Sunday, September 07, 2008

Fly High...Part II

After a month-long stint as a delivery driver for DoubleDaves in Northgate (where my mad cleaning skills from Freebirds were not appreciated...) I found a job at the University Police Department. I stayed at UPD until I finished my undergraduate degree. About a month before graduation, I ran into Pierre at the corner store by my house and he asked if I ever thought about coming back to Freebirds. I told him I would if he would give me an interesting opportunity, and that is how I came to work at the Freebirds corporate office at a time of great change.

The office was located in a small suite in a non-descript one-story building on Lincoln. Pierre brought me in as a Project Manager. Project Management was a new concept for me and Freebirds, so I got to build the position to suit me. Tom was in the office then as HR manager, and had built an incredible framework for Freebirds scholarships, training, regular opportunities to share suggestions. I learned about Gantt charts and watched Devon as he created the Freebirds brand from scratch (with a little magic from Corel). We tried (with limited success) to launch a Freebirds employee newspaper (the original title was "Bird Crap") and even tried to get it printed on news stock. I got to help Devon first find a place and then set up the mock-up of the Shepard Plaza store in a warehouse in north Bryan. It was serindipitious that the warehouse had tens of thousands of old soda crates; we used them to make the mock-up life size and three-dimensional.

I started developing my computer abilities during this stretch, too. I created the first internet to fax order system for the 'Bird, and got it set up with the help of Brian B. The big project that I had great hopes for and saw die on the vine was Bird TV. The concept was to put cameras in each store and send live feed of people waiting in line at one store to all other stores. Ironically enough, the project bogged down because the cables from the cameras to the computer were getting too much interference from electronic pollution in the store, and the cost of setting up DSL in each store was prohibitive. When I left the Project Manager position, I got to hire two people to do my job: one for operational projects and another for personnel projects.

A special memory from my time in the office was the development of a business plan. In developing the Freebirds plan, we referenced others, including Chipotle's, which referenced Freebirds as a model. We also, at that time, were dealing with a trade dress infringement suit with a little place in Dallas (across the street from what would become the first Dallas location at Lovers and Greenville).

I was HR manager for a short spell after that. I was there long enough to get moved into the new office building on Longmire. I instituted a policy of having a presence in every store, every day, and felt that I made a real difference. Before long, though, I was looking to get back to the operations side of things and work more closely with the great people I was seeing in the stores. The GM position at the Rock Prairie store opened up, and I jumped on the opportunity. It had been several years since I had been in the store, but I got caught up to speed quickly. The biggest challenge for me was learning the kitchen and paperwork expectations.

I inherited April as an Assistant GM. I was ready and willing to work with her, but she didn't like my management style (or something) and left not long after I got there. Her parting words to Crane and Craig were "have fun on your sinking ship, boys." I don't think either were too disappointed, however, since they both became Assistant GMs. I have to brag and say that the Rock Prairie store, at that time, was the best of all the stores. I had great store had the lowest turnover of all locations, and Freebirds turnover was about half of industry average in the first place. I demanded a very clean store and hard work, but felt that I gave a lot of opportunity to those who stepped up. I created a payscale that gave regular raises for skills acquired as well as time in service. Our food was the best quality too, thanks to Bob. People that made Rock Prairie worth working at: James, Craig, Erin, Bob, Derrick.

It was during my stint as GM that Pierre (or Alan?) brought in a brand consultant. I don't remember the guys name, only that he had us read The Flight of the Buffalo. That brand consultant was, I think, the beginning of the end. But, he did provoke a marketing challenge that gave each store a small budget (Crane did a music festival in our parking lot with ours) and solicited ideas for a company-wide strategy. Intrigued by the success that places like Joe's Crab Shack and In-and-Out Burger had with innuendo in their advertising, I mocked up a shirt with a burrito on the front and the words "Eat me." Our suggestion was that this shirt could be a customer loyalty reward. When I presented the idea in a group meeting, it got batted around a bit before I shouted out "Unwrap My Monster." If you've seen the shirt you know the rest is history.

I finally left Freebirds for the second time because I realized that my vision wasn't in sync with that of my superiors. I had bought into the promise of Freebirds, Alan's plans for growth, and expected that what we needed were well-trained highly dependable managers to go and grow these stores. I invested a lot in training, but still managed to average 15% on my bottom line. The Texas Avenue store was setting the standard at around 20%, so I wasn't cutting the mustard. My only regret is that I cashed out my ghost stock when I did, instead of holding on to it until Pierre sold the company last year.

