Dining & Entertainment: Where Do We Go From Here?

A Changing Landscape
When was the last time you were excited about the new “GAP” or “Old Navy” store opening? Most retail locations, even the once highly anticipated Apple Stores, do not receive the same reaction as when a new restaurant, craft cocktail bar, beer garden, nightclub, or entertainment destination launches. The pandemic has simply accelerated a lot of the trends that were slowly emerging in retail prior to the shutdown. Retail was already changing as consumer demand shifted over the last decade. Ironically, the largest catalyst for retail’s major online shift, Amazon, is reportedly converting traditional malls into distribution warehouses (Forbes).
Most of the major developments that were in progress prior to the pandemic were on the right track. Layout and tenant mix evolved as the marriage of residential, office, and retail has become commonplace. Adaptive reuse landscape design projects have rejuvenated previously underutilized areas. Even the massive malls built decades ago were already making changes to accommodate for the shift in anchor tenants across their portfolios.
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The past was “shop & dine” and the future is “live, work, shop, play”. The new tenant mix is more centered around carefully curated lifestyle amenities for the office occupants and the residents. Boutique retailers have substituted “SALE” sandwich boards for dog water bowls that get more attention from the locals living upstairs, going on walks with their “best friends”.
I have been fortunate to be involved in so many of the great developments that are emerging over the next 3-7 years. They are in incredible markets and I have spoken to some astute landlords who have their finger on the pulse of where the future of retail and commercial real estate is headed. On the horizon are smaller retail footprints, more health, and fitness, high-end grocers, more “green spaces”, and there is not a single development that doesn’t have an upscale “entertainment” user earmarked for their project. In entertainment, unlike restaurants and retail, the options are limited.
The New Faces of Entertainment
As landlords realized this, they started flooding the footprints with a mix of what people cannot buy online. As they searched for the right mix, many have found that there is such a thing as “too many restaurant seats” in a development. Restaurant and retail inventories are decidedly different. Unlike that sweet pair of Nike sneakers, you can always buy tomorrow when restaurants have an off day, they never get that meal back (and they can’t pay rent).
This realization is what led smart developers to seek out entertainment venues that drive traffic and complement the restaurants rather than compete with them. Many traditional big mall retailers were seeking “FEC’s” (Family Entertainment Centers) to backfill the anchor tenants of the past, while most urban and high-end suburban developments focused on a more “adult” upscale, design-forward experience with an elevated F&B component. These big footprint places can attract corporate groups wanting to reward their teams during the week as much as the birthday parties and “date nights” on the weekends.
There already is and will continue to be a major need for entertainment. The reality is, you cannot deliver experiences. They can’t be replicated on Zoom, TikTok, or Instagram Live. Prior to 2020, “Experiential Dining” was on the rise. In fact, according to a 2019 ICSC study, the category had seen a consistent growth of 44.7% in traditional malls and 68.5% in non-malls over the last decade as brands like Dave & Busters, Punch Bowl Social, Main Event, Kings Dining & Entertainment, Lucky Strike, Spin and Topgolf began anchoring more mixed-use developments.
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Many new emerging brands came on the scene introducing new technology and upping the design game such as Flight Club Darts, Puttshack, and Electric Shuffle. Offshoots of the core businesses have paved the way for upscale minigolf as Drive Shack introduced its sister concept, “Puttery”, which is a much smaller footprint in what looks to be an upscale, boutique, minigolf environment. More “soft ticket” live music players like House of Blues, City Winery, and Brooklyn Bowl began to gain popularity as they provided the perfect marriage of F&B along with a show.
Virtual reality venues have not taken off like many thought just a few years ago. Consumers have been seeking more and more analog and tactile experiences that allow them to unplug from the virtual world they have been immersed in.
“ESports” are certainly on the rise and popular Fortnite developer Epic Games has reportedly acquired a 980,000 square-foot mall in Cary, NC for a new campus (Forbes). Still there is a very specific age group that this caters to. The pandemic has only increased the desire to get away from technology when it comes to people's free time.
