Jamie Carawan from OTB enlightens SMB Community

Posted by IFMA November 17, 2014

Tagged in Channel Partners Distributors Foodservice Leaders Small/Midsized Business

IFMA's Small & Midsized Business (SMB) community is happy to welcome Jamie Carawan, Senior Director of Culinary and Innovation at On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina. On the Border is a 35 year old Tex Mex brand founded in Dallas, Texas that was created on a fun festive environment and Tex Mex traditions of fajita, enchiladas, fresh handmade chips, salsa, flour tortillas and margaritas. The restaurant has 122 corporate restaurants, 33 domestic franchise units and 12 international franchise units. On The Border was purchased in 1994 by Brinker international, then sold to Golden Gate Capital in 2010, and recently bought by Argonne Capital in May in 2014.

SMB Community:     As an organization, what are your specific menu needs over the next 12 months?

Jamie Carawan:     We have spent the last 24 months re-thinking our menu to make sure we are relevant to our consumers, while being true to our border style food promise.  We have introduced sandwiches, a new healthy Border Smart line of products, and added signature branded combo plates, new happy hour, brunch on the weekends, late night happy hour. Additionally, on the beverage side we have added 6 new products.

SMB:     What has been the biggest challenge for you over the last 12 months?

JC:     Like most casual dining resutaurants, On The Border has been in a share gain in the competitive market place.  We have had traffic challenges in addition to recent challenges with commodities, in particular beef.

One challenge we had when we left Brinker was "right sizing" our partnerships.  When you leave a 4 billion dollar company and you become a $360 MM stand-alone, the nature and needs within the relationships are very different.  We had to get used to incumbent suppliers telling us that we were not big enough to work with.

SMB:     How can suppliers, particularly small/midsized suppliers, assist you in overcoming this challenge?

JC:     By knowing our business, understanding how our menu is created and what we are trying to achieve as a brand. It is crucial for them to understand the market place but more importantly, our place within it.

SMB:     How has the economy impacted the way you do business?

JC:     Although I keep hearing the "we're back", I think if you talk to most casual dining folks they would say, "Yeah, we're back, but we aren't and can't be the same as before."  Value is still a big player.  Also, the threats from fast casual dining continue to impinge on our business.  Quite frankly, it the fast casual players that have raised the stakes in product quality and image.

SMB:     What characteristics/traits do you look for in supplier partners? 

JC:     I make sure they encompass industry insights, quality, consistency, responsiveness, high quality R&D and favorable logistics.

SMB:     How do you create new menu items and how often do you co-create with your suppliers?

JC:     We try to address two topline factors when creating new menu items: brand needs [cost concerns, traffic, advertising, complexity and execution) and consumer needs (innovation, new occasions and lifestyle).

As far as co-creating with suppliers, we use them on projects particularly in areas where our team members will be challenged.

SMB:     What are some best practices (and alternatively, common mistakes) you've observed from suppliers?

JC:     I've mainly observed three common mistakes:

  1.    Stop selling me your "fiscal year strategy book"

  2.    Not knowing my brand (menu, marketing, etc.)

  3.    Not understanding that your company has needs, goals and desires that differ from mine. The trick is finding how parts of these may overlap.

SMB:     What is the best way for a potential new supplier to approach your business?

JC:     I am most responsive to research that gives the team context for what the representative will be showing us. They must understand competitively what is happening in my segment of casual dining (Mexican) and what I offer and then provide products and solutions to address.

SMB:     What foodservice trends are most impacting your business?

JC:     It's important to identify that value is still a player that impacts our business.

We are also working on sourcing products and defining our product story. The emphasis on freshness and quality will be a continued focus along with providing a platform for emerging trends like Apple Pay and Uber - for consumer convenience. I believe in the near future that 'how our food is processed' will be an area of emphasis. Lastly, focusing on acquiring the millennial demographic yet maintaining our Gen X and Boomer generation appeal. We need them all.

SMB:     What is the most important thing a supplier should know about your business?

JC:     Ultimately, we are selling and marketing an experience at OTB; from food and beverage to overall environment. Behind all that, we have an obligation to enhance the experience of our team members, managers and all stake holders.  We are in the game for the long haul but we are a year to year company as it relates to how we measure our success.  This will limit our acceptance of risk and may prevent us from being the most forward looking company in the short term.

SMB:     What does a "gold standard" relationship look like between you and a supplier?

JC:     I think I might have answered this several different ways but service, insights and innovation are key for me.  Also, the level to which you are willing to invest time and brain power to progress our brand is important. 

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