After college graduation and an eight-month stint supervising the post–Hurricane Katrina cleanup, Justin Harris wasted little time in taking on the quick-service industry. Harris, like so many others in the field, signed on with Dickey’s Barbecue Pit without any prior ownership or operations experience. Signing his franchise agreement in 2006 and opening his first unit in the summer of 2007, Harris was abruptly faced with the economic downturn and had no choice but to persevere and do whatever it took to stay afloat.

Through the years, his hard work and the sound business practices he learned through his struggles have contributed to his present-day success. Harris not only made it through the rough years, but also excelled in all aspects of his business as a result.

Harris explains what franchisees can do when any difficult situation unfolds and how to come out on top when all is said and done.

1. Working hard? Work harder

I never thought after opening my doors in the summer of 2007 that I would be hit with such adversity and difficulties so soon. That’s the thing about any problem in the restaurant industry: It sneaks up on you. During the heart of the recent recession, there was a 16-month period where I was working seven days a week, from dawn until past dusk. A lot of franchisees or business owners think that when your location is not busy, you might be able to afford not to be at the office as much, but it’s the complete opposite; that’s when you need to work more and harder, and that’s when you need to put in the more labor-intensive hours.

Struggles give you the opportunity to lead by example for the rest of your staff, too. The employees see you doing the grunt work, like power washing the exterior walls—or even mowing grass and pulling weeds yourself—and they are going to be empowered to work harder, too. Throughout the economic crisis, I had to look at every single aspect of the business to save money, but I also had to work at it to save it, and that’s what franchisees need to focus on when times get tough. Don’t let the situation control you.

2. Empower rather than dismiss

An economic crisis often leads franchisees to take a step back and look at their staff, thinking they may need to cut some employees or lower wages. While there might be some money-saving opportunities there, there is more opportunity when you empower the key staff you already have. Each of my employees was cross-trained in several aspects of the business. Every employee became extremely efficient and could perform a task throughout the entire unit. Instead of having two people do one job, one person becomes capable of completing any task.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have six of the original 15 employees I hired still with me. I have another 10 employees that have been with me for more than four years. The crisis helped because they knew exactly what to expect out of me and what I expected from them. They took ownership of their job despite the difficulty and wanted to perform better than before. It makes their work more meaningful to them, and makes your business more efficient.

3. Pay attention to the details

When money is tight and you’re the one writing the check to the distributor or taking care of any other expense, you start paying attention to the details a little more. Because of the crisis, I am a lot more attentive and detail-oriented when it comes to ordering, maintaining inventory, and portion control. Before, I might have been a little lackadaisical when it came to serving sizes or ordering from the distributor. A scare like the recession—one that makes you wonder how much longer you’ll be able to keep the doors open—makes every detail apparent.

Once you’ve established your commitment to details, and tracking each one, then delegate. Again, the employee is empowered by your example and wants to do the same. It was difficult for me handing off such a responsibility, but delegation is important. The employees know my specifics when it comes to inventory, prep, portion sizes, food coming in, and how much of it goes out.

4. Keep customer satisfaction top of mind

If you’re going through a hard time financially, do not underestimate the value and worth of each customer. To me, this was the most important thing we needed to focus on when it got tough. I need the customer more than they need me. I need to appreciate the mere idea that they are in my store wanting to purchase my product. All of the extra staff training or lowering the cost of goods means nothing if I can’t satisfy the people walking through the doors.

A lot of times when you cut labor, you’ll have a tendency to decrease the attention given to customer service. Whether it’s because you’ve short-staffed yourself or want to become more efficient in another area, you need to have the customer in mind. I encouraged my staff to be more attentive, social, and serving to every customer. People were still going out to eat, but they were decreasing the number of times they were doing it. I needed the few times they were eating with us to be a memorable experience. Repeat guests and your core customers are always the lifeblood of the business, but if they see your level of attention and service suffer when times are difficult, just imagine the word-of-mouth recommendation they could potentially give their friends.

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