No one knows precisely when or where the first restaurant appeared, but the business model has existed in various forms since ancient times. Generation after generation labored to bring food and drink to the marketplace, refining and innovating along the way. Today’s restaurant industry rests upon the shoulders of those who came before us. And the future of our industry resides with those who will follow us.

It is in that spirit that I congratulate the “Young Leaders to Watch.” They have earned recognition as part of the fabric of the industry, and they will likely be among the cadre that proves instrumental in moving the industry forward as my generation fades from the scene. I look forward to passing the torch to leaders of their caliber. Watch them indeed!         

In the history of restaurants, the quick-service restaurant category is a relatively new development. Debates can be had about the identity of the “first” fast-food restaurant, but rather than enter that fray, let’s just say that it has been about 100 years since the origin of the category as we know it today. White Castle and A&W are two brands that helped form the foundation; McDonald’s became the cornerstone and preeminent model of what constitutes a quick-service. Fast forward to today, and we find hundreds of quick-service restaurant brands spanning a broad range of cuisines and service models. Virtually every one of these brands can trace their roots … at least conceptually … to a small number of pioneer brands. And behind every one of those pioneer brands stand people. Not just the founders and entrepreneurs, but the people that helped build those brands. If one thing is certain in this industry, it is that no one succeeds alone.  

Thus, it does not come as much of a surprise that our industry, though extraordinarily competitive in many respects, has an enduring heritage of sharing best practices and fellowship. Those who devote their lives to the trade become part of a community rich in hospitality, service to others, kindness, charity, and let us never forget, opportunity. 

Can we ever adequately give back to the industry all that it has given to us? I’m not sure … but we can damn well try!

Knowing that the future of our industry rests with the generations to come, perhaps the best gift we veterans can give is mentorship. The quick-service segment is arguably as strong as ever, even in the waning days of a pandemic. I think it is fair to say that the current generation of leaders have gotten a few things right! What we have done well is often obvious in the marketplace and most likely to be emulated. But many of us learned some of our most important lessons by making mistakes … or observing the mistakes made by others. Through mentorship, we can help the leaders of tomorrow avoid those mistakes, which will in turn spur the progress of the industry at a greater pace than might otherwise be realized.   

Having been part of the quick-service segment for nearly half of its existence (gulp!), I have lost count of the people I met along the way who made a difference in my life. I can say without hesitation that I have benefited immeasurably from those relationships. In some cases, a relationship was passive, and I learned through observation alone. More rewarding, however, is the creation of a personal tie that allows for active and open dialogue, whether in the form of a formal mentorship, or a relationship that mirrors it.

What attributes are possessed by an effective mentor?

First and foremost, one must lead by example. A leader that possesses that trait is mentoring full-time, to the benefit of all whom they lead. The leader will perhaps be surprised later in life when they realize how many people they inspired through the example they set.

Second is to be approachable. A leader who embraces mentorship leaves the door open, literally and figuratively.

Third is to be generous with your time, which is of no greater value to the leader than it is to the team. It is finite for all of us, and the most treasured gift we can give.

Candor is the fourth ingredient … even when it may seem uncomfortable. We do our mentees a disservice if we fail on that count. When you couple candor with tact, kindness, fairness, and objectivity, your feedback will always be embraced.       

Lastly, facilitate opportunities for the mentee to put your coaching to work.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that the teacher stands to learn from the student. No matter the years of experience on the part of the mentor, there is always more to learn. Indeed, with technology and the marketplace evolving with unprecedented speed, this has never been truer than it is today. The insights we can gain from our team members, whether in formal or informal mentorship roles, are often invaluable. All we often need to do is ask. 

While we traditionally think of mentorship roles within our own organizations, the power of industry relationships outside of one’s own brand can be the most powerful of all. I can’t begin to recite the things I have learned through interactions with people at various levels of other restaurant brands as well as vendors that support the industry. Encourage your team members to be active in trade associations at the city, state, or national level. Sponsor their attendance at trade events. Encourage them to give back to this great industry at the earliest stages of their careers. Provide a climate that encourages continuous learning, within and outside of your organization. They will come back enriched in a way that will likely benefit your brand in ways that you didn’t anticipate.

And one day soon, you might brandish a wide smile when you see their name among the young leaders to watch!               

Don Fox is Chief Executive Officer of Firehouse of America, LLC, in which he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of America’s leading fast casual restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,190 restaurants in 46 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various boards of influence in the business and non-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator and published author. In 2013, he received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Manufacturers Association (IFMA).                         

Business Advice, Employee Management, Fast Casual, Outside Insights, Story, Firehouse Subs