Many developments are including interesting art exhibits that are both indoor and outdoor. Consumer demand for these “visceral meets analog” experiences has led to the launch of immersive art experiences such as Santa Fe-based, Meow Wolf.
Where does all of this leave movie theatres, which were the steady entertainment anchor for decades? The industry has pivoted into quality over quantity. Better technology, 4D experiences, full service, better seating, and far fewer screens. Lobbies that used to be filled with “crane machines” and candy counters have been substituted with fine art and a craft beer and cocktail bar. Sticky floors and soda-soaked carpets have made way for mosaic tiles and plush fixtures. I may be going to the movies less now, but when I do, I want it to be an experience. The question is, can the upscale model and cost to build sustain the ticket price when your core audience is 13 to 24 years old?
Millennials made it very clear several years ago that they would rather spend money on “experiences” than “things”. There was a rise of experience-driven destinations and even “pop-up” shops that allowed guests to take pictures. I don't think there was a single development constructed in America after 2012 that didn't include at least one “Instragramable” moment that allowed ever-improving camera phone technology and filters to be put to good use. These photo ops became the new marketing tool of the 21st century.
The Acceleration of Technology
Consumer habits have shifted and the new normal will set in. People who have been cooped up inside will begin to emerge and there will be a global campaign to assure the world that it’s safe to go outside again and enjoy our planet. Make no mistake, convenience is key and people will always seek ways to value their time. For this reason, delivery services, ghost kitchens, curbside pick up and upscale fast-casual will be here to stay. The new technology that became widely accepted during the pandemic, like QR codes will open the doors for the emerging and innovative technology groups like Wisely, OneDine, Acrelec, SEVENROOMS, and many more that are flooding the market with solutions to problems of the past.
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The companies with strong leadership and great cultures will sustain themselves as they will be able to restart their engines, adapt to changing consumer habits and integrate technologies. I sat in a Bartaco restaurant a few weeks ago and marveled how seamlessly they integrated the in-house mobile ordering system into their program. “It’s just like adding items to your Amazon cart,” the host told us as we were being seated...and it was. I not only ordered more, but had confidence that the “digital server” would remember that I do not want cilantro (tastes like soap to me), and left when I wanted to. Brilliant integration. Those guys get it.
Pandemic Fallout
Still, not all will be able to hang on by adopting new technologies. Over 17% of America’s restaurants and entertainment venues have already permanently closed their doors with estimates as high as 37% having to do so if additional economic help isn’t received (CNN). There will be even more closures post-pandemic when relief dries up, rent deals run out and debt catches up to the ones holding on for dear life while landlords and banks figure out what to do. Several brands forced to shrink their programs to survive will also “sell out” their program and become as vanilla as the next guy. When survival is key, you do whatever it takes, but those small “extras” now being lost are often what define a brand and allow it to differentiate itself. Many have already convinced themselves that this is their “new normal” and don't even realize the impact that will have until they’ve reduced their business to their new standards.
I am a firm believer the companies that did not take care of their teams will be the first to suffer as they try to rebuild their brands to pre-pandemic volumes and realize they can’t do so without great people. We saw the ones that coldly cast their teams aside for self-preservation when the pandemic hit who will be forced to use what little resources they have left to try to desperately attract talent and build a culture from square one. Most of the horror stories of how employees have been treated won't be revealed until they are able to find other employment when the industry rebuilds. Right now a lot of heads are down just to keep food on the table. Those groups will slowly drift towards irrelevance and become the ones that eventually get “canceled” by the consumers (and their teams).
A Roarin’ Return
I believe there will be a “Roaring 20’s Redux” as we emerge from the pandemic. The Netflix “Tiger King'' days are long behind us and whatever novelty there may have been in the early-pandemic in-house entertainment trends and fads have long since faded. We want to be in crowded venues, go to concerts, amusement parks, bowling alleys, comedy clubs, and other places that are fun for people watching without masks, reservations, and mandatory curfews. I want to be able to sneeze in public and not feel like Cersei Lannister on a “shame walk” as I exit stage left from the judging eyes. So many young people who have yet to really experience many of their “firsts” are currently making lists of everything they want to do when “it's safe to do so”.
