James Worthington, CEO of Kneaders Bakery & Cafe, grew up around the business. His parents, Gary and Colleen Worthington, started the Orem, Utah–based bakery concept in 1997 when James was 17. Today, Gary—who is gradually stepping back into the business after fighting cancer last year—and chief brand officer Colleen are still heavily involved with the company they’ve built to be 59 locations strong in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, and Nevada. QSR talked with James Worthington about how Kneaders shaped his young adulthood and how he now leads the brand to compete in the ever-developing quick-service space.

Out of retirement

My parents have always been entrepreneurs. My dad started a construction company right out of college but found out that he was allergic to a lot of the adhesives they were using. So he decided he was going to run Subway franchises. They ran those for a good number of years before selling the franchises and retiring when I was about 14 years old.

As a 14-year-old young man, I don’t think there are many things worse than having your parents around all the time. By the time I was 16, they decided to go back into business. They had a passion for the restaurant industry, loved great bread, and felt there was a hole in the market for high-quality, artisanal hearth bread. They started doing some research and partnered up with great suppliers like the Lehi Roller Mills here in Utah.

I remember having ovens in our garage. We would bake bread and take it around to our neighbors to ask what they thought. It was really cool to be a teenager and watch this whole process unfold. We opened the first store on December 2, 1997.

Growing up on grains

I’ve been involved since day one. I was first a dishwasher and then did baking when I was in college. I went to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. On occasion, I would grab our day-old cinnamon bread because I thought it made fantastic French toast. I actually used it as a way to meet the girls. I came home and said, “You know, Mom and Dad, you have got to look at this. It’s actually really good.” I left the country and traveled for a couple years, and when I came back, they were selling a lot of Chunky Cinnamon French Toast. It’s become a tradition for a lot of families to come on Saturday mornings and share it as a meal together.

When I graduated from college, my wife and I actually bought the first franchise location and ran it for five to seven years. At that point, I went back to school to get my MBA, and when I graduated, Mom and Dad said they’d love my help down at the headquarters.

Shifting landscape

It all revolves around that guest interaction, making sure our guests get what they’re looking for—which is always changing. Where our guests were five years ago is completely different from where they are now.

We see a big focus right now on convenience and are making that a big part of what we do. We’ve always done delivery on catering orders, but we brought that down to any order over $10. It makes a big difference for our guests. They love that convenience factor. We have a great partnership with Olo for online ordering. We see that segment of the business continue to expand and grow.

We love that the restaurant industry is constantly changing. We always have to be watching what’s coming next and making sure we stay on trend to deliver for our guests.

Growth lesson learned

One of the big things for Mom and Dad is creating opportunity for their employees, and a natural extension of that is the expansion of the brand.

We had a really high-paced growth period a couple years ago. I think the biggest challenge is the toll it takes on your people. You’re going from city to city, from store to store. Honestly, it was at a pace that was really awesome at the time, but now I look back and think maybe it was just a hair too quick. Our people are our most important asset, so you need to make sure you take care of those teams traveling. They’ve got families at home and people they care about and want to see.

We still have plans to open several new locations over the next few years, but our main focus is taking care of our guests and making sure our stores grow internally to stay healthy and strong. Finding a better balance is something I’d like to focus on if we did a push like that again.

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