Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is a family business that has gone global, yet still operates a restaurant in its original location on Central Expressway, Dallas, where CEO Laura Rea Dickey’s grandfather-in-law started cooking in 1941. “We’re entering this wonderful new era. We’re doing incredibly well, all things considered,” she says.
“We’re growing, we’re adding revenue streams to the business and we’re launching virtual concepts and new ways for franchisees to do business with our guests.” That’s a pretty bullish response. It seems that, although there was a moment of uncertainty when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Laura quickly realized that the business would simply have to get on with it.
“The question was, ‘How will we get through it?’ not ‘Will we get through it?’ We just looked at what we had to do today and tomorrow as a starting point for a longer-term plan,” she recalls. With more than 550 locations in 44 states across the US, and one in the UAE, it’s clearly doing something right: embracing its place in Texas culture.
“We’re Texas barbecue for a reason: we embrace all things Texas, we have a Texas legacy and a Texas history; we’re a Texas family and a Texas brand. We embrace that and our barbecue roots, the brisket, the pit-smoked food and our recipes: it’s authentic Texas-style barbecue,” Laura says proudly. “The culture is about the food and the folks. We are here to serve barbecue to as many folks as we can, to expand the family and do good in our community.”
Some things about the brand haven’t changed in 80 years, including the food, how it’s prepared and served, the company’s place in the community and its family ownership. In addition, being from Texas, Dickey’s is big on size – literally.
“Everything’s bigger in Texas. The barbecue is bigger, the service is bigger, our involvement in our communities is bigger. That part of the brand doesn’t change, but everything else does evolve,” she reveals.
We’re in the people business as much as the food business.
“We’re guest led, so we’ll add to the menu and add different ways of doing business. Whether that’s by expanding and adapting our catering, adding online ordering and third-party vendors, or adding the retail business, subscription for Barbecue at Home by Dickey’s. We’ve absolutely evolved to add flexibility to the business.”
From the beginning, the company has prided itself on taking care of people, which is deep rooted in the culture. “My grandfather-in-law just wanted to feed his family, which meant first cooking for his neighbors and, when that went well, cooking for more and more folks,” Laura points out.
“We’re in the people business as much as the food business, to serve great barbecue and make very good money doing it, but also to be a place that folks can come, feel welcome and get a little nostalgic. We keep true to that origin and tradition.”
There must be value in that as, since The CEO Magazine last spoke with Laura, Dickey’s sales are up 20%, Laura says. “We’re heading into our 12th month of consecutive same-store sales positive,” she notes.
“That’s because of our infrastructure. We have multiple revenue streams, doing delivery and partnering with third-party delivery services, and our own proprietary online ordering system. When the pandemic hit, we shifted from about 20% digital sales to more than 96%.”
There were still physical sales with people coming and picking up curbside outside the restaurants, and Laura credits the company’s infrastructure for that.
“We could move quickly and put online, as a deliverable experience, those nostalgic things that made Dickey’s, like kids eat free on Sundays,” she says. For many businesses, the early days and weeks of the pandemic were difficult, and Dickey’s was no exception. However, Laura quickly looked at what the business needed to do to continue operating.
“We didn’t know what the future might hold, but we know what people need in the restaurant industry,” she explains.
“They need operating capital, so we cut the royalties 50% to sustain unpredictable sales, maintain inventory and pay the workforce. There was also a 10% pay cut at the corporate office in order to keep everyone employed, and to secure stability and immediate cash flow. Then we made sure everyone could shift much of their business to delivery, off-premise and pick-up.”
Laura and her team thought about what they could do to make customers feel comfortable and that’s when Dickey’s turned to contactless delivery as well as additional packaging, safety seals and personal protective equipment for all of its restaurants at no charge to franchisees. Communication was another important factor during the pandemic.
“We had a call every day with all of our restaurants, operators and pit crew about the state of the business: pain points, what was going right and how we could continue to serve,” Laura says. Those were calls gradually reduced to once a week until things went back to normal. “We continued to evolve and stay committed, connected, transparent and communicating.”