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Human beings need connection and are literally wired for it. Pick an expert. If you want to go old-school psychology, Abraham Maslow established belongingness and love as a fundamental human need and motivator way back in 1943. His contemporary Ray Baumeister furthered this notion with the “Need-to-Belong” Theory which demonstrates a fundamental drive and push for humans to form relationships. Modern social connection expert Professor Brene Brown eloquently states that “a deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong”.
At the end of the day, we are all wired the same way and with the same three main survival instincts: Self-Preservation, Sexual, and Social. The world is making sure it’s “self-preserving” during this once-in-a-lifetime event, but when the dust settles, the other two instincts will reign supreme as we repopulate the planet and our economy.
The light is at the end of the tunnel and we can see it. Vaccines are being administered and it's predicted that most Americans will be vaccinated by the end of July of 2021. This is when we see the people step out of their caves and hibernation into the streets and begin to feel normal again. The pre-pandemic activities that made life worth living will become part of our society in an even bigger way.
Where Do Things Go From Here?
The question is, with so many hospitality businesses closing and others with a long, challenging road to climbing out of debt, who will be there to fill the surge in demand? The answer lies in the new and unbridled. Across the country, there have, no doubt, been pockets of passionate restaurateurs and those who have dared to imagine a world after the pandemic. They’ve been planning, pitching, raising capital, and setting wheels in motion to emerge into a new world, unsaddled by the problems of an existing business and ready to welcome the eager droves into the new, shiny, reimagined concept of the future.
Myself and my team at AMP Up1 Hospitality Group are one such pocket. To be focused on growth and not self-preservation through the pandemic has allowed us to rethink the guest experience and use our time wisely to challenge the ways of the past. When the pandemic started, my team and I took a major risk in deciding to launch a new, state-of-the-art “experiential dining” brand that is rooted in the analog. Many progressive entrepreneurs kept saying “right now is the time to do it”, so we did. We pressed the reset button and had a blank canvas with the most talented artists in the industry, all working on a beautiful new painting as we re-define eatertainment.
I believe in our team and I believe in the future of the entertainment industry. We bet on ourselves and our ability to partner up with great people that see the future of upscale experiential dining. It’s still surprising to me how few upscale entertainment businesses there are, but I understand why. It isn't easy to put on a show every night as we do. Our business goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour and back down every week. Aesthetics are easy. Anyone can pick out a fancy light fixture and have some great art on the walls. What makes these places work is your people and your culture.
Our new brand, Kenekt will launch soon. Our motto: start small, think big and scale appropriately. We will choose the best people, locations and focus on our mission and core values as we grow. There is too much of an opportunity in this space to not build a robust foundation first. Growth only becomes hard when you sell out your values and begin to sacrifice what you are passionate about when you launch location number one when you are planning on opening location twenty. You stop trusting your people and start focusing on the automation of culture, which scares me.
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Our ethos is connecting people, so the sky's the limit for us. In a world that has had more walls put up in the last few years, we aim to build bridges and are going to have fun doing so.
Take something away from someone and they want it that much more. I am optimistic about the future of our industry and I believe we all should be. We will all emerge from this pandemic and there will be a need - perhaps larger than ever - for us to see each other, to break bread, to clink our glasses, to dance, laugh, and sing together...to connect. As with the natural peaks and valleys of life, a challenging situation will make way for a prosperous one. In this new situation - at least for a while - we’ll gather and celebrate with a renewed appreciation for the stuff that makes life so special and worth living. Those that bet against the industry will be standing at our doorsteps trying to get in when they realize there is no substitute for human connection.

