Insights / Interviews / How This Restaurant Chain's Commitment to Community and Sustainability is Driving Profitability
How This Restaurant Chain's Commitment to Community and Sustainability is Driving Profitability

Since joining Snooze, an A.M. Eatery in 2016, Bill Long helped triple the breakfast chain in size, growing Snooze from 17 locations in six markets to 50-plus restaurants spread across a dozen markets. Long serves as Snooze’s chief financial officer, tasked with the day-to-day management of the sales and operating budget, as well as ongoing financial reporting and leading investor relations. But Long has also expanded his job beyond running the numbers, making it his mission to help grow the brand’s core values around sustainability and community impact. 

We connected with Long to chat about the Snooze’s growth and the importance of maintaining a strong workplace culture. Plus, he shares his firm belief in the long-term payoffs of investing in sustainable practices, responsible sourcing, and giving back to local communities.

Could you share a look into your key growth strategy and how you’re working to differentiate Snooze in the competitive breakfast market?

We know there's a ton of whitespace opportunity for growth out there for us. But our challenge is to balance our desire for continuing to grow with our need to hire, train, and execute our expectations at our existing restaurants. Finding that balance is probably one of the most key strategies that we have as we go forward.

Snooze is all about the vibe and the energy that we create, with the music, full bar, and lighting. And I think more importantly, with our Snoozers – which is what we call our employees – we seek to hire people who believe in our mission. These are people who care about our sourcing and sustainability initiatives, who are aligned with our community involvement, and who really want to have fun and be themselves. 

Culture gets a big emphasis at Snooze. Can you give a background on what that encompasses for the brand?

We have written-down values of community, sustainability, passion, and individuality. What's great about all of those things is that we attract a Gen Z and Millennial workforce that really believes in the tenants of what we do and stand for within their own personal lives. That creates a connection point that allows our Snoozers to be their full selves when they come to work. That's not something you get a lot of at restaurant and retail jobs, where there are specific uniforms and you're encouraged to take on the persona of the brand. 

Our employee handbook says something to the effect of, “Come in a clean t-shirt, and let your freak flag fly.” Our employees get to show off their tattoos, piercings, whatever hair color they want. They’re given an element of freedom to express themselves and to feel comfortable in a work environment where they also feel like we’re doing something greater – with our sustainability efforts, our community involvement, and our sourcing standards. 

Has this been challenging to maintain as the company continues to grow?

When you're very small, you know everybody, all the way down to the hourly level. But similar to most growth-oriented businesses, you start to lose a lot of those individual personal connections. So you really have to find new ways to share stories, new lines of communication to ensure everyone's connected to the business goals, and new cultural touch points. Those are probably the biggest challenges we faced.

But what I look forward to the most as we grow is that instead of worrying about losing our culture, I actually think we've been able to strengthen our culture. Part of that is being a lot more intentional about how we define our culture and bring it to life. It’s taking what used to be lived values and lived experiences and codifying them, putting them down on paper. Every person who’s brought into the organization goes through classes on culture, on sustainability, on community, and really learns the importance and the touch points of how we make decisions. 

You’ve been praised by Snooze’s CEO for tactfully navigating the company through the pandemic. What were some of the strategies you implemented to keep the restaurant chain successful? 

From a pure business perspective, we pretty immediately had to pivot in terms of how we interacted with our guests. Prior to the pandemic, we did 97% of our revenue within the four walls of our restaurant. Then overnight, the doors shut. So we immediately implemented an online ordering platform, aggressively marketed our off-premise channels, and rebuilt how we got food from the kitchen – into a box instead of onto a plate. We had everything up and running within a week and started to recapture about 30% of our revenue across the system within the first couple of weeks. And it built from there.

From a cost perspective, we had to make some quick and difficult decisions. We try to always put our Snoozers at the center of our decision-making process, but unfortunately we had to make some painful short-term decisions to make sure that we were doing the right thing long-term for our business and our Snoozers. At the end of March 2020, we had less than two and a half months of operating cash. At that point, there were no government support programs actively in place. So we temporarily shut the doors to nearly half of our restaurants, and consolidated all of our off-premise channels. We furloughed basically our entire hourly staff, which was easily the most difficult decision of my career, and I think of our CEO’s as well. 

We provided every furloughed employee a meal for themselves and one other person from our restaurants every day. We also knew that the unemployment assistance benefits were a great lifeline. And so we set up structures within our corporate office to be able to assist Snoozers in making sure that they were connected to the resources that they needed. Ultimately, over 85% of our staff returned to us by September of 2020. Our employees chose to return rather than stay on unemployment or seek alternate opportunities. We couldn't be more proud about how many chose to rejoin.

Do you think it was those personalized actions, like the meal program and benefits assistance, that was the main reason you were able to retain so much of your staff?

I think that helped a ton. The meal program kept personal touch points between teammates and their managers. They were able to see each other as they were picking up food, and there were stories of folks setting up tables in the parking lot to eat together.

Having a culture as strong as ours is great during the normal times, but you’re really able to lean on it in the hard times – that was one of the biggest lessons coming out of this. You can't create those defined values in those moments. They have to already exist, and if they already exist, they really help carry you.

Tell me about the Compass Foundation to support Snooze staff.

