The cuisine of the Mediterranean is capable of a whole lot more than simply tasting great. It’s transportive; be it baklava, taramosalata or souvlaki, the unique flavors of Mediterranean food have the power to take diners to Greece, Turkey, Morocco or anywhere in its namesake region.
It was a power Keith and Amy Richards hoped to harness when, inspired by a romantic vacation to Greece, the couple founded Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe in 1998. Their goal was to recreate the warm, welcoming atmosphere and delicious food they’d experienced at small-table cafes during their trip.
The Greek word ‘eudaimonia’ – good spirit or human flourishing – was the cornerstone of the Richards’s idea, the kind of feeling that almost 25 years later is alive and well across more than 85 Taziki’s Cafes across the US. It’s not just a vibe for customers, either – Taziki’s CEO Dan Simpson says his time with the brand has been a great adventure.
“I’ve always loved the idea of partnering with someone and helping to advance their dream.”
“I’ve always loved the idea of partnering with someone and helping to advance their dream,” says Dan, a former Taziki’s franchisee and Managing Partner at restaurant investor-operator Fresh Hospitality, where he partnered with new brands and help them create five-year plans. That changed when Keith asked him to join Taziki’s.
“When they approached me, Taziki’s was coming up on its 20th anniversary,” he says. “It was in a really good position, but what I found out very quickly was that the menu hadn’t really changed too much and the brand had started to age.”
Inspired, Dan accepted the role of Chief Innovation Officer in 2016. “They told me, ‘You don’t need to replace the founder’s vision, but understand it, accentuate it, then bring what you bring best.’”
That meant deepening the culture, elevating talent and implementing the latest technology to prepare Taziki’s for its next 20 years. Immediately, Dan went to work. “We integrated a mobile app with a loyalty program, we lay the tracks for takeout and curbside as well as delivery, catering and even ordering from the table,” he says.
By the time Dan ascended to the role of CEO in 2018, the chain had in place not just the technology for the future, but the mindset for it as well. “There was a fully integrated ecosystem focusing on our customers and the knowledge that the future was going to be more than just takeout.”
It was a prescient call; the COVID-19 pandemic hit not just two years into Dan’s tenure as CEO, and threw the restaurant industry into chaos. “What we had done up to that point had set us up for success and really got us through,” he says. “We survived that storm, and have survived really, really well ever since.”
This afforded Dan and his team time to refresh the Taziki’s outlets and recapture what had inspired the Richards so long ago. “We’ve got a big-hearted founder and a lot of people were here because of him,” Dan says. “That’s the basis of our culture. We had to take the heart of our founder and understand the things that inspired him and attracted people to him in the early days, and then work out how to make it come to life.”
“It’s not helpful to say you know exactly what to do next. It’s better to be honest, to collaborate and then make a decision.”
Once they’d formed a clear direction for Taziki’s, Dan and his team turned their attention to the cafes themselves. “Our store design was very masculine and dark and old-world Greek, and we had an opportunity to bring it into line with pictures from the original trip to the Mediterranean that inspired the brand,” he explains. “So white and blue and terracotta, bright.”
Despite the pandemic, the new-look Taziki’s has already rolled out across 60 per cent of stores. The shared experience of COVID-19 also served to bring the chain closer to its partners and suppliers. “Everyone went to great lengths to try to create as much economic relief and communication and support as possible,” he says. “I’m hoping some of that goodwill lingers. We’re already having bigger conversations with even bigger future partners.”
The idea of managing a successful restaurant chain during a global health crisis may not sound appealing to most, but Dan says it helped define his understanding of leadership. “I used to think that a leader is the person who offers certainty, but that’s not true when you’re living in a time of uncertainty,” he says. “It’s not helpful to say you know exactly what to do next. It’s better to be honest, to collaborate and then make a decision.”