Leaving California and moving across the country during the pandemic was not top of my list in 2020, but I am loving it. After spending the first 20-plus years in foodservice in San Diego, moving to Georgia to join Zaxby’s has been a true experience in what hospitality looks like. My journey began when an unknown connection through LinkedIn offered me help in sharing my resume to people within the industry after I posted about being unemployed and the unexpected joys of staying home during COVID. The generosity CMO Joel Bulger showed in reaching out to me was kind, and I have since learned that is just who he is. But it was also a peek into the spirit of Zaxby’s culture and what I have come to learn southern hospitality is all about.

In my short time with Zaxby’s, the company has gone through profound change. This 30-year-old, primarily southern based 900-plus restaurant chain sold a significant portion of the company to Goldman Sachs and Leonard Green in late December 2020. Prior to that, Zaxby’s was run by its original founders Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley and grew through friends, family, customers, and fans. The acquisition has allowed Tony to exit the business and for Zach to remain as CEO and continue to be the visionary of where Zaxby’s is going long term. The longevity of Zaxby’s employees speaks to the culture of servitude and the longstanding belief that “were all into this together.” Lending a hand is expected but not taken for granted. Zaxby’s culture is an extension of Georgia’s culture, one based on “love thy neighbor” and one I have found refreshing and surprising coming from California.

Like most organizations, Zaxby’s is wrestling with the best ways to address equity within the workplace by striving to have it be relevant, impactful, and thought provoking to define what could be. The longstanding culture of Zaxby’s has allowed for very difficult conversations, sharing of the realities of life experiences, and challenging each other in defining our future role. It has not been easy or without conflict, but I continue to be humbled by the level of sincerity, trust, and willingness this organization has shown to improve its human connections.

What was your first job?

My first job was working for the City of Redmond turning old documents into microfiche, the technology of the day!

What’s your favorite menu item at Zaxby’s?

My favorite menu item is The Nibbler. I love the small size of them, and how the garlic butter on the bread combines with Zax sauce.

What’s your favorite cuisine aside from Zaxby’s?

When it comes to food, I love most things. Sushi is my all-time favorite, but for chain restaurants, I can’t get enough of Shake Shack. I was recently speaking to someone in growth at Shake Shack, trying to convince them to come to Athens, Georgia, and open a new location.

Who inspires you as a leader?

Great leadership always includes service toward others, and there are the historic figures that I have long admired, MLK Jr. and Mother Theresa. The essence of what makes these two people extraordinary is their lifelong work to improve the lives of humanity and to do so in a ‘lead by example’ manner. I find myself being inspired daily by people that regularly give more of themselves than what they expect in return, and do not think of their actions as leadership. It is so important to recognize it, celebrate it in the moment and nurture a culture of leadership within your children, your friends, and your organization. Leadership is never about a “top-down” approach. It can’t be!

What’s the best piece of advice that other restaurant executives should hear?

Stay humble and never stop learning! Sounds easy, but I have found this to be the exception rather than the rule in entry, mid and upper tier executive management. The best leaders I have ever worked with, did not take themselves too seriously, listened to others and did not try to have all the answers. They fought their internal ‘pride’ to stay grounded by getting involved with their teams from the top down and bottom up. If your employees don’t know and trust who you are on a human level, you never will learn what is really going on within your business. And often, you can find out what the real problem with your business is by listening and being open to feedback—it’s a lot cheaper than hiring outside consulting companies to come in and tell you what your team could have told you had you just listened!

What are some of your interests outside of work?

Most of my time is spent with my family, and luckily, we have similar interests including skiing and golf. I also love to read a good mystery, enjoy wine tasting, and discovering new restaurants.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs, Story, Zaxby's