relationship, a win/win dialog; and it really helped us understand what are the areas we need to focus on.

And then this year, we introduced America's Kitchen Table Version 2.0, where we really are upping the guest experience and making sure that we continue to work on how we interact with our customers in our restaurants and bring the service level to the next step.

So all of those initiatives, engaging our employees, working with our employees, and we've learned all along that the best way to have an effective turnaround is to engage the employees. And we call that internal PR. And without internal PR, it's very hard to then go to external PR. So we've decided, let's engage our employees, work with them, get them involved; and then they're usually our best ambassadors to effect whatever changes or improvements we need to make in the restaurants. And that's what has led to our success in the last three and a half years.

Brian Watson:    Well, it's interesting that you say that. You know, I think that there's a perception out there sometimes in the world by some people or groups that say, big corporations, all they care about is themselves. And obviously, I'd love to hear the number of how many employees you have around the country. You're focusing on your employees and getting them involved, and that obviously partly comes from your personal background and how you grew up through different organizations and had interactions being an employee yourself and now being the Big Chicken at Boston Market.

But I also like how you're focusing on your customers, the idea of reducing salt and trying to provide a great quality product for them. So what would be your rebuttal to some of those out there that say, big corporations are only out for themselves and they take advantage of their employees. They may even take advantage of their customers in feeding them food that may not be the best for them. What would be your response to naysayers like that?

George Michel:    Well, you know, we at Boston Market really strive to work with our people because we believe that our employees are, at the end of the day, the difference. And they're the ones that interact with the customer. So we've created values to make sure that we work with our employees. We want them to focus on service. One of our values is love to serve. We also want to make sure that they have fun while they're doing that. But anything we do, we always want to make sure that we first engage our employees before we talk to the customer. 

So even this year, when we introduced America's Kitchen Table Version 2.0, we went around the country and held 52 meetings. We did 26 meetings with the George Michels and the Assistant Managers of the restaurants. And that same afternoon, we brought the hourly employees into a conference room and talked to them about what it means to effect a change through America's Kitchen Table. 

And technically, America's Kitchen Table 2.0 was tested in a couple of markets; so it was not an idea that we came up with. It was ideas that were generated by our employees in Phoenix and Philadelphia. They were the ones that actually provided the training materials that then we showed in those 52 meetings. So they were employees talking about how excited they are about AKT 2.0, about how they came up with the ideas and the impact it had on the customers.

At the same time, when we look at food, we look at our employees. We have 11,000 employees that eat in our restaurants. So whatever we do to the menu, whatever changes we make to the menu, we know not only it impacts our customers, but it impacts our 11,000 employees that eat in our restaurants on a regular basis. And so when they're proud in what they're eating, they're going to be proud in serving that food. 

And we are proud of the fact that we have no fryers in our restaurants. So we really focus on making sure that since we provide home meal replacement to busy moms and busy parents, we want to make sure that the food they buy at Boston Market is the type of food that they would personally cook at home and are proud to serve their families.

Brian Watson:    And that's so important. And you know, I've seen firsthand the culture of your employees. For full disclaimer, I, as the owner and founder of North Star Commercial and Partners, one of the buildings we own is the corporate headquarters building for Boston Market. And every time I go in there, the employees look to be very engaged and very happy to be doing the work that they're doing. And obviously, that's coming through in terms of your performance.

In terms of the future for Boston Market, would you be looking to grow the locations and the footprint of the company in the coming years?

George Michel:    Absolutely, as you and I chatted before, the main focus was to improve execution in our existing restaurants. We also developed a new operating system where we can serve the customers faster. So we've redesigned the kitchen and, more importantly, the front service area. We've implemented those changes in about 12 restaurants right now; and we're getting some great, great response and success. So all the new restaurants that we're going to be building would be modeled after the new operating system.

As I mentioned to you, we opened our first restaurant in 2013 in Jai-Alia, Florida, after a seven-year hiatus. And then this year we opened a new concept for us. It's a Boston Market in a food court in a regional shopping center in Syracuse, New York. It's a much smaller footprint. It's about 900 square feet. And that has had a lot of appeal so that we can now develop some of the Boston Market restaurants inside shopping centers.

