Jill Taylor, Chief Executive Officer of Burgerville
About the Guest
Jill Taylor is the CEO of Burgerville, an iconic restaurant brand in the Pacific Northwest. Jill has been involved with Burgerville for more than two decades as a consultant at The Taylor Group. Before jumping into the seat of restaurant CEO, Jill began her career as a pediatric nurse working at Oregon Health & Science University and Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
In this episode, we chat with Jill Taylor, CEO of Burgerville. Tune in to hear how Jill and her team have been facing the restaurant labor shortage head-on by investing in the development and safety of their team members. Jill shares how her restaurants have fine-tuned operations to support a 5000% increase in digital orders as well as her vision of making the Pacific Northwest the healthiest region in the country.
From fake meat and robot chefs to ghost kitchens and delivery drones, the restaurant industry is rapidly evolving. Welcome to Food Fighters, bringing you interviews with the leading industry trailblazers. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein.
Welcome back to Food Fighters. I’m your host, Zach Goldstein. Today, I’m excited to be joined by Jill Taylor. Jill is the CEO of Burgerville, an iconic restaurant brand in the Pacific Northwest. She’s been involved with Burgerville for more than two decades as a consultant at the Taylor Group. And before jumping into the seat of restaurant CEO, Jill actually began her career as a pediatric nurse working at Oregon Health and Science University. And Doernbecher children’s hospital. Jill, welcome to Food Fighters.
Oh, thanks. Thrilled to be here. Great to join the conversation.
I’m excited to chat with you because you have taken over a brand that has been around for 60 years. And that is a testament to the longevity of a great restaurant concept, but it’s also a challenge as a CEO. How do you balance the nostalgia and history of a prolific brand like that with modern customer expectations who are looking for fresh experiences and technology to go along with them?
Great question. One of the things that Burgerville has been behind the scenes, they don’t advertise it much. They’ve been fairly innovative over the years, staying ahead of what’s happening with people and what’s happening with food and we keep that as a conversation in front of our guests, and then we express it through our menu. So there are some items, for example, on the menu that have been there for the whole, probably 60 years, I think sometimes we’ve tried to move some of those menu items off and the guests will come back and say, “Hey, where did my colossal go?” So, but then we’re adding in new things. Like we have a strong push for regenerative for populating our menu with grass fed grass, finished beef that comes from regenerative agricultural ranches and farms here in the Northwest. And then educating through our brand, why that’s important and why that’s important now is how we’ve been able to both take care of the legacy part of who we are, but keep our brand fresh and in front of a new generation.
We record this, we’re in we’re in late May. And one of the things that is on the forefront of any restaurant leader is what has been labeled for instance, by nation’s restaurant news, a labor shortage, or a labor crisis. You are positioned in an area in the country that has actually been at the forefront of leadership around minimum wage and things like that. How do you think about the current post-COVID labor crisis, quote unquote, and, and what steps are you taking to attract and retain the right the right talent now, but frankly, even before this recent crisis started?
So Burgerville has guided by its mission and vision. Our mission of serve with love and our vision to make the Pacific Northwest the healthiest region. So we actually pay attention to what is this showing us as we hit this labor shortage and having come through crisis, we’re aware of what’s happening in the world and that impact on people and then what that means for the restaurant industry. So we have been really working to see a level of training and development is part of how we’re beginning to do that as well as staying ahead of minimum wage. And then of course, people we’re looking ourselves are moving to a $15 an hour wage just because of that shortage and, and Burgerville weights, both our local presence and our impact on the economy, plus our impact on the environment and then how to support and take care of our people and attract that kind of labor. You know, we ourselves are challenged moving forward and we’re looking for fresh solutions through our mission and with our commitments and our values in place.
How have you thought about that challenge? I mean, one of the concerns that restaurant often talk about is once we increase wages, there is no going back. It’s a one directional movement towards higher hourly pay and yet there is clearly a national conversation about minimum wage happening right now. Many of the cities in the Pacific Northwest have had the highest mandated minimum wages in the country, making it hard for you to be ahead of where those mandates are, I would imagine. How do you strike that balance as you think about where you’re leading versus where you just want to fall in line with local ordinances?
Sure. Well employees are the heart and soul of Burgerville. And so looking at is this pointing to that it’s becoming more of a career in which case we’re looking at, do we change our labor model? And so we have experiments running on, for example, distributed leadership. Is there greater responsibility that we would give a crew member and the training and development to do it, that’s not quite a managerial position, but has them come forward with perhaps they order or check the inventory or perhaps get extra training and how you outreach and marketing, or you get training on how to be a better cook so that you could take that skillset elsewhere as a potential career. The other thing that we are looking at is if it’s actually informing us that this is moving in a different direction, the current generation seems to be moving more toward, I don’t know if I want a job, but I need a job because while I’m trying to create my own thing, whatever that is, I need to have a certain number of hours to be able to pay for things. So we’re looking at that place where we could say, what is, you know, what is the purpose for you in terms of your career and where you are and how can we come up under you to give you that kind of training, change our labor model and prepare you for a different world that we’re transitioning into.