Because Dickey’s was one of the few brands able to continue trading, suppliers were keen to show their support, despite their own logistical issues. “We really had to partner up and down all of our verticals to work through those challenges,” Laura confirms.
If you’re not growing, you’re failing.
One of its key relationships is with Tyson Fresh Meats, which supplies the company with brisket, pork and ribs. “They were absolutely instrumental as a key vendor in making sure that our restaurants had product,” she says.
“They’re still a primary partner in launching our retail ribs that are available in grocery stores and some of our at-home subscription delivery items. They’re just a wonderful partner for us, before, during and hopefully after the pandemic.” Similarly, JTM Food Group works to “provide all of our chef-curated sides, dips and meats,” Laura says.
“They’re a great partner for the restaurants and for at-home, and they absolutely have been fundamental in us being able to get that business up and going, working with us to put together and fulfill orders.” It’s the same with Bob Lilly, another local Dallas family business that has been supplying uniforms for Dickey’s since 2014.
“They’re an important part of the brand because we want folks to be proud of the uniform as part of the brand experience – whether it’s in the restaurant or all the way out to our delivery drivers,” she says. Laura admits that while there were challenges with contactless payments, curbside collection and catering, the company’s existing infrastructure allowed the team to simply ramp up this side of the business. “But it did put emphasis on virtual training,” she confesses.
“We broadcast a three-to-five-minute video every day that goes to our whole system, plus live monthly calls, and we had to focus that on the new conditions. Preparing the food, packaging the food, contactless delivery – everybody knew this was the way forward, so they adapted. Laura is optimistic about the future, but also understands the pandemic has introduced some fundamental changes that are here to stay.
“I think we will gain dine-in business again, but folks have changed how they want to dine,” she predicts. “Delivery and digital ordering are here to stay, but some things endure: folks still want authenticity, comfort food, value and quality. They want more variety on the menu – they love the classics, but now they want something more. So, in our 80th anniversary year, we’ve launched two spicy sandwiches with Tillamook cheese, an anniversary combo and a great dessert every quarter. Folks come to us because they love what we do, but as long as we leave what we do best in place, people are happy to accept additions. But we stay true to our tradition of pit cooking, so it’s all barbecue-based.”
People don’t often think of barbecue and then think of data, or barbecue and digital, but that’s the new way of doing business, Laura explains. “Our guests are so good at telling us what they want. They’ll tell us how they want to do business: they want to be able to order from their phone, they want to be able to have it delivered when they want.
“We really listen to them and keep everything centered around the barbecue pit. If the quality of the food stands out, that’s an important part of translating to a digital experience.
“We also take care with our to-go packaging and plating. If folks aren’t having that experience inside the four walls, they see an upgraded, enhanced to-go packaging experience. We put in thank you notes and bounce backs, and invite folks to engage with the brand digitally.”
Having navigated through challenging times, brand recognition is next on the agenda. “I have a great team, the best corporate chef and R&D team, and we love what we do,” Laura beams.
This is the Dickey’s way and the Texas way.
“When I think about expanding the brand, it’s the business, but it’s also the reach and influence of the business; I love receiving emails and letters from customers. Growing the brand means expanding into new locations, continuing to give back to our communities and creating a place to come and make memories.”
Dickey’s also has ambitious international expansion plans. Having opened first in Abu Dhabi, plans are now underway to open in Australia, Brazil and Singapore. “Our domestic partners can sometimes open one, two or maybe three restaurants,” Laura explains.
“For international partners, we look for those that have experience in food service, which have the ability and desire to open at least 15–20 units. That’s so we have a long-term growth strategy to really establish a market presence. If you’re not growing, you’re failing.”
Having overcome the challenges of a global pandemic, she is adamant that Dickey’s will continue to thrive under her leadership. “Aside from literally being married to the business, I want to be sure it’s not going down on my watch. The family has entrusted it to me,” she asserts. For Laura, it’s all about having a great product.
“Taste testing the food is the very best part of the job and with barbecue, you can find so many different ways to do it. Everybody has their own barbecue preferences, so we say, ‘Hey, do it your way and be great at that, but come try ours.’ These are family recipes: this is the Dickey’s way and the Texas way.”
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