Founder and COO of Tijuana Flats
Occupation: Founder of Tijuana Flats Burrito Co., in Maitland, Fla.
Education: B.S. in Marketing from the University of Central Florida
Q: You opened your first restaurant months after you graduated college in 1995, and today you have almost 60 locations. Plus, most of your original staff has stuck with you. Even your father joined the fold. How do you explain this level of loyalty, and why is it so important to the success of Tijuana Flats?
A: I was 25 when I started the restaurant with just a handful of employees -- all of them young. The most important move I made was to listen to them. They had great insight, and they helped define the culture we have today.
When Adam Scoggins started, he rode his bike to work; today, he's the general manger of my hot sauce company. Nikki DiPietro started with me in '95 as a cashier, and now she's my controller. My director of marketing, Ashley Montgomery, also started as a cashier.
It was all heart and hustle in the beginning. I couldn't give them big checks, but I wanted to make sure they had a quality of life. So I decided to close on all major holidays. No other restaurant even touches that. If you want over-the-top service, you have to treat employees with absolute respect, because when they enjoy what they're doing, they'll deliver.
I wanted to help them develop and grow, so we implemented a scholarship fund. Every semester we pick one hardworking employee and pay his or her tuition.
We have a management partnership opportunity for general managers who are performing really well. For a small investment, they can become a partner in their restaurant. We give them 10 percent of their restaurant's cash flow, and at the end of the year, we buy them out. They get a substantial check to invest or put toward a college fund.
We also put a lot of stock in our core values (see tijuanaflats.com). But they're just words. You have to put them into action for them to mean something.
The bottom line is that I just had the idea for Tijuana Flats. It's the group of people around me who put all they had into making it work.