Really interesting. And it ties to this, this point you made a little earlier, but it’s broader around your vision of making the Pacific Northwest, the healthiest region on the planet. As you think about your role as a burger focused restaurant or a historically burger focused restaurant, how can you do that? What are the biggest levers you have to commit to the health and wellness of your region?
Another great question. So there’s a couple of things that we go to work on. One is because we’re a regional company, we actually can focus more on some of the challenges and issues. So we support local family farms, ranches, and food producers. We buy regionally from nearly a thousand farms and ranches, and seventy-five percent of our ingredients are sourced within about a 300 mile radius. What that begins to create as a kind of platform in which together with our supply chain, we can move toward food security. We can move toward helping millennial moms or moms period choose if I have to get fast food, can I count on somebody that’s going to bring me healthy beef, healthy items with no preservatives and junk in the food, even though it’s fast food, how can we begin to do that? And then how can we have that impact the economy? And while we’re at it, create the sustainability through our food and business choices that actually help us create a healthy environment for a healthy region for a healthy community. So we’re trying to do it at multiple layers just but not overextend.
Certainly that mission is at the forefront as we think about the COVID world that we have now lived in for more than a year, but you actually responding to multiple crises at the same time, the devastating fires across the Pacific Northwest last year, certainly would have impacted a number of your locations, air quality, safety concerns. How did you weigh your options as a leader in your organization and what allowed you to adapt dynamically to such a crazy period of time?
Yeah, crazy is right. Well, first and foremost, health and safety is one of the highest priorities for our employees. And when we started to get the reports of bad air quality and our employees, managers were calling in saying, people can’t come, they have, some of them have asthma. I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this. We actually made the decision to close the restaurants that were temporarily closed them that were most effected by the air quality. What that began to do was create a whole new level of loyalty and our employees understanding the commitment that we have to them. We could sacrifice them for profit, but in the longterm that wouldn’t have us show our employees that we care and we support their health and safety. We found that as we do that, and as we work in that similar way with our supply chain, we were able to bounce back and have profit by the end of the year, but it was a big hit on us and a big decision to close the restaurants, but it worked out.
Yeah, I believe it. And honestly, especially having probably had to make the exact same cost calculus just literally months earlier with the uncertainty around COVID. And so having the pain of shuttering restaurants for some period in the immediate aftermath of COVID and the uncertainty there only to reopen and then have the fires create a second event just months later that’s a lot of shock to the system.
Yes, it has been. Because of the way we have chosen to work with healthiest region, our employees and our local supply chain, we’ve been able to create and the development that we do with people we’ve been able to help create a level of resilience so that our people working hard impact and don’t don’t mistake. Yep. That’s there, but and having the kind of support that allows a level of resilience to emerge is what we found by investing in their development and investing in their health and safety. So we see it more or less as a spend and more as an invest, because we know in the short term people can make it through cause we have support for that. And in the intermediate to longer term than we, we have that level of commitment and loyalty that has people start to emerge on the other end of it. I can’t say it hasn’t been challenging though. It has been
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One of the things that you had in place. And certainly what COVID has demonstrated to a lot of restaurants is the foundation of technology. You’re too late, if you are dependent on it and you don’t have it in place. And the good news is you did have some elements in place. You had your ordering system, you had your loyalty program, Localville. How have you leaned on those pieces of technology to help your restaurants bounce back? And where did you choose to invest further because of COVID?
Well, going into COVID we had mobile delivery set up with door dash and we had our mobile ordering app. And so initially it was while we were fine tuning our app, of course there was drive-thru that was just busy all the time. And then what we saw is, cause we’ve been working on our loyalty program. We said, well, let’s launch it now because it will help people both get some rewards and have them know who we are. And it was in shuttering the dining rooms, keeping drive-thru open and making the investments in digital – That’s how we made it through. I think we had like a 5000% increase in digital by making the investments and fine tuning our mobile ordering app on the way to launching Localville which happened during COVID. And then working with our mobile delivery people to fine tune that, it paid off. I mean, at a certain point we saw we needed to invest in fly by, which is a way to communicate with the guests and let us know when they were there and let them know when the food was ready. So we’ve been blessed frankly, by having those things in place and being able to make additional investments that enabled our people to keep serving our guests, that tasty, delicious, healthy food we have.
You mentioned a 5000% increase in digital orders and that has been a consistent theme across these conversations is restaurants that had that foundation in place saw demand shift to digital. One of the other things that we know has happened broadly is a huge shift to third-party delivery. Brands that would have or consumers who would have normally experienced your brand at the restaurant, whether dine-in, or, or picked up and take away we’re ordering delivery. And COVID, and obviously that has significantly different margins in your business. How have you thought about balancing the important role third-party delivery plays in servicing the demand for your customers with also the potential risk of losing that direct relationship and losing that significant margin?