5 Habits & Hobbies we've picked up Working Remotely

Working remotely has provided us with more of life's most valuable resource:  TIME.  Part of our mission with AMP Up1 Hospitality is to Value Time.  With this time, we've been able to be more active, read more, improve our sleep scores, improve our daily routines and also explore some unrelated and exciting passions.

We asked some of our team what hobbies or routines they’ve picked up since we’ve begun working remotely.  Here are some of our favorite answers:

  • Hand Lettering
    • "It's been a way to be creative off the computer getting back to the basics of ink & paper."  -Amanda Murray
  • Handmade Soap Making
    • "All soap is made with lye. There are so many options of what kind of soap you can make!"  -Erin Callahan 
  • Early Rising
    • "This has helped me plan my days, refelect, prioritize and be more productive overall."  -Doug Warner
  • Football Card Collection
    • "I have been able to build up a collection of over 5,000 cards, with a few of them being very limited edition cards."   -Brendan LeBlanc
  • Walking Daily
    • "It has helped me clear my head, feel productive and reflect.  I enjoy starting or ending my day by going for a long walk."   -Leandro Neves


 What opportunities or passions have you been able to explore?


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How I challenged a decade old system and changed our business

“There is always a smarter, faster and better way.”

The belief that there is always a smarter, faster and better way matters so much because it prevents complacency.  If you do what you've always done, how can you ever expect a different result?  Status quo makes you stagnant.  Even when a process works well, study it and approach your analysis with a beginner’s mind. It’s a mindset that allows you to stay innovative.

I was operating a “eatertainment” venue with 14 bowling lanes, and it had achieved a level of popularity that caused our waitlist to consistently  exceed 4 hours every single weekend. We were making money because it was so busy, but we were also upsetting tons of guests because we could not allow them to do what they came to our establishment to do. 

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The Status Quo:

We always charged bowling per person, per game.  Our company had successfully utilized this model for over a decade and was viewed as a pillar of our profitability.  The unintended consequence of this model is that the length of time for the game was undefined.  The guests could essentially take as much time as they wanted to bowl.  This led to uncertainty in lane turnover times, thus our inflated wait list times which frustrated both us and our guests who were getting the opportunity to bowl.

The guests hated to wait and the staff was stressed out by the long waits.  This caused weekends to be very stressful.

It would have been easy for us to just accept that we were busy, say “it is what it is”, and do nothing.  Instead, we decided to look at our problems with a beginner’s mind and challenge a core practice of our business model. 

The Hypothesis:

If we changed our model from charging per game, to charging per time, we would be able to get more groups on the lanes and gain wait time certainty.

We started studying how long it took groups of different sizes to bowl games.  We involved our team and our guests in the process as we tried to gauge what was comfortable for groups from 2-12 as we didn’t want our guests to feel rushed or cheated.  Introducing something this new to our guests and team was equal parts terrifying and exciting.

It was a rocky process.  Once we started beta testing.  Team members mistakes were plentiful and guests were a bit confused.  Each night we took our notes, calibrated, coached, and evolved for next weekend's trial.  We kept learning and moving forward.  

After weeks of research and calibration, we found that guests enjoyed being able to play an unlimited amount of games within their paid time.  The data even showed that guests were actually bowling more in this new format.

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The Win:

Our efforts paid off.  We found that with a time limit, our guests knew exactly when they would start, and exactly when their time was up, so it was on them to do whatever they wanted with their time. This allowed us to get more groups on the lanes throughout the night.  Both our sales and guest satisfaction increased!

By challenging a decade old model with a fresh perspective, we solved our problems and improved our business.

Analyzing your business for smarter, faster and better ways of doing things can be scary because you may be looking to change something that's always been done that way.  The good news is that embracing this mindset makes you adaptable if something doesn’t work.  You simply evolve and keep moving forward!



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They tried to bury me, but they didn't realize I was a seed.

