Good chefs know when they have a winning recipe and while they may tinker around the edges, they recognize the importance of keeping the dish as close to the original as possible.
Such is the case with the Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group. The group, which operates 21 Red Robin restaurants across eastern and central Pennsylvania, recently named a new CEO to take the place of former CEO Jim Ryan, who retired. For Mike Axiotis, it will be business as usual, for the most part anyway.
Axiotis brings with him two decades of institutional knowledge.
The Lehigh Valley resident began his career as an assistant manager in 1998 when Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group had just three locations. He worked his way up to become a general manager, then district manager before being named vice president of operations.
The transition to CEO has been seamless and little will change, according to Axiotis, who said that Ryan made sure there was a transition and succession plan in place when he offered him the opportunity.
The Red Robin brand began in 1969 in Seattle, Washington and caught the attention of Stephen Hanzlik, a Lehigh University graduate and engineer with a military background.
“He was drawn to the training systems that Red Robin had put into place and their systematic approach,” said Axiotis, adding that Hanzlik was the first to bring the brand east of the Mississippi. “He realized that their systems and procedures were duplicatable and scalable and that he could grow the brand.”
Hanzlik eventually formed Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group and, in 1993, he and his friends had opened the company’s first Red Robin, at Tilghman Square in Allentown. More soon followed and by 2014 there were 21 restaurants reaching as far south as Chambersburg, all the way up through the Interstate 81 corridor to Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, as well as Selinsgrove, the Lehigh Valley and the suburbs of Philadelphia.
FOCUS ON RECRUITMENT, RETENTION
Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group recognizes that success in the challenging restaurant business hinges on attracting and keeping quality employees. The company takes a multi-faceted approach that involves competitive wages, extensive training, growth opportunities and a positive work environment.
“We stay extremely competitive in the compensation we offer at all levels, from the hourly employee, to management, and we are constantly benchmarking ourselves against our competition to be the restaurant of choice for employees,” said Axiotis.
The company also offers health care to those who work more than 30 hours a week and ensures a solid training program. It employs about 2,000 people overall.
“We have a group of trainers who train all new team members at an annual event that includes team-building and ongoing training development for our existing levels of management who want to be promoted from within,” said Axiotis, adding that nearly 70 percent of company’s management team has been promoted from within the ranks of hourly workers.
Lehigh Valley Restaurant Group, or LVRG, also understands the importance of technology when it comes to attracting employees and has taken steps to allow individuals to apply for openings via their mobile devices.
“Our managers receive an immediate notification and begin steps to secure an interview,” said Axiotis.
LVRG also places a premium on employee referrals. “We recently doubled the payout on those. We used to offer employee referrals a $200 bonus, now it’s $400 if they stay for 90 days. We also offer $2,000 to managers who refer an employee for a management position,” Axiotis said.
Patricia Meyers has worked for the company for 13 years, starting out as a server while in college, before being promoted to a trainer.
Managers knew that she was graduating with a degree in marketing and asked if she would stay on and work in other positions until something opened up.
“I felt as if I was valued and they were willing to train me in other areas in the meantime,” said Meyers, who now works in her chosen field as director of marketing for LVRG.
LVRG reports that sales are generally split 50/50 between lunch and dinner. Its restaurants compete by tailoring their menu around gourmet burgers and various add-ons like bottomless fries and beverages, while placing a priority on speed of service.
“Compared to our competitors, you can get in and out quickly for a reasonable price,” said Axiotis.
LVRG also prides itself on working with diners who have allergy issues. “We’ve won awards for accommodating the eight most common allergens. We also offer gluten-free buns. Our cooks wear special purple-colored gloves to ensure there is no cross contamination and our guests feel safe because of it,” said Axiotis.
LVRG has continued on a steady growth trajectory throughout the years, but like any other restaurant business, it faces challenges.
“A big threat is the “Amazon effect,’” said Axiotis, explaining that the industry is adversely affected by loss of traffic when brick-and-mortar stores close down.
Another threat is the growing number of delivery services like Amazon restaurants.
“They bought Whole Foods and they are growing,” said Axiotis.
Third-party delivery services like Grubhub, DoorDash and Uber Eats have proven to be a challenge as well.
“If you’re not on that website, you’re missing out,” said Axiotis, adding that LVRG is testing it out in certain markets and implementing additional services to combat these issues.
“We’ve developed an online ordering system, which has resulted in big sales these last two years through our curbside pickup,” Axiotis said.
LVRG has also created a catering platform within the last 18 months that is growing by double digits. “Since we’re in the gourmet burger industry, we offer a burger bar, salads, wraps, desserts and beverages for large parties,” said Axiotis.
Axiotis said that his goals for the future are to continue to focus on the “LVRG is a Truly Great Place to Work Initiative,” which focuses on taking care of the team.
“I believe that if you have happy, engaged team members, then you’re going to have happy guests. If you put your employees first, then they will put the customer first. With unemployment as low as it is, we’re all fighting for the same pool of people. We want them to stay here and make this their career.”