“How business leaders can create a fantastic work environment,” With Charles Bililies of Souvla

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Bililies, the Founder & CEO of Souvla. A Greek-American, Bililies comes from a family tradition of restaurateurs and is deeply passionate about the hospitality experience. Bon Appetit Magazine dubbed Bililies “the Mark Zuckerberg of fast fine restaurants” and Souvla is a San Francisco Chronicle “Top 100 restaurant”, […]

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Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Bililies, the Founder & CEO of Souvla. A Greek-American, Bililies comes from a family tradition of restaurateurs and is deeply passionate about the hospitality experience. Bon Appetit Magazine dubbed Bililies “the Mark Zuckerberg of fast fine restaurants” and Souvla is a San Francisco Chronicle “Top 100 restaurant”, a recipient of the StarChefs award for “Best Concept” and has been featured in such media outlets as The Today Show, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Bloomberg.

Bililies now leads strategic development for the restaurant group, focusing on new business opportunities, financial planning, team, culture, and brand consistency. He also now serves as an advisor (both officially and unofficially) to partners in the food and tech space, including Apple, Square, Caviar, and Plate IQ. He regularly speaks on panels and in the press about the future of restaurants and tech, entrepreneurship, and how to develop profitable restaurants.

Charles moved to California in 2006 and worked for Chef Thomas Keller at The French Laundry and Bouchon Bistro, as well as Chef Michael Mina at both his eponymous restaurant and RN74. He holds degrees in Hospitality Management from Cornell University and Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Mypleasure! My path to the restaurant business is both unique and somewhat common. I come from several generations of small business owners and entrepreneurs. My parents both ran their businesses out of the house when I was growing up, so I had front row seats to the struggle and grind of entrepreneurs and small business owners. While neither of my parents were in the food space or the restaurant business, both of my grandfathers were. One, who immigrated from Greece, never cooked professionally, but was an amazingly talented and passionate cook. The other did it professionally; he ran restaurants in Boston for years, later getting into the culinary education space before it was what it is today.

As a teen, I swore off kitchens; vowing never to toil away in hot, dark, windowless environments. I made it all of one semester in a conventional university when I realized that food and cooking was what made me happy, and what I wanted to do. I finished the year out and promptly transferred to culinary school.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are many, but I think the best is meeting my (now) wife. We were set up on a blind date a Michelin 3-Star restaurant — you really get to know someone after 17 courses! She is also in the food/restaurant space and now has both a restaurant PR firm and Champagne bars on both coasts.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Well, at this point we do one restaurant/location per year. We just opened our first “virtual” restaurant last month (which does delivery only and is not public-facing), and are working on our sixth location that will open in early 2020. I just wrapped up a really fun vehicle project where we bought, restored and converted a 1971 Chevy StepVan into the country’s first frozen Greek yogurt truck! We’re also getting into the catering and private event space, executing everything from outdoor dinners at wineries to weddings.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think a lot of that has to do with work/life balance. Coming off of the better part of a decade working in the fine-dining space for big name chefs, you’re basically working all the time — 70 hour work weeks are average, and 90–100 hours/week is not uncommon. It’s simply not healthy; it takes a toll on you physically, but it also impacts the relationships you have with your (non-work) friends, family and other important people in your life.

One of the core tenants I had when structuring and growing the Souvla brand is to prioritize work-life balance; to reject the notion that working in restaurants required this absurd machismo of priding yourself in how many hours you worked, how long of a “stretch” of days worked you were on etc.. At Souvla, every employee has two days off per week (consecutive if preferred), and no employee, management included, works more than 45–50/hrs. per week. Considering we’re a 7 day/week operation open to the public 11 hours a day, it requires a larger management team than most operations in our space, but it allows us to recruit top tier full-service restaurant talent that is looking for a next step in their career, and who place a priority on their happiness both at work and outside of it.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

You have to remember that the restaurant business, like everything in the hospitality space, is a people business. We are a team of 200+ women and men that take care of thousands of guests every day. The human interaction is a critical part of the guest experience, whether they are dining in or taking away. A tired, overworked or otherwise unhappy counter server, food runner etc. can very easily taint the guest experience, and from there it’s a domino effect, ultimately impacting productivity, revenue and profitability.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Instill in your team the need to treat the business/restaurant as if they owned it. This was something that was ingrained in me by my former boss, Thomas Keller. If you see a piece of trash on the ground in front of the restaurant, you pick it up — it’s instinctive if it was your restaurant and you take pride in quality and cleanliness of your establishment, but may seem inconsequential if you were just an employee. That takes time to instill in your teams, but is ultimately the best, long-term, especially if they have a desire to one day own a place of their own.

