December 1, 2012

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The Right Consistency

Cafe Rio Expands Far from the Home Turf

Gaylen Webb

December 1, 2012

When a business is on an aggressive growth path like Cafe Rio Mexican Grill, it’s important to have consistency in every aspect of the operation. That’s why CEO Dave Gagnon has this mantra: “We run every restaurant like it’s our only restaurant.”

But can consistency be numero uno in the midst of an aggressive expansion program far away from company headquarters? Indeed, it can. In Cafe Rio’s case, the Utah-based company just opened six new restaurants on the East Coast and is currently in the process of opening its ninth location in the D.C. area, in Frederick, Md.

It’s Chief Marketing Officer Ben Craner’s job to ensure that customers consistently experience the same quality and attention to detail at every Cafe Rio location, coast to coast. So when the company, which currently operates 56 locations nationwide, embarked on its 10-store expansion in 2011, he says executive management didn’t fret so much about the distance between home base and the new stores as it did about training.

“Training is the key for us,” Craner says. “We go to great lengths to train our store managers before they ever leave Utah. You can’t know exactly what to expect in every new location, which makes your training program even more critical. Any company expanding beyond its headquarters location will experience challenges. Our focus on training has helped us overcome hurdles and remain agile.”

Craner explains that by focusing on training, the company is able to open new stores with managers and teams that know exactly the Cafe Rio processes and systems. “That’s important when you squeeze 1,000 fresh limes every day and make every food item from scratch,” he says. “We don’t install freezers or microwaves in our restaurants. We bring every ingredient in fresh and we make every food item fresh, from our dressings to our guacamole. How do you do that and make it consistently good? Training!”

Replicating Success
In addition to Cafe Rio’s focus on training, there are other lessons the company learned in the midst of its East Coast expansion effort. Jennifer Burns, who handles the company’s media relations, offers a list of eight elements she deems crucial to any expansion effort:
1. Document all of your processes and procedures. “At Cafe Rio, everything is documented to a ‘t’ across the board,” she says.
2. Continually improve your training. “It has to be current and timely. That’s why we are investing in a full training facility here in Utah, complete with a test kitchen,” she explains.
3. Remain agile. Adjust quickly. “Having processes and systems in place that work well—and managers that know those processes and systems—allows you to adjust to challenges quickly.”
4. Have a check system in place for each level of employee, “from the person that squeezes 1,000 limes every day on up to store managers and executive management.”
5. Use social media to monitor the customer experience. At Cafe Rio, the company employs social media tools and techniques religiously. “We use social media tools like Twitter, Yelp, Mindshare and Facebook. We are on them daily, which allows us to check in with each of our locations and monitor customer experiences,” Burns says. “Social media allows us to see what’s happening from the customer perspective and tailor things if necessary, especially if there is a specific regional demand, a problem or a change that is needed. Social media is a must if you want to understand customer feedback from location to location.”
6. Listen to your customers. “Another aspect of social media is that it provides a venue for you listen to your customers and let them know you are sincerely interested in their feedback,” she adds.
7. Have a strategic growth plan. “We establish our growth plans by evaluating where we are today, what we have done and what resources we have in place. But don’t grow too fast for your support systems,” she cautions. “When you grow too big too fast, you endanger the quality and experience of what it is you have built. Always focus on quality first.”
8. Be consistent with your products, services and customer experience. “At every Cafe Rio restaurant, no matter the location, watching the food be prepared (on the spot and fresh) is simply part of the fun. It’s part of our energetic, eclectic atmosphere,” Burns explains. “You can walk in, see all of the colors, smell the food and hear the music. It’s lively and it energizes you. We get the best feedback from our customers. They say things like, ‘What a fun experience!’ or ‘You’re so family friendly!’”

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