One of the things that we do because of who we are with our local suppliers, we feel like for example, door dash, we have primarily been working with door dash. We haven’t gone to other mobile delivery apps as of yet, because what we’re wanting to do is to create that kind of relationship where they’re helping us and we’re helping them. So our brand doesn’t get lost, they win, we win. And that’s how we would like to approach it. They’ve they’ve provided some great support. For example, one of the things that when you get a 5000% increase in digital, I’m sure all other restaurants have been dealing with this. You actually have to create a new flow in the restaurant because digital orders don’t come one by one, like it went through the drive-through or at the order at the cash register in a dining room, they come forward all at once and then they slowed down and then they come in all at once and it’s very asynchronous. And so to be able to keep moving the orders through the restaurant is, is part of what we’re working to fine tune right now in door dash is also helping us do that with some of the research and some of the pieces that they can bring forward in the work that they’re doing on their own brand.
The interesting thing about being a regional brand is you must get many questions around, do you intend to stay regional? Do you intend to expand to across the country? You have really focused your brand and your efforts around the Pacific Northwest. What is the process for deciding we are a regional brand and we’re going to continue expanding within our region, or we’re going to look at the possibility of adding Burgerville to other regions. How do you think about that conversation? Because it must come up with various stakeholders, investors, board members, team members, relatively often.
Sure. You know, I think one of the things in the QSR industry is to get to a certain scale that can give you then a certain level of profitability. And so we’ve been looking at just, what is that scale and how would we do that in the region? And then what would that mean to grow nationally? And so each region we feel like is special has their own, like you could say, the Pacific Northwest has its own sort of personality. I think people have probably seen that during COVID and some of the protests that were happening here, we have our own personality. That Burgerville is a big part of supporting both the culture as well as our brand, each region would have a different personality. And so, you know, we’re looking at what does that mean? Because we feel like being regional gives us a certain kind of intimacy and relationship with our community and our guests that when you start to go national, our concern is that that would get lost, that it would be more about getting to scale.
Then it would be about the local economy and the resilience in the Northwest that we could help build with food security and the way we’re working with ranchers and farmers and food producers. And so, you know, we’ve been looking at how would we do that? And I’ll say we’re in conversations right now to see what does that mean and what would that, what would that open up and what would we have to be willing to either let go of which we’re not crazy and letting go of our regional brand at all, as you can imagine. So then what does that inform? We’re asking those questions right now.
It’s really interesting. And I like the framing of a regional identity can be preserved in a different region, but it necessitates the possibility of a different identity. And what does that, what does that look like if you were to do that? It may not be Pacific Northwest Burgerville in a different region, if those are not the same principles that that will make you successful there.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
I wanted to wrap up our conversation. Any CEO in the restaurant world has, has had a fairly stressful year. You bring a different perspective though, in that stress, as a pediatric nurse, you’ve seen quite a bit of stress as well in your previous career. Tell me about some of those formative experiences, and what you’ve drawn on through a really unprecedented year in the restaurant industry.
My experience in hospitals, I think the last one I worked at was Los Angeles children’s hospital in the intensive care unit. And so you would get used to a car accident coming in with PE with kids injured or drownings with kids needing to be revived. And so you started to develop a way to be with the crisis and keep breathing and stay present to what’s happening and do what was necessary to do. Additionally I worked with kids in cancer, and that’s a whole different kind of impact on a family. It’s more slow going than a big crisis. And so I would say both sides of that had me appreciate what it takes to be well and resilient, moving through things like that, whether it’s the impact of an oncology experience with their child and a potential death in a family or the crisis of a big accident or a big event.
And being grounded through that and being able to just keep breathing and be present and not make up a lot of stuff, not get into it, but also pay attention to the feelings and don’t let them build up. I got that training through being a nurse and all the different situations I was in and have been able to bring that. I mean, I developed practices that I brought forward in any situation that I’m in now that have been a part of maintaining my own well being and my own vitality and my own resilience. Cause if, you know, if the CEO goes down, then it’s like, wow. So I think developing those practices for well being and vitality is a critical thing eespecially in the restaurant industry going through COVID this last year,
It’s incredible perspective that you bring in. And quite frankly the restaurant industry is such a special place because of the number of leaders who grew up in the industry, but it also offers such value for someone like you with those experiences to bring that in to your team. And it’s certainly to the benefit in a crisis situation of being able to connect those dots. So it’s wonderful to hear you draw on those experiences and lead such a brand it’s been around as we said for six decades through this unprecedented time.
I appreciate that. Hopefully it makes a difference.
I’m sure it ha and, and Burgerville is doing that in your region and we look forward to seeing what that looks like next. So Jill, thank you for joining us on food fighters, enjoyed the conversation, we’ll be rooting for Burgerville in these upcoming years as you make some of these tough decisions.
Perfect. Thank you so much. This was a pleasure to be in conversation with you. Zach.
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