I had the pleasure of interviewing Carrie Luxem, a human resources professional with nearly 20 years of restaurant industry experience and the CEO of Restaurant HR Group, a Chicago-based company offering a full suite of HR services for restaurant owners and operators throughout the nation.
Luxem is also a frequent keynote speaker on HR and leadership topics and regularly conducts employee training and leadership development workshops as well. She is the author of the recently published book, Restaurant Operator’s HR Playbook: Your Hands-On Playbook for Finding, Hiring, and Developing Leaders and Implementing Organized People Systems and has been featured in Entrepreneur, Restaurant News, and Independent Restaurateur.
Kivo: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, in large part because my father introduced me to the business world at a young age. Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, I began helping him with the family tool and die business starting at the age of 10. It was here I witnessed the value of a strong work ethic, how to show gratitude to your hardworking employees, and how to always take care of your customers.
When I was 15, I landed a job at the local Dairy Queen. All of those lessons from my father spilled over into my work there and the guidance from the management team only further echoed the same sentiments. They were absolutely amazing bosses! Their zest for the industry and their commitment to building a thriving business alongside happy and well-rounded employees certainly deeply influenced the trajectory of my career.
Over the next decade, I continued to explore restaurant employment, falling even more in love with the people and vibrant, dynamic community. I also dabbled in some side hustles — from cleaning windows to designing balloon arches for Home Depot. I had a few hits and a lot of misses, but I learned about resiliency, how to play to my strengths, and the power of supply and demand.
Following a move to Chicago in the late 90s, I happened to cross paths with Bryant Keil, founder of Potbelly Sandwich Works. He mentioned his bold plans to grow the company from its three locations. Bryant’s excitement was contagious and it was just the challenge I had been seeking. For more than a decade, I served as Potbelly’s Director of Human Resources, where we expanded those three locations to more than 200 locations spread across ten markets. Then in 2010, I left Potbelly to form Restaurant HR Group and help even more restaurateurs learn how to better manage their people, HR systems, and processes. It’s been an amazing ride!
Kivo: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I went to a restaurant conference in Vegas and happened to catch a glimpse of Jon Taffer, the host of the reality TV show Bar Rescue, as he was walking around at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Never one to miss an opportunity, my adrenaline immediately kicked in and I chucked off my heels and ran after him like a woman on a mission. I’m sure he thought I was nuts, but he was very kind and accommodating.
The added bonus? I got the picture with him I was hoping for and have proudly displayed it for years! You can even see it in the background of some of my YouTube videos!
Kivo: So what exactly does your company do?
At Restaurant HR Group, we help restaurateurs take care of their most important asset — their people. We have the infrastructure and bandwidth to handle everything from payroll and benefits administration to all aspects of human resource management and compliance. From day one, our goal has been to once again humanize and personalize HR as well as free up busy entrepreneurs’ time and energy so they can focus on their team and business lines.
Apart from Restaurant HR Group, I have also launched a separate but related endeavor as a keynote speaker, leadership coach, and author. In addition to covering everything restaurant-related, I have a passion for cultivating the next generation of leaders, so much of my work focuses on leadership training and professional development — all skills that can be utilized both within the restaurant industry and beyond.
Kivo: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I love that Restaurant HR Group has maintained such a streamlined focus and hasn’t tried to morph into being everything to everyone. We are definitely a niche business. Despite the growth we’ve experienced though, we are still extremely hands-on and focused on maintaining our client relationships by remaining approachable and available. We are all part of one big family. That’s something that’s never going to change no matter how much we grow.
As another nod to being accessible to restaurateurs and those in the industry, I’m super active on social media. Every day, I post free content — everything from videos to articles — as well as pose questions and polls to open a dialogue with other restaurant and HR professionals. It’s been so enlightening and rewarding! Talking to each other is key, even if it’s through social media. We’ve been able to support each other, answer questions, find out what’s working and not working, and just bounce ideas around. And through a recent LinkedIn contest, we had the honor of recognizing one deserving manager as the Restaurant Leader of the Year. I’m extraordinarily proud that people are getting excited about leading others, are interested in learning how to grow their leadership skills, and are once again looking to the restaurant industry as a viable career. These are the moments that spur my motivation and strengthen my mission.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Hands down, Meghan Griffiths. She has been by my side since day one and I am so grateful she chooses to stay on this wild ride with me as we grow and evolve. It’s been a somewhat odd pairing simply because we are complete opposites personality-wise, though this is probably why we work together so well. Meghan keeps me balanced and on-track, fleshing out the sometimes random and crazy ideas I have and working tirelessly behind the scenes to execute them flawlessly. She is a loyal and dedicated friend and business partner and the value that she adds to my life, our company, and our clients is immeasurable. Thank you, Meghan!
Kivo: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My mission is to spread positive energy and happiness while also providing the building blocks and inspiration to help restaurateurs succeed. I’m able to accomplish this through posting free content and daily social media updates as well as being mindful of how I engage with and support clients. I am also passionate about developing future leaders and entrepreneurs and frequently visit high schools where I have the opportunity to interact with today’s youth and help them define their paths going forward.
Kivo: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
#1. Pay for talent. Bootstrapping is all the rage right now, but sometimes you can’t do everything on your own. It’s tempting to try to in an effort to save money, but unfortunately, this frequently backfires. I didn’t think I had the money to hire talent when I was starting out and ended up paying dearly for it in terms of lost time, money, and opportunities. Find a way to invest in the right people who will round out and complement your skillset. Value added is never money wasted.
#2. The path to success is harder than you think. There are no shortcuts to success. Go into it with the mindset that it will be the hardest venture you’ve ever undertaken and you’ll be well ahead of the game. Expect to hit roadblocks and make mistakes (or even full-on fail!) along the way too. Become an expert contingency planner.
#4. Know all the numbers. In order to run a successful business, you have to know your numbers — all of them — inside and out. This includes net income, cash flow, profit and loss, gross margin, cost of hiring, etc. Initially, I neglected to drill deep down into this full range of numbers and it hindered my progress and affected my decision-making. You can’t make solid decisions and investments without understanding the full financial picture.
#5. Have a sense of urgency. Things won’t happen on their own, although if you’re lucky, every now and then something will fall into place. You must be committed to working hard and setting your own fate into motion. While you’ll need to have patience and be committed to the long haul since building a business isn’t an overnight endeavor, you must work with a sense of urgency in order to maintain momentum and a forward trajectory.
Kivo: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
That one’s easy. Pitbull, of course! I’m a huge Pitbull fangirl, not only because his music is fun, fresh, and exciting, but because he has such an entrepreneurial mindset and heart for people, especially children. He has used his experiences and fame to inject positivity and hope into the world — all the things that I hope to accomplish as well.
Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube for more HR and leadership insights. For speaking engagements and consulting services, visit me here. Or check out my company, Restaurant HR Group, to learn how we help restaurants manage their greatest assets.