I’ll never forget the smell of disappointment and buttered popcorn that day. I was 17 years old and I had enjoyed working in our town’s local movie theater for just over a year. We were in the peak of an indie movie boom with classics like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memento making their way into the mainstream.
In between slinging Junior Mints to our guests, my coworker, Trevor, and I always had a blast feeding off each other’s energy and being creative together. Some days, we’d solve for problems like the time we fashioned a noise dampening device for the famously loud soda machine. Other days, we’d focus on inventive marketing. For example, we’d write offers on dollar bills asking people to call to redeem and then distribute them through change - we heard back from someone all the way in Oregon once.
In perhaps our most ambitious marketing effort to date, we decided that we’d host a Hawaiian Theme Night on a Tuesday and invite our friends to come to enjoy the good vibes before a showing. We planned and promoted - hanging decorations, prepping island music, and ensuring there were enough coconuts from which to drink crisp Sprite. Even before social media, the night was a success with a significant bump in attendance from our friends who came to enjoy the festivities.
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But the rush of marketing excitement was short-lived. I knew something wasn’t right when I got a call from the famously temperamental, but extremely distant theater owner the next day. He typically didn’t bother to check-in and barely knew my name, but for some reason, this stunt caught his ire. His simple words - “Doug, you don’t work here anymore” - still resonate with me. Without digging into why we did it or giving me any benefit of the doubt, my fate in the theater had been decided. I suppose in his perception, a couple of teenagers breaking from the script and filling his lobby with other teenagers was a fireable offense. No discussion, no second chances. Trevor suffered the same fate just a few hours later.
As a young teenager who happened to enjoy his job, the sting was brutal at first. I was ashamed and confused as I thought my heart was in the right place. But maybe I was wrong?
Fast forward to a few years later, after college I moved back to Boston and I joined on as a bartender at Kings to pay the bills for my graduate schooling. It was here that I met Josh Rossmeisl, my general manager at the time. EVERYTHING. CHANGED.
After “the movie theater incident”, my instinct was now to suppress crazy ideas. After all, if you touch a hot stove and get burned, you’re not apt to do it again. But Josh was a different kind of manager. He was involved. He was encouraging. We would feed off each other’s energy, hit “the lab” and create inventive drinks together. We collaborated to produce our own theme nights that would excite our guests and team. He trusted me, gave me the leeway to be creative and actually encouraged me to “break the rules, just not the law”.
That trust led to consistent professional growth and over the course of 14 years the company grew to 11 locations in 5 states. By the end of my time at Kings, I was heading up sales and marketing for a company that hosted an average of 50 events a day company-wide including hundreds of theme parties, huge celebrity fundraisers and welcomed over a million guests through our doors every single year.
The spirit of creative collaboration fuels my fire to this day. Some of the biggest wins in my career have come from group sessions where we question norms and allow ourselves to think “what if”? As we embark on the launch of a concept - Kenekt - which is built on innovation and straying from norms, I can’t help but look back and contrast to formative experience at that theater.
“It’s okay to break the rules, just not the law”
AMP Up1 Culture Values
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Secret Sauce: A Business Growth Manifesto

The Growth Conundrum

Imagine you launch a business that becomes very popular, is loved by guests, and is quite profitable.  It becomes the talk of the town due to the service, vibe, food, and drinks. There are incredible advancements in technology, design, and guest offerings that make the concept unique and very desirable.  There are lines out the door on the weekends and it takes weeks to get a reservation.  Home run.  

The popularity of the concept begins to turn into requests for you to expand the concept into different markets and you are approached by a few people who want to invest in your growth.  The offers begin pouring in for you to take the concept to new heights and you begin to realize the opportunity to 10X your sales and grow the concept into a “brand”.  

You get a commitment of funding and quickly sign four leases in some of the coolest neighborhood projects in the country.  You get the deals in place and the world can’t wait for the expansion of your hip, innovative, brand.   They eagerly await the opportunity to experience something they’ve only read about in publications.  

You improve your design and the layout to make it better than the first one and choose some really cool furniture and fixtures for the new spots. You are ready to take on the world and will have 5 locations within the next 24 months, with a promise to have 20 locations built in the coming years.  The world wants your concept badly.  The future is bright. 

Now it’s time to hire your team.  You absolutely gotta go get the best in the industry.  The most experienced and most confident leaders in all fields.  Unleash the recruiters! Feb SS Suit

This is where the wheels come off for your promising young company.  

You’ll spend a lot of time and money looking through fancy resumes and titles.  You’ll throw a lot of money at strangers and trust them to run your business and hope they “get” your concept the same way you do.  These people will work hard to maintain their own self-image.  They won’t understand what made your brand special. There will be no shared values or virtues that guide their actions.  Things will get difficult, they will leave for the next shiny job, you’ll be stretched too thin, guest experiences will suffer, you’ll have no culture, nobody will want to work there. Your concept dies as you are unable to recreate the initial “magic” that made it so cool to begin with.

This situation likely happens more than we know. Only you don’t hear about the concepts rising to fame simply because they failed to focus on the leadership team first and the rise never actually happens.  The idea of large scale growth without the right team is a pipe dream.  