This leads into a follow-up in leading by example, and training your managers to think the way you think, to see the things you see, and to handle situations and solve problems in the way you would. Sure, having a diversity of opinion and viewpoint is still critical, and we’re lucky to have that in our senior leadership team, but at the location/operational level, it’s best for consistency and for each restaurant to reflect your core values and approaches.

Be transparent with your managers about the business and the financials behind it. I spent years working for other organizations, managing restaurant operations where ownership was purposefully secretive about the financials of the restaurant. By not having insight into the business side of the operations, not only do managers not get a sense of, or an education into the very critical business aspect of a restaurant, but they have very little to go off when given directives. To be told by an owner that “your labor is high” or “you need to lower your food cost” is ineffective when you are not given a metric to work off of.

At Souvla, we train our managers on the ins and outs of a prime cost P&L. Not only are they given complete financial reporting of their locations, but they are responsible for monthly P&L reviews, and are incentivized via bonus on controllable aspects within those financial statements. Even when it comes to profitability, we’re transparent with our teams in where that money goes — to repay investors, loans, and to reinvest in both existing and future locations to continue to grow the business and provide more opportunities.

Do the right thing. This may seem painfully obvious, but it is often forgotten amongst leaders. Having a strong moral code, communicating that to your surrounding teams and sticking to it, even if it’s the more difficult, expensive or painful alternative always works out in the long run.

We began offering full medical insurance to all our employees just before we opened our second location. Was it required at the time? No. Was it expensive? Of course. But it was the right thing to do. We followed that up soon after by offering 2 week paid vacations for all line level employees, as well as paid meal breaks. Things like these continue to reinforce our values and the strong culture we continue to build, and instills pride in everyone that works at Souvla.

Make it nice & be nice. This is our motto, our core values summed up in one phrase and something that we all adhere to and live by. The first half of the phrase reflects back on my time working in fine dining (and adapted from our friends at Eleven Madison Park), where there was this constant pursuit of perfection, and a drive to improve each and every day when performing the same task(s). I added the second half, which is meant to counter the inherently toxic nature of the fine dining world. With this, we treat everyone with respect — every team member, every guest, every delivery driver or courier. To this day, Tony (our chef and my partner in the business) and I have never raised our voices to anyone, and the same goes for our Leadership Team and managers. We communicate professionally and respectfully, and we resolve conflict in the moment with grace and empathy. Those that don’t abide by that phrase don’t last very long in our restaurants.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Honestly, I think everyone should work in a restaurant in one way or another at some point in their lives. Whether it’s working in a kitchen, waiting tables, behind a host desk etc.. Some countries have mandatory military service, the United States should have mandatory restaurant service. Once you’re in a position of having to serve someone in some capacity, you gain a greater respect for them, and learn to treat people better.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

At the moment, I now live simultaneously in the weeds, and up in the clouds. In the weeds because I still love the creative process and continuing to iterate and grow the brand, so I’m very hands-on with special projects, collaborations and development opportunities. In the clouds because I am so fortunate to have an amazing, talented team now running our restaurants day-to-day. In that respect, I am now more in a support role, empowering these individuals to operate our restaurants and providing input, guidance and resources when needed.

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? Can you share a story about that?

I am incredibly grateful for my amazing wife, Jen, who has truly been the (not so) secret to all of Souvla’s success. Her strengths are my weaknesses, and she is truly amazing not only from the messaging and marketing standpoint, but reinforcing my instincts and beliefs and pushing me to do better and do more.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Souvla is a company built and powered by immigrants. We were really proud, even in our first year of business to begin developing talent at the line level, transforming women and men who previously toiled for years as prep cooks and dishwashers in other restