The Power of Culture to Pull Your Brand Through Crisis

    Wingstop’s SVP of people Donnie Upshaw talks about how the company's four core values have given it a position of strength through the COVID-19 crisis.

    Dallas based restaurant company Wingstop invests in people to drive success.
    Wingstop / Jason Kindig
    As Wingstop's SVP of people, Donnie Upshaw is responsible for maintaining the culture that extends across nearly 250 corporate employees and roughly 300 franchisees.
     

    Many restaurant companies talk about their culture and core values and how they’re a critical part of the company’s success. But COVID-19 has found a way to separate those brands that actually built a firm foundation with their culture, and those that were all talk.

    Wingstop has proved during the pandemic to be in the former camp. The brand, which has about 1,500 locations, roughly 300 brand partners (franchisees), and nearly 250 corporate employees, had four core values driving its success before COVID-19: being service-minded, authentic, fun, and entrepreneurial. And it’s leaned into those values throughout the last nine months to keep the company grounded and focused on its primary objective: becoming a top 10 global restaurant company.

    READ MORE: How Wingstop Became a 'Category of One'

    As Wingstop’s senior vice president of people, Donnie Upshaw is the man tasked with building and maintaining much of that culture. He says the company filters every decision it makes through those four core values, and expects employees to do the same.

    “That’s the DNA of how we operate and how we behave,” he says. “From a cultural perspective, the fun that you see, the entrepreneurial spirit, the service mindedness, all those things come to life in different ways based on your role. But every single team member is held to that accountability to live our values.”

    In normal times, Wingstop invests in its corporate team through opportunities for advancement, unlimited paid time off, participation in community outreach, and all-hands meetings that Upshaw says prevent the “NETMA” problem (“nobody ever tells me anything”). 

    As it has for most businesses, the pandemic has forced Wingstop to get more creative with its corporate outreach, as the headquarters closed and the team is mostly working from home.

    For one, the company gave employees a stipend to set up a home office, and then it allowed for flexible schedules.

    “Your schedule is what your schedule is,” Upshaw says. “You figure it out, you get into whatever cadence or whatever routine that you need. But take the time that you need to take care of home.”

    To keep Wingstop employees connected while working from home, the company hosts weekly all-hands calls via Zoom. It also has hosted more fun activities like virtual happy hours with games; Upshaw says it’s important to find opportunities to not talk about work, as it’s “beneficial in giving people that break.”

    READ MORE: How Being 'Intentionally Agile' is Boosting Wingstop

    Wingstop’s success throughout the pandemic has afforded it the ability to give back to the community in the form of jobs, Upshaw says. That’s included thousands of jobs in the restaurants, and even many at headquarters.

    “We were hiring one of the few organizations that have hired,” he says. “So even on the corporate side, we've hired 30 people. When folks saw gloom and doom and didn't know what was future was going to look like, we were able to provide opportunities.”

    The pandemic wasn’t the only crisis to stress-test Wingstop’s culture in 2020; so, too, did the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and the proceeding Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Upshaw says the company recognized the role it needed to play for its diverse team, and it wasn’t just to offer thoughts and prayers.

    “We can't just write a check and we can't just send out a tweet. We have to make this scalable. We have to make this impact be felt across our 1,400-plus restaurants,” he says. “We can't just be cool when it's convenient. And I think that is one thing that we're learning through all of this: It is going to be hard. It's heavy lifting, but it is our responsibility.”

    To listen to the full interview with Upshaw as part of our Wingstop Week series, stream the Fast Forward podcast above or wherever you listen to podcasts. And click here for part one, a conversation with Wingstop CMO Christina Clarke.