What if you start with the people first? 

Recognize Talent & Take Chances on People

I am not extremely talented at everything.  Quite the opposite.  There are aspects of this complicated industry where I am the first to admit I am lacking.  However, there is one area that I can say that I am very good at and continue to get better at, which is my ability to recognize talent and assemble a great team.  

Back in the 90’s, I started out in “quick service” in an hourly role prepping, washing dishes, cashiering, and serving guests.  I eventually moved into leadership and just before my 19th birthday was made a GM of my first restaurant.  I learned at a young age the importance of surrounding yourself with great people.  I also learned that in the quick-service world, there weren’t people beating down the doors to apply.  We were always a manager short, so I learned to be creative and leverage the hourly team members to help me.  It was "sink or swim", and if I didn’t trust them to do some of the managerial tasks, I would fail.  

Failure was not an option.  

I learned early on that anyone that shows up on time and is “coachable” can be made into a “manager”.  I also learned that taking chances on people meant that sometimes people would let you down, and sometimes their path leads them to a different place. Neither of those scenarios should stop me from taking chances on people if I wanted to survive in this industry.  

I've never been one who relies on a resume and typically don’t like promoting the people who say they want to get promoted.  I prefer to observe people’s work ethic, integrity, and how they treat others to decide who is best for a leadership role.  

From my experience, the ones who can’t wait to become a manager, wear a suit, and have a fancy title and business card are the ones who don’t last.  There are two types of leaders in my opinion:  The ones that do it for titles, benefits, money, and status….and the ones that do it to fix what the previous ones screwed up.  Either way, if you want to see who a person really is, give them power.

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 Investing In Your Team Makes Other Problems Go Away

I have been in the industry for nearly 27 years.  I have worked in every type of restaurant from quick-serve to casual theme, upscale, nightlife, and entertainment.  There is one thing I can say that transcends industries and time, which is, if you don’t have good people, you will never be successful.  I have curated a group of some of the best leaders imaginable on the AMP Up1 team.  Leaders that I have known and worked alongside for years, even decades.   

The last company we ran together, which at its peak had nearly a thousand employees, boasted some impressive statistics. 85% of the leaders in the company started off in hourly positions, and with the exception of the Finance Director, 100% of the Executive Management Team came up through the ranks.  Four of the eleven General Managers started off as Wait Assistants (Bussers & Food Runners).  While it takes a long time to curate a group as dynamic as ours, the results are undeniable.  There was no problem we couldn’t solve and the team could pivot on a dime.  Most importantly, there was respect for who the leaders were from the team and the leaders had empathy because they had done what their team was doing and worked relentlessly to remove obstacles that they had previously dealt with.  

Like a good 401(k), the benefits of this approach compound over time.  By committing to the growth of the internal team, suddenly the guest experience improves as every member of the team feels empowered to make the right choices.  Rather than knowing your mission and values in a “flashcard” kind of way, the experienced internal promotion understands them because they’ve lived them.  They become walking billboards for what is possible, modeling the behaviors that helped build the company.

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Your talent management costs drop precipitously as less time is spent posting ads, onboarding, and training.  This time can be applied to more productive, culture boosting practices like recognition and enrichment programs.  Over time, your internal hires become beacons of what's possible in your company.  The values you preach about aren’t just words on a paper or a website anymore, but they are brought to life by the stories of the team operating the location, and the company.  

You simply cannot grow a company without great people.  Sure, you can hire a bunch of fancy resumes if you want to, but from my experience, a resume is only as valuable as the paper it was printed on.  Until you see someone in the arena, you will never know who they really are.  Owners and company executives who spend all their time sorting through resumes and hiring leaders who may have worked in a few cool places in the past don’t realize the vicious cycle they put themselves through.  They want the “easy button” and choose a facade someone created versus realizing you have talent all around you if you stop and take a look.  The same owners and executives will be the first to cut ties when their once “can’t miss” hires don’t live up to their promise and the search process begins again for the next great hope.  Rinse, lather and repeat.

Why is it easier to take a chance on someone you never worked with versus the individual across the room who is working their butt off?  

