Chris realized quickly how detail-oriented restaurant creation was. Everything from the napkins to the color palette on the walls to cup sizes, portion control, pricing, and bathroom sink finishes. “There would be a couple [decisions] where I would just get to the end zone with and I needed another person to roll that idea off of,” Chris says. “And luckily, I had one of the greatest restaurateurs I know of, and that’s my father.”
Just this past year, Chris, who is 37 years old, was named an Entrepreneur Of The Year 2020 Florida Award winner by Ernst & Young LLP (EY US). It’s an honor Tim famously earned nationally in 1994 by beating out AOL. Other past recipients include Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Chris and Robin Sorensen, founders of Firehouse Subs.
“To have a father inspire a son and have the son follow in the footsteps, and to be graciously humbled with the award, is just special,” Chris says.
What Chris appreciates most about the recognition is that it wasn’t a birthright, although it’s turned out to be something that runs in the family. Tim didn’t hand Bolay down to Chris. He wasn’t given the keys to “the family business.”
Instead, he created Bolay from scratch, just like his father did with Outback. “You can give somebody food or you can teach them to hunt. And my father taught me how to hunt in some shape or form,” Chris says. “And you can’t give your kid any better knowledge than to teach them how to go earn a living and go be an entrepreneur versus just hand them a business.”
Outback’s early imprint is all over Bolay. Firstly, the saddle is at the corporate office to be rubbed for good luck. But namely, it’s the culture angles Chris has tried to emulate.
In its first three years as a company, Bolay took team members to the Bahamas on partner trips. He tries to square away budget each year excursions.
Bolay also hasn’t sold to private equity or done any raises. They’ve scaled through bank debt and internal cash flow. “That’s the beauty I have, I got to see and watch Outback grow and understand their regional management teams and their systems and their processes and checklists,” he says. Naturally, Outback is part of Bloomin’ Brands publicly traded empire today. However, its managing partner system and early culture ticks were the stuff of restaurant legend.
Bolay says he studied the history, as well as that of Chipotle and Chick-fil-A. All to develop a people-first playbook that allows him to think forward. Chris says he looks three or five years in advance of every decision. And so he goes and hires for what he envisions Bolay becoming, not necessarily what it needs to survive on the day-to-day.
Chris’ wife asks him if they should be bringing in more money at this point. “Hey, no, we’re building [I tell her]. It’s a constant reinvestment into your people and into your physical plans and growing,” he says.
Bolay had an appetite to scale from the outset. It went from one restaurant to two in nine months. The following year, three opened. The next, four. Every year, Bolay doubled in size. It had five restaurants and then brought seven to market the following calendar.
And that goal was Chick-fil-A-like in its aim—create a copy of a copy of a copy and try to keep replicating culture along the way.
It’s a Bolay tradition to dump buckets of ice water on new leaders’ heads, like the crew just won the Super Bowl, when they open stores. Chris says it’s a fun practice, or “hidden gem of Bolay,” but speaks to something broader as the brand continues to expand. “It’s just a sign of what our culture is deep within the roots of Bolay,” he says. “… Not just a culture, but a winning culture.”
After a COVID-19-strapped year, Bolay plans to go back on the offensive in 2021. Chris thinks they’ll open between 5–7 restaurants and then enter fresh markets in 2022. Bolay hasn’t left Florida yet. That should change. He hasn’t landed on a trade area, but is looking at a few Southeast options, from Atlanta to the Carolinas to D.C. to Nashville.
“But we’re going up in [2022[ and looking for talent,” he says, noting Bolay is searching for fresh hires, technology to construction to operational partners and area managers, as it plots course for the future.
“I urge anybody to check us out because we are growing,” he says. “We’ve got that Outback beautiful culture with our new fast casual great work-life balance spin.”