We also signed a 20-year agreement with the Army Exchange, where we're going to be opening Boston Markets on Army bases throughout the country and eventually overseas. In October, we open our first Boston Market on an Army base in Fort Bliss in Texas. Just this weekend, we open at Fort Meade as well our second Boston Market location.

At the same time, we're focusing on growth in some of our great markets in the Northeast. We have leases for five locations at this point in the New York, Bronx, Brooklyn area. We're also focusing on New Jersey and Florida as sort of our top markets, followed by Texas. And we just started also looking at international expansion. We're actually engaged right now with a group out of the Middle East to potentially open 40 to 50 Boston Markets throughout the Gulf countries and the Middle East.

And we believe that chicken is international. Chicken is a protein that is consumed all across the world. And in meeting with some of the key players around the country, they say the future is in birds; and we believe that. And we really believe that we can take our concept to places like Asia; down the road, we can take it to South America and at the same time to Europe. But we believe that there is going to be tremendous growth for our brand in the U.S. as well. So we're very excited about the next few years and the potential for the business.

Brian Watson:    George, I want to transition now to you on a personal level, specifically as a CEO. You've had a very interesting life and been involved in many international ideas and things like that. So my understanding is that you speak four languages. And obviously, you're not originally from America. So tell our listeners a little bit about that.

George Michel:    Yes, I'm a U.S. citizen; but I also hold a Canadian citizenship. I was born in the Old City of Jerusalem, so I had the fortune to be born in a city with diversity, grew up speaking Arabic and Hebrew, and I learned French and English at school. And then I came to Canada when I was 17 and went to the University of Toronto. I graduated from there and then moved to the U.S., where I got married in Detroit. Both my children were born in Detroit, and currently one of them resides in the U.S. And my daughter at this point is pursuing her undergraduate studies in Canada, eventually moving back to the U.S.

It's been great for me to speak the four languages, but also the fact that I've lived in different countries. Throughout my career, I've done business in Canada and the U.S., back and forth. Also, as a family, we lived in Dubai for four years, when I was responsible for the Burger King business in the Middle East and Asia. I've done business internationally in Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe. And the fact that I speak languages has allowed me to communicate very well with employees because the U.S. is a mosaic of diversity. 

And every time I step into any one of our restaurants, I usually look at people's name tags. And a lot of times, I can connect with them by finding out from which country they originated from or their parents are from. And then when I switch to their language, using my four languages, it resonates so well with our staff. And it has helped me as well a lot in doing business in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East – the fact that I can understand the culture but, more importantly, use my languages where it's needed.

Brian Watson:    You know, I got the opportunity to visit the Old City of Jerusalem and one of the most amazing cities of the world. So I'm sure that that did prepare you well for a lot of diversity and being involved on an international basis. So thank you for giving us that background.

George, what is one of your favorite quotes or sayings and why?

George Michel:    Good question. You know, my favorite saying is by John Quincy Adams. And I really believe in it. I try to remind myself every day that that is the purpose of me being a leader. And the quote goes like this: "If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, become more, you are a leader." I love this quote, and it really resonates very well. And it reminds me every day about the purpose for me being here at Boston Market.

Brian Watson:    You know, I hadn't heard that quote before; and I really like that a lot. And that's just so true in that role of a leader and helping to empower others and help them achieve their dreams and create a greater good overall. So appreciate you sharing that.

George, what is some of the best advice you have ever received?

George Michel:    The one advice that sticks with me throughout is more of an advice that the Director of Operations when I was a restaurant manager at A&W used to write on cards for people. Normally, when people are leaving a company or moving on or they get a promotion, you know, cards are sent around; and we sign them with a message. But this Director of Operations, whose name is Bill Armstrong, used to always write: "Make your own luck." He never used to say, good luck. And that always stuck with me that it's not about having good luck; it's about making your own luck. And I've always lived by that and continue to remind myself that it's your actions that create your luck.

Brian Watson:    It reminds of that saying that the more and more you see lucky people, you realize that those are the people that work really hard and are well-prepared for the moment. And it's so true at the end of the day. It just doesn't happen to you; you've got to go out and start to be a force to make that happen. So I like that a lot.

George, what is your definition of success on a personal level?

George Michel:    It's about the team achieving incredible results beyond my expectations and their wildest expectations while having mutual respect and trust. That's what I always feels is success on a business level. On a personal level, it's the kind of family I have and the success that my spouse and children are enjoying. That is what to me is the definition of my success. And that's how I treat my personal life, and that's how I look at the business aspect of my interactions with my people here and the teams that I work with.

