2022 is nearly over. Spotify wrapped the year once again with its viral campaign capturing each listener’s most played songs. Black Friday sales have been ongoing since November 1 for big box stores. AI is making headlines for restaurants, customer service, and even art. Next year will continue to have unknowns and uncertainties in international relations, talks of a recession, supply chain disruptions and the workforce of the future. Despite all odds, we can’t help but be a little excited for what’s to come in the restaurant and hospitality industries in 2023.
One company that has its sights set on a bright 2023 is Sonny’s BBQ. We sat down with Sonny’s BBQ CEO Jamie Yarmuth, COO Billy Brewer and Chief Talent Officer Christie Schatz to see what they learned in 2022, and how they’re applying those lessons to predict what’s to come in the new year.
“I believe that as a brand, what we learned throughout the pandemic is that our team is really good at taking challenges and turning them into real opportunities,” stated Brewer.
One of the biggest challenges facing the restaurant industry remains a tight labor market. The disruption over the last two years has pushed leaders to explore new strategies and evaluate benefits that provide stability for employees. Schatz shared insight into how Sonny’s is capturing and keeping its talent pool, “No matter how much you work on attracting and retaining talent in our industry, we have to shift every day and stay agile. Even using the best tools and maintaining below-industry turnover numbers, team members have more choices in where they want to work and how it aligns with their lives. Being an appealing employer means really understanding what it takes to engage people at a personal and individual level.”
These efforts on investing in recruitment and culture created tangible success in 2022 that the brand intends to repeat in 2023. Sonny’s leaders found it was more than increased wages and flexible hours that kept team members engaged. It was the demonstration of what it meant to prioritize team members through initiatives like team member Random Acts of BBQ where a surprise meal and recognition are given to a member of a Sonny’s restaurant and Giving Tuesday to invite team members to join the Kindness Crew, a group that activates boots-on-the-ground community giving, with a $2,500 donation to the charity of their choice.
The most pivotal part of the brand’s growth? Putting people first, from team members to loyal customers to the greater Sonny’s community. “We put people as our top priority, always. Our restaurants are designed as a place of comfort, where the burdens of everyday life are reduced for our customers and team members,” says Yarmuth. “As a brand, we put emphasis on hospitality and that translates to a constant investment in and priority of experiences.”
Schatz expanded on how that focus on people will be enhanced in the new year, “People have been at the core of Sonny’s values for more than 50 years. In 2023, we’re planning for what the future of work looks like and ensuring our inclusive culture reflects our world today.”
To that end, Sonny’s is partnering with the University of Central Florida (UCF) Ginsberg Center for Inclusion and Community Education and their Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dr. Andrea Guzman to amplify their existing philosophy of being a place where everyone is welcome and defining how they bring that to life across the brand’s footprint. The vision to create a more inclusive environment, a defining value for restaurants and businesses in 2023, starts at the top of a successful organization.
“As a leadership team, we recognize that candidates and prospective franchisees are not just looking for jobs but to work with organizations that have values that are in alignment with their own,” shares Schatz. “Our work over the next year will include UCF Unity Star and Inclusion Champion certifications and team member training to develop cultural competence around the 21 diversity, equity, inclusivity and belonging competencies. Following this foundational practice, we’ll create tools not only for our internal recruitment program but for attracting prospective franchisees. Our goal is to create a program that brings awareness through training and results in actionable tools.”
The culture and environment go beyond development and training for the BBQ restaurant brand and starts to take shape through connection. Sonny’s is doubling down on new experiences both in person and virtually. “Over the past year, people have spent less time at home and more time looking for experiences that enhance or enrich their lives,” shares Yarmuth. “I’m excited to reinvigorate our team and challenge them to think bigger about what a dining experience at our restaurants means.”
One of the most prominent predictions of 2023 is the role that technology will play in meeting guests where they are, or to Yarmuth’s point defining the new dining experience. For Sonny’s, it’s a delicate balance to scale up technology in a way that positively impacts growth, while not negatively impacting their signature service that can only be delivered by passionate team members. “We’re looking for new technologies to help create solutions and efficiencies but not take away from the hospitality that guests know us for,” Brewer stated.
This means being methodical in what new tools and processes will be implemented, like kiosks and tablets.
“We’re taking a deeper look at who we want to be and where we want to go. I’ve been thinking about our approach as a ‘choose your own adventure’ book, so to speak, that gives us a path to different tactics based on the situations we face in the coming year,” Brewer shares with enthusiasm.
By prioritizing a great BBQ experience through excellent food, attentive service, and an inviting atmosphere, Sonny’s sees itself well positioned for growth. The brand will be adding another five restaurants in 2023, to the five that opened last year. Yarmuth is confident they will continue to build off of their recent success for one reason: “We don’t cut corners.”