Many things separate successful restaurant brands from their competitors. Take Chick-fil-A, for example. All of the praise it receives for its delicious chicken sandwiches, immaculate dining areas, and the company’s friendly employees can be traced back to one main source: company culture.

When you visit Chick-fil-A’s website, the brand has an entire page dedicated to it. The page examines the chain’s purpose, values, and “culture of care.”

So, with culture being vitally important to a restaurant brand, how can growing and emerging concepts create a positive company culture and lay down a strong foundation from the start?

Culture Starts at the Top

You can’t have a strong culture without strong leaders. Your people ultimately make up you brand, so you want to make sure you’re hiring those who embody your brand’s values. Both of our brands value family and fun, and most importantly, we put people first.

While there should be systems and organization in place, a company must operate with the mindset of allowing employees freedom and trusting them to manage their time effectively. We cannot claim to offer a “laid-back environment” if employees feel micromanaged, and customers will take notice. Encouraging collaboration is another excellent method to boost employee satisfaction.

Joining a Brands Should Be Like Joining a Family

There is sometimes a negative connotation when companies use the word “family-run” or say they have a “family-like” culture, but restaurant brands should embrace it and operate as a family unit to build strong, long-lasting relationships with employees, franchisees, customers and other stakeholders. Families are all about teamwork and trust.

Your brand’s people should never feel like they’re alone. This is especially true for emerging brands that are still in the process of building their internal culture. Leaders should not just say they have an open-door policy; they should check in regularly and create an environment where everyone feels like they belong.

Compassion is also a major component. Each new franchise partner or employee becomes a part of your brand’s family and should be treated as such. It’s vital to understand that they each have their own lives outside of work, and life is unpredictable. Being understanding, flexible and supportive – just as you would with an actual family member.

Creating Strong Partnerships

Facilitating a healthy company culture is all about relationships. Another way you can ensure you keep your company culture at the highest level is to ensure you’re partnering with owners and vendors that align with your culture and your values. As an emerging restaurant franchisor, you must lead by example as you bring new owners into your brand.

Be selective with who you choose to represent your brand. If part of your culture is to be active in the community but a prospective franchisee seems disinterested in that or disengaged, they may not be the best fit.

In addition, company culture extends beyond your four walls. If you’re a company that believes in transparency and communication but one of your vendors takes three days to return a phone call, they’re not going to be a good fit for you or your franchisees. You and everyone you involved in your business—internally and externally—set the stage for each of your locations.

Maintaining Your Focus

Speaking of your locations, brands without a strong company culture are typically those with disengaged or distracted leaders. Investing in your people is the best thing you can do. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get caught up in your overwhelming day-to-day tasks, from financials to marketing, operations and more.

As expansion continues, it’s important to sit and consider what the company culture is or will be, and create action plans to continue and encourage that culture as the brand moves from one to 100 units.

Even if you surpass thousands of units, always remember the feeling and energy of the first location. Focus on the environment you provided as a single unit operator and aim to bring that culture to every unit you open. This will be a driving factor of success for other owners as you expand.

Megan Rosen is the Chief Development Officer of NEXT Brands and Development.

Employee Management, Fast Casual, Outside Insights, Story