Brian Watson:    Interesting, well, I agree that those are two good measuring sticks for success because it definitely impacts a lot of people. 

George, tell us about one of your proudest professional moments.

George Michel:    You know, the one that comes to my mind is opening our first Boston Market after seven years of hiatus, of closing restaurants, of shutting down underperforming restaurants, is to open a brand new Boston Market. Just the excitement that created with our employees and our management and our support staff here in Denver. The look in their eyes when we cut the ribbon and opened that first restaurant, which is the signal of the future. That, to me, was the proudest moment I've enjoyed.

Brian Watson:    Well, that definitely signaled the turn of the tide; that's for sure. And I'm sure that that was very, very powerful and, frankly, probably very emotional for a lot of the employees. I've met a lot of them out there and at your corporate headquarters, and several of them have worked there for many, many years and saw the upside and then the challenge period and now the growth period in creating that foundation.

George, what is the best way for our listeners to learn more about you and Boston Market online or in any other way?

George Michel:    The first one is to look at our website. Our website is very comprehensive: www.bostonmarket.com. There are different tabs because we're in two or three businesses really. I mean, we're a bit of a hybrid. We're not a restaurant and we're not a supermarket; we're in-between. Customers use us for three different occasions. 

One is to eat in the restaurants, and they can look at the menu. We also do a lot of takeout. We do very well during Thanksgiving. The next four weeks is really our Super Bowl, where people are looking for solutions. And we provide great solutions during the holidays and Thanksgiving, where people can come and pick up ready-to-heat food at our restaurants.

And then at the same time, we have a catering business. And we do very well with catering where, again, we take food to offices. We take food to work places. We provide food to airline employees that work behind the scenes during holidays. So our website would be a great place to look at our business, where we do in dining; we do takeout with a lot of families; and we do, at the same time, catering through the whole year but especially during the holidays and on weekends as well.

At the same time, we have a Facebook. People can get on our Facebook and enjoy some of the news stories and clippings and interviews and press releases that we have, and the interaction that we have with the customers so that they can learn more about our business. So these would be the two areas that I would suggest that if people are interested in Boston Market is to go to those two sites.

Brian Watson:    Thank you for that. And what parting advice or golden nuggets of wisdom would you like to share with our listeners?

George Michel:    You asked me about quotes. I have sometimes my own quotes as well that I always use with our people here because it helps them understand how I manage and how I look at the business. So the first thing I always say to my team and to people, "It's not about how fast or how hard you skate; it's all about how many pucks you can put in the net."

And the second thing that I aspire to is as a leader, you have to walk the talk. You cannot ask or tell people what to do. You have to be the role model for them. One example of that is, as I mentioned to you, Thanksgiving is a big period for us; and it's our Super Bowl. Thanksgiving Day, myself and my wife, we put on uniforms; and we work in the restaurants. And then at the end of the day, we serve our employees their Thanksgiving meal. Because when we're asking our employees to work on that day to take care of our customers, I need as a leader to be a role model and show that it's okay for me also to work on Thanksgiving Day and not to be home enjoying my time off while our employees are working.

And then the last thing is, I always say, "I operate under the no surprise principle." Don't surprise me; I won't surprise you. If you're in doubt, just let me know what's going on. It's okay if we're failing; let's learn from it. But don't hide anything because at the end of the day, we should always operate under the no surprise principle.

So those would be three things that I'd like to share with you about areas that I focus on and I use in my management day after day.

Brian Watson:    Well, each one of those is powerful and could have a positive effect. And I especially like the hockey metaphor from someone who has spent some time in Canada. So I appreciate that one.

George, I want to thank you for participating in this podcast and sharing your story about the company and congratulate you on your success. And I also want to thank you for your tenancy in one of our buildings and look forward to being a customer of yours for many years to come. So thank you for your time today.

George Michel:    Thank you, Brian. We really enjoy our relationship with you as well. We love being here in Denver. We love doing business and being a solution to busy people. Thanks so much.

Brian Watson:    Thank you for listening to the Opportunity Coalition podcast. We'd love to have you subscribe on iTunes. If you'd like to learn more about the Opportunity Coalition, please visit www.opportunitycoalition.com. See you next time.