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Posted: November 14, 2013

2013 Top Company winner: Red Robin Gourmet Burgers

Listening to team members’ insights and boosting the burger business

Gigi Sukin

TOURISM/HOSPITALITY

RED ROBIN GOURMET BURGERS

For more than 40 years, nationally recognized burger brand Red Robin has built a reputation as “the gourmet burger expert” after moving its corporate headquarters to Colorado in 1996. But the company has faced numerous challenges, including macroeconomic headwinds, intense competition and declining financial performance, requiring innovation and resolve to stay afloat.

Under new leadership in the early 2000s, Red Robin decided alcohol sales were incompatible with its family-friendly image and deemphasized the beverage business.

“When I came onboard, I went on a nationwide listening tour,” said Steve Carley, Red Robin’s CEO since 2010. “I went into restaurants and talked to every team member on the line and asked them: If they owned the restaurants, what would they do to improve the business? I got a lot of great answers, but the one that really shined through was, ‘Why did we kill our bar business?’ After I got back, I sat down with the senior team and brought our Happy Hour back.”

The overarching point, Carley explained, was that individuals in the corporate office became disconnected from the customer experience.

“We can easily have a vibrant bar business and a business that’s compatible with families,” Carley said. “Not only were we doing something our team members embraced, but we were making more money. As a business, that’s definitely a sweet spot.”

Carley’s strategic plan, dubbed “Project Red,” officially rolled out in late 2010 and established a culture of continuous improvements and focus on results. Its consumer-centric initiatives contributed to improved business trends and in recent quarters, helped Red Robin take market share from the increasingly popular category of fast-casual dining.

“What the consumers want involves experience, time and budget,” said Carley.

Additionally, Red Robin’s core values represent the cultural foundation for the company – “Honor, Integrity, Continually Seeking Knowledge and Having Fun.” Along with many other charitable efforts, Red Robin joined forces with Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF) this year to help fight pediatric cancer, through donation of sales generated during restaurant openings and sales of the restaurant’s signature Freckled Lemonade. Since the beginning of 2013, Red Robin has contributed more than $150,000 to support ALSF programs.

Gigi Sukin is an Associate Editor at ColoradoBiz. She can be reached at gsukin@cobizmag.com.

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