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A Recipe to Success

In Focus
NAME:Dan Simpson
COMPANY:Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe
LOCATION:Nashville, US
By focusing on fresh produce and hospitality, Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe CEO Dan Simpson is creating a dining experience to savor.

Growing up around fresh food in his backyard garden gave Dan Simpson, CEO of Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe, an early understanding of the value of fresh produce.

“There’s been a strong ethic around real food, it’s something I’ve always believed in and participated in when I was a kid. Even today, my wife and I are very active and follow the Mediterranean lifestyle,” he says, describing what led him to head the chain of casual Mediterranean eateries, which have nearly 100 stores across the United States.

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The real magic Simpson sees in Taziki’s is its focus on being at the heart of the communities it operates within. Every single day, fresh, high-quality food is prepared in all its restaurants, which Simpson takes great pride in, especially at a time when so many restaurants are moving away from on-premise cooking.

Explaining how food brings everyone together at Taziki’s, he says, “The real purpose is around hospitality with our staff and with our guests – it’s the heartbeat of our brand.”

At every level, from the food to the corporate structure, the human connection is of the utmost importance at Taziki’s. For example, instead of having a centralized operating model, disconnected from local restaurants, the business has opted for a decentralized approach where local partners are true partners and have an equity share in the restaurants.

Staff Growth

For restaurants everywhere, the so-called Great Resignation added to pressures from the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a major shift at many businesses, including Taziki’s. Despite the challenges this shift created, when Simpson looks back, he’s pleased with the positive changes that came about.

“It forced leaders to look in the mirror and say, ‘Well, wait a minute, how many reasons have we been giving our staff to stay?’ I think there was a lot of opportunity for us to look and say, ‘Maybe we’ve gotten too comfortable,’” he says.

“When we identify something that is the secret sauce in our business, we need to keep this.”

The real breakthrough came when Simpson and his team started introducing new ways to listen to staff feedback. During this process, there was a large cohort of employees who not only loved the brand and their work, but saw themselves as a part of the team in the long-term.

“We might’ve been onboarding them, but we weren’t welcoming them as a member of our family. We made a lot of changes by listening to our staff, understanding who wanted to stay, and then finding out what would make it worth it for them to stay,” he explains.

In practice, staff saw an uptick in wages and several structural changes to empower their lives.

Personal Approach

Thanks to his professional background in IT, Simpson, who joined as CIO in 2016 and became CEO in 2018, knew exactly how to find the right technology mix, without losing the personal touch that customers value.

He started with a set of guiding principles based on making restaurant management as seamless as possible for managers, and creating an ideal dining experience for customers.

When implementing new technologies, such as replacing paper menus with digital screens, Simpson believes it’s essential to keep the human connection.

“If all I go to is from screen to screen to screen, then we might as well give up on hospitality and just have everything in kiosks. And so for us, it’s about eliminating friction in some places and you can then intentionally insert it in other places while having an integrated system and not a bolt-on system,” he explains.

Grounded in Reality

Leading any business is both challenging and rewarding. In the often chaotic world of business, Simpson has found immense value in meditation.

“As a leader being grounded, before we even show up at the office, helps create a mindset that everything belongs and that there’s nothing to overreact to when things get thrown your way,” he says.

By embracing a conscious leadership style, Simpson hopes to make space for more emotional and social intelligence in an industry that would deeply benefit from this approach.

By using technology to service the customer experience, Simpson and his employees take the best of both worlds. Through a platform that enables guest feedback to be brought together from six disconnected channels and linked together on one platform, the entire company can identify weak spots and make improvements quickly.

“With added AI, it’s making it easier for us to craft better messages. The entire point of this technology has been to empower us to create something new over the last year. At the same time, we’re ultimately getting technology to serve connection, not the other way around,” he says.

Value-Based Partnerships

It goes without saying that collaboration is at the heart of the work Simpson does on a daily basis. Instead of solely focusing on driving down prices from suppliers, building lifelong partnerships that will survive through thick and thin is central to the success achieved by Taziki’s.

“If all you do is look at everything as a commodity, then that works in good times. But in bad times when things are difficult, you need to help each other out. As suppliers have grown their business they have been able to count on us, then they return the favor and we can count on them,” he adds.

“In bad times when things are difficult, you need to help each other out.”

In an industry as competitive as hospitality, gaining a competitive difference is hard to achieve and easy to lose. In Simpson’s view, every business needs to understand its secret sauce.

“There’s this idea that in 95 percent of our business we need to make the most pragmatic decisions. But five percent of the time when we identify something that really is the secret sauce in our business, we need to keep this special element,” he says.

Workforce enablement solution Axonify is a core partner where collaborative conversions have led to a win–win for both firms. The spirit of collaboration extends across to all suppliers, including technology partners.

As a direct result of working so closely together, Taziki’s has created symbiotic relationships where feedback from staff has helped shape the future direction of tech firms and the software they provide. By building on the hospitality first approach, Simpson and his team are hoping to bring both staff and customers together to enjoy a first-rate dining experience.

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