As her 26-year career with the Navy came to a close, Cassandra Stokes pondered the best next course of action. She’d served as a master chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy Reserves while also working as a special events and banquet coordinator for a top-rated restaurant. In this latter job, Stokes discovered a love for food, cooking, and hospitality. Some leadership roles in the Navy also presented Stokes with opportunities to mentor others—something she found very fulfilling.

Once retired from the Navy, Stokes decided to combine her love of hospitality and mentoring by entering foodservice. She became a Wingstop franchisee, and later franchised with Newk’s Eatery. She opened her first Newk’s in Nacogdoches, Texas, in 2013, and now has her second location on the way. Recently Stokes was honored as the 2016 Newk’s Franchisee of the Year for the highest overall guest response in the chain’s 12-year history.

Stokes attributes much of her success to her military background. Here, she shares her secrets to success.

1. Empower at all levels

One of the things I learned quickly out of the gate is that this industry’s workforce needs structure, motivation, and empowerment. It was easy and almost commonplace to receive all of those in the Navy, but this workforce isn’t accustomed to those attributes. The most important is empowerment, and it starts at the lowest level. No matter what the position, even if it’s all the way at the “bottom,” it’s vital to empower every employee in the building. Every franchisee has the ability to make positive changes for the team, for the guests, and for the business.

Empowerment tells your employees that they are capable of doing the work and even going beyond their sphere of duties. Then you can start motivating them to achieve success at a higher level. It grows the business on every single level. When this is done successfully, decision-making becomes easier, as well as problem-solving and business acumen. Telling your team that they’re important to the business is one thing, but giving them the knowledge, power, and responsibility to perform better is a completely different story because it has a far greater impact on the overall success of the business.

2. Value different perspectives

I tell my managers all the time to constantly learn something new about their staff. Always be learning about your people and asking new things. Ask for their opinion. Ask how they’re feeling about their tasks and duties. Have a desire to learn more about them. Knowing more about each member of your staff is what creates diversity in your restaurant, and it’s a magical thing to have. The bottom line is always important to me, but I love focusing on the team who, by learning more about each other, can better take care of the guests.

Valuing different perspectives was such an integral pillar during my time in the Navy, especially as a mentor. It never diminishes your authority when you decide to value different perspectives. Everyone starts to feel the value they have in the process and the day-to-day business. It’s amazing what kind of impact this can have on the business, and I like to think it trickles down into how the staff views and treats the guests. Because they’ve had their perspective appreciated, they’re apt to do the same with the guests, and it’s something that motivates me constantly as a franchisee.

I love seeing that transformation happen from someone that starts out in the back of the house and eventually becomes a manager. Those are the folks who really seem to appreciate it and don’t just appear out of midair. It’s vital to sustain them for the longevity of your business.

3. Do it not for self but for the restaurant

If you’re just starting out in the franchising world, you owe it to yourself to do your due diligence and find a brand that matches your passion and philosophy. I’ve seen too many instances where someone is not happy with the concept they chose. They made the decision on what could get them the fastest bang for their buck, but that ROI doesn’t happen if you don’t match up with the brand’s core. It’s a disservice to you to pick a brand based on what will give you the quickest return. Take your time and find the right match. Look into their training programs and support staff.

The Navy prepared me for a lot, but not everything transferred over. I asked a lot of questions before I opened my first Newk’s, and I’ll keep asking if I don’t know an answer in the future. For instance, a challenge that I had to overcome was the audience difference between the Navy and a quick-serve staff. In the Navy, I had a captive audience. At my Newk’s locations, I have the exact opposite, and a different kind of battle to motivate. It’s my responsibility to find ways to get employees to show up on time, or even show up at all. If I didn’t love the brand initially, this would have been even more difficult to overcome because I’d have only been worrying about how it was affecting my bottom line instead of taking care of the people who take care of my restaurants.

Back of House, Employee Management, Franchising, Story