All of which brings me back to my experience last night. A bright new sign advertising that "Tacos...are back" reminded me that I'll never eat my favorite Freebirds meal again: grilled steak tacos, nor my second favorite, a loaded quesadilla crispy from the butter on the grill. About 15 people walked in behind me, and the shift manager planted himself on the register, the grill guy retreated to the grill, and the runner started changing out tomatoes. The remaining three or four (!) rollers looked like they were in molassess. My server was friendly enough, but in sort of a generic way. When he ran out of sour cream on my first burrito, he kind of shook the gun once or twice, shrugged and asked if I wanted anything else. I explained that I'd like the rest of the sour cream portion, to which he made no reply but started to go roll up the burritto. Thankfully, he was an incredibly slow roller, and I was able to get his attention after calling his name four times and explaining that I was willing to wait for him to go get more sour cream since I'd also like it on my second burrito.

I know well enough that kids that work in food service don't get paid enough to care, but at one time Freebirds was enough of an experience that we worked hard anyway. It makes me sad to see it sink to mediocrity, if nowhere else at least in my mind, because it held forth such promise once. I used to make the comment that Freebirds and Chipotle were different like Bennigans and Chili's were different. They make basically the same food, but if you want a Monte Cristo, you don't go to Chili's. I fear that, in my heart at least, that analogy is broken on both sides now.

Fly High...Part I

I had Freebirds for dinner last night for the first time in a long while. The experience was disappointingly blase, and in ruminating on the visit and my time with Freebirds, I felt compelled to compose something of an ode to the 'Bird that was. This memory is dedicated to Tom Thweatt, who was with me at Freebirds during the zenith of the development of the culture. My apologies to Pierre, Alan, Charles, Burt, Chris...and any of the old guard who might take offense.

My Freebirds Story

Like most of the good things that have happened to me, my "career" at Freebirds was an accident. Conrad and I, on a rare, coincident day off from Discount Tire stopped into a very deserted Freebirds one July morning. Being the young, recent high school graduates that we were, we both ordered Super Monsters. I think that was the only Super Monster I ever finished at a single sitting. Before we left the store that morning, Barry had hired both of us, and we had both quit Discount Tire by the end of the week.

There are a number of great memories from that first semester working at the Bird. The Freebirds on Northgate was, at that time, the only Freebirds anywhere except for the Santa Barbara store. I learned most of my management style from Charles: work harder than anyone else, and never expect anyone to do something that they've not seen you do. I don't recall all the names of my trainers. Besides Charles, there were Louie and Teri...and one other that I completely failed to recognize when she showed up after a shift dressed to go out (Robin?). I tracked more for the front of the house, concentrating on becoming a "grill god," while Conrad picked up the special power of steak cutting. In those days we cut the steak from big briskets right in the store. I worked a catering event for a Halloween party at 3rd Floor Cantina not long after I started. That was a blast!

Before too long both Conrad and I were shift managers, and Lee had joined us at the apartment and at Freebirds by then and he was managing shifts as well before it was all said and done. I'd have to look at HR records to be clear on exactly when it all happened. I remember Nema being the GM of the store, but Barry was still around then too. The whole store was a great community both in and out of work. Many of us lived in small frame houses rented from Culpepper Realty (courtesy of Jim Elmquist) just north of campus. Pierre would sometimes drop in after closing and make tacos for his group of friends. I remember that when I was promoted to shift manager, Barry told me that I was the youngest and quickest to make it there and it happened because I "worked like I got paid more than I did."

One task I secretly relished was cleaning the fatigue mats. I'd load them up in the back of Barry's ancient white van (that had been purchased as surplus from the university), take two rolls of quarters, and take the mats to the car wash just northwest of the intersection of Villa Maria and Finfeather. I'd spray down the mats, scrub them with the soapy brush, and rinse them before loading them back in the van. It was a nasty, smelly job, but Barry told me that any leftover quarters were mine to keep, and that was how I paid for laundry. One glorious summer I got to be a personal assistant for Pierre, which meant that when I wasn't running errands, I got to bounce ideas around with him. The only other person that I've found as much creative synergy with in conversation is Blake Godkin.

There were great times and good friends at Freebirds then: Brandon, Christos, Allison, Conrad, Lee, Charles, many. The first time I left Freebirds was just after the Texas Avenue store opened. I had helped collect bricks from the rubble of what had been Deware Field House and been part of cleaning them off in the field next to what was then Brazos Brewing Company (now Blue Baker). Pierre treated everyone that wanted one a brew. I wish I had taken him up on the offer. In November of 1997 the corporate office for Freebirds had started to take shape, and a Human Resource manager had been hired. Disappointed that I hadn't even been asked to interview, I asked Barry for some background. I had heard rumors that the position was being created and had indicated interest early the summer before. Barry told me that the hire had needed to take place quickly (it had happened while I was at Ft. Leonard Wood for BCT & AIT). Further, he said, I could expect not to see any further promotion so long as I had my military obligations. After telling Barry that he had violated Federal Law, I made arrangements to leave.