This is what is wrong with the industry.  It’s the devil you know, versus the devil you don’t.  It is so easy to look at a person on their best behavior, putting their best foot forward in an interview over the member of your team who screwed up a few times, yet shows up again the next day.  Hiring managers convince themselves the new person is going to solve their problems because they appear to be perfect.  

 Tell me all the mistakes that a team member has made in the last year, and I will tell you that you have that individual figured out.  There is enormous value in that knowledge.  The new “resume” will make those same mistakes, but it will take you a lot more money and time to figure that out.  They won’t let their guard down and their fragile egos never allow them to walk on a tightrope for fear of making a mistake and having their boss discover they are an “imposter”.  

At the end of the day, I am going to push you.  My goal is to get you to where you want to be and I will take an interest in focusing on your “hard things” and will either push you to greatness or push you out the door.  There is no purgatory in our company.  Nothing good is ever easy and nothing easy is ever good (or sustainable). Time multiplies whatever you feed it and we get what we repeat. I don’t fear people quitting because they aren't a cultural fit.  What I do fear is people “quitting” and continuing to stay on our team.  Anyone who is actively disengaged is the start of the cultural demise of your organization.  People who thrive on being given Autonomy,

Mastery, and Purpose will always push through the plateaus and grow as I work with them to help them achieve more.  I think the results speak for themselves.

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Grit Versus the “Promise of Perfection”

I will always take the “scrapper” over the polished resume.  I don’t need someone who is hanging their hat on what they did in the past.  I believe we learn way more from our mistakes than we do from our accomplishments. I want someone who is willing to fall down and get back up.  If your default is to hire a bunch of “professionals” when you need to fill an important role and you don’t bother to look internally at the team that shows up every day to fight for your business making a fraction of the bloated salary you’ve allocated for the future “messiah” that you think is going to solve all your problems, you’re in for a rude awakening.  The pressure to perform disallows them to learn the business organically and they end up doing what they’ve always done before running away at the first sign of trouble.  

The more you have to lose, the less likely you are to screw up.  The problem with that is that “screwing up”  leads to learning and growth.  So if you aren’t willing to make mistakes, you won’t try to innovate and you won’t grow.  

I am not at all saying you shouldn't hire talent from the outside, but I strongly advise against doing that for new roles or to fill a role in which the last person “didn't work out”.  Instead, try looking inside the organization and focusing on the right virtues needed to successfully achieve the objectives versus hiring someone who tells you how great they are in an interview.  I have never interviewed someone who tells me they can’t achieve a hard objective.  The moment of truth is when they are in the trenches and without the right kind of experience, they are less likely to survive.  

Pro tip:   It is a huge red flag when you hire them and they can’t recruit people they worked with in the past.  If they have worked for years in the industry and you ask them to recruit talent into the company and they come up with nobody...that is very telling of who they will be as a leader.  

The hospitality industry “boasts” the highest turnover rates of any industry for this reason.  It boggles my mind seeing companies choosing to trust strangers with their most important work versus the team they already have.  I’ve spent my career assembling teams and have worked to assemble one at AMP Up1 Hospitality that I couldn’t be more proud of.  The average tenure of our “executive team” for a company less than a year old is over 11 years*. We have been to war and back together and respect one another.   It amazes people who see our very diverse team, just how aligned, adaptable, disciplined, and respectful we are.  

We all speak the same language. These types of bonds and relationships can only be forged in the arena.  Trust forged through adversity and vulnerability. 

Recognize Great Ideas

It is not about hierarchy or individual talent in our company, rather about how one’s diverse talent contributes to the big picture.  We love to win together, and it’s not about who scores the touchdown.  We don’t spend our time pointing out each other's inefficiencies, rather we celebrate the quirky nature of each personality and what they bring to the table.  We have a meritocratic way of looking at situations and opportunities and in our company; the best idea wins.  We seek out the opinions of the introverts and not just those with the loudest voices.  Hint:  Introverts have more to contribute than most because they listen more than they speak.  