That started back in 2017. It came out of Hurricane Harvey. We had just gone into the Houston market, and that was one of the first times we had a significant number of employees impacted by a disaster at scale. 

It’s a nonprofit that operates independent of the brand, and our employees have the opportunity to contribute via paycheck. The fund has a board that receives applications for assistance from Snoozers that are in need. It could be because they're short on paying a utility bill or they have a death in the family or something out of the ordinary happens and they're having difficulty covering a large expense. To date, we've funded over $500,000 in grants.

Well over half of contributions are from Snoozers. Snooze itself makes contributions, although there are legally defined limits as to how much it can contribute. People from our board of directors and occasionally our suppliers and vendor partners make contributions, but the majority of the funds are from Snoozers donating a couple bucks out of each paycheck to make sure that there's something in there for someone who needs it.

You’ve played a key role in driving continued growth of the brand’s sustainability efforts. Can you share the importance of that for you?

As exciting as the CFO life is for me, that’s something I could focus on at a lot of different places. What really makes us different is the way that we approach sustainability, community, and sourcing standards. I firmly believe that’s an essential component of the value we create for our shareholders, and really how our business will endure over the next decade. 

To not be focused on those initiatives, to not be driving inspiration, would be a giant miss for any leader in today's environment. I really think the businesses that are going to prosper and endure are going to get those things right. And it creates a virtuous cycle. Those initiatives help to attract the right talent. Those employees give guests a better experience. And then ultimately that drives higher visitation, and guests who spend more money over time. That cycle is really meaningful and creates a ton of value.

What’s the idea behind the “Snooze Approved” menu?

In a nutshell, our “Snooze Approved” sourcing is an initiative to eventually source 100% of our ingredients free from artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, with non-confinement raising standards, [including] cage-free eggs, and with no subtherapeutic antibiotic treatments for our proteins and our dairy. We focus with our suppliers on their food safety, workers’ rights and working conditions, and on their other social and environmental programs to make sure that we’re sourcing from suppliers that we think are approaching their business the way that we approach ours. 

Right now, over 95% of ingredients that we bring into our restaurants meet those standards. The only ones that don't are a few where there’s some sort of artificial preservative, where science and the supply chain just haven't quite caught up. But we're getting there.

I imagine there’s a specific person on staff overseeing all of this. How do you account for the added cost this creates on the business?

Our director of purchasing, Cindy Keys, is directly responsible for ensuring that whatever ingredients we need in our restaurants meet these standards. She's developed relationships with all of the suppliers and specific questionnaires that they have to fill out. It’s a total pain in the butt because there are so many available and cheaper products. But it all goes back to the virtuous cycle. 

We compost and recycle 90% of the waste that comes out of our restaurant. It’s not cheap to compost anywhere, certainly not in some of the markets that we go into. It would be easier to say we're not going to do it. But we choose to make those investments because we firmly believe that it’s the right thing to do as a business and that it will drive costs down in the long run. Ultimately, when and where we have to, we charge the appropriate prices on our menu. As long as we're executing at the standards that we hold ourselves to, we are comfortable with that. 

You encourage employees to take part in environmental- and community-focused volunteer days, too.

Yeah, that’s correct. We provide our restaurant managers one paid day off a year to volunteer in their local communities. And we give 1% of our revenue back into our community. 

As a good steward within the community, you have to be involved. And it's important for our Snoozers to feel like they're a part of their community and that they have a platform to be able to give back.

[For example], we encourage our restaurants to be involved in community gardens. The restaurants will pick partners, typically elementary or middle schools in their local community, and once a year, Snooze will fund the spring cleanup and planting. A lot of our Snoozers volunteer. 

Are there any other initiatives that you’re particularly excited about?

When we had to shift to a lot of off-premise revenue over the course of the pandemic, we pledged to offset the carbon that gets created. So we partnered with Native Energy and Medford Springs Grassland. We provide the funds to help them do regenerative grassland work to do carbon offsets for what we calculate around our delivery and pick-up business.

In 2017, we started planting a tree for every Snoozer that we employed. By the end of this year, we will have planted over 9,000 trees. And then we are just starting efforts around an exploratory process on B Corp certification. I’m incredibly excited about what that could bring.

The brand is clearly juggling a lot. Do you have any key takeaways that you’d share with other operators looking to increase their own philanthropic initiatives?

It's hard coming from the finance guy to say this, but it's really difficult to look at the cost of any of these programs and project an immediate ROI. There's definitely an investment involved – in beginning to compost, in pursuing recycling streams, in giving back to your community. But what happens is that over time, you begin to build that virtuous cycle. And if you're committed to it, I firmly believe that it pays for itself over time, with the types of employees that you attract and retain, and the experience they give to your guests.

How do you see Snooze continuing to grow?

We do see continued growth – greater than 10 units a year for the foreseeable future. I think our growth has given us more resources to make a bigger impact across more communities. We will give back more than 1.5 million dollars in in-kind donations across our communities this year. We will purchase over $35 million dollars of responsibly sourced ingredients from the supply chain and add over 500 Snoozers to our family this year. And I think as we're able to continue to grow, those impacts will only get larger. 

Grace Dickinson is a reporter at Back of House. Send tips or inquiries to grace@backofhouse.io.

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