My most valuable asset has and never will be the superficial assets that many companies boast.  It will always be our team.  Adaptable, gritty, and disciplined.  I’ve been to hell and back a few times and would not be where I am without the leaders who are there, by my side, ready to fight and grow as one team.  Any leader who builds a company without starting with their team is building a company that will not last.  

Feb SS FireSuper

Unintended Consequences

You get what you reward.  I believe in rewarding the “Invisible Superhero” versus the “Firefighter”.  So many businesses do the opposite of this as firefighters are seemingly preventing the problems from becoming catastrophes.  The real problem here is, the firefighter gets addicted to the praise and rewards they get and eventually burn out.  

The Invisible Superhero gets less of the praise because they are preventing a problem before it becomes one.  If you simply reward those who invest in solutions to problems they faced, rather than dealing with them and doing nothing, you will see sustained results.  Having a bad shift doesn't define you...what you choose to do after that shift to ensure it doesn't happen again does. 

You get what you reward. 

Obsess Over Taking Care of Good People

My rule has always been, if you work for me, you never have to ask for a raise or a promotion.  I am obsessed with taking care of my tribe as I cannot do my job without them.  If you have to ask me for either of these things, look in the mirror, because I am not scared to promote or take care of people - I have built my reputation on doing this.  I don’t believe in carrots and sticks and prefer people who want to do the job for the non-monetary benefits and believe that the right people are motivated more by autonomy, mastery, and purpose (AMP).  Money is the easy part.  

We will build our Kenekt brand with some of the most diversely talented leaders I have had the honor to work with.  The company will launch successfully and will grow faster and more sustainably than most.  Not just because we did it before many times, but because the leaders in place will naturally seek out others like them and believe in the power of servant leadership and trusting their team.  We have grown through tremendous adversity in the past together and have war stories that would seem almost unbelievable to most people, but not this team. 

We don't rest on what we did in the past and choose to challenge ourselves to learn more and do better.  Our mistakes don’t define us, but how we have chosen to respond to these challenges, does.  Our process and core values are in the DNA of our company and have shaped who we are today.  These continue to be our driving force as we march forward and work to create a brand where the team loves coming to work each day to create something special.  


Features are Short-Lived, Good People Endure

Five years from today, all of the superficial things that get people excited about our brands like our menus, technology, and design will all be irrelevant.  The only thing that will be better with time, thanks to our values will be our team and our culture.  The superficial things will be reinvented and evolved if we’ve done our job right, and our brand will remain relevant.  We refuse to ignore trends and listen carefully to where things are going. We adapt and are not afraid to change and reinvent ourselves. What defines us is our willingness to let go of the past and focus on the future.

The key to growth is your team.  Mistakes made are investments into the future and do not define your team.  Anyone looking for the easy button when it comes to assembling great leaders will be faced with the harsh reality of doing this when the proverbial ‘shit hits the fan’.  Anyone looking to join your team that requires a fancy title and a lot of money that isn't willing to bet on themselves should be a hard pass as you're just going to have to replace them in a few years anyway when their fragile ego can’t withstand the realities of the hard job that is required of them.  I would take any leader on our team today over the most experienced resumes on the market and will prove this fact as we launch and grow our brand with this as the ethos of who we are.  

Along the way, we will sprinkle in talent from the outside and will continue to take chances on people.  The leaders who create a legacy of recognizing homegrown talent and taking chances on them by planting seeds and watering them for years will be the ones who will grow in power.  You are only as good as your team and your growth and survival in the industry depend on them.  I literally love the team I work with and will do everything I can to give them purpose, fulfillment, and financial freedom.  I will not stop until they are all taken care of in ways that begin to pay them back for the chances they have taken on me and truly believe they will do the same for their team.  This is servant leadership at its core.

This, in my humble opinion, is how you grow a company.  

*How long I’ve worked with “The Team”

  • Don: 21 Years
  • Erin: 20 Years
  • Doug: 15 years
  • Chris: 14 years
  • Brendan: 11 years
  • Rich: 11 years 
  • Aaron: 10 years
  • Melissa: 8 years
  • Leo: 8 years 
  • Kirt: 6 years 
  • Leandro: 6 years
  • Amanda: 4 years

Average Time:  11+ years tenure together.  Name another “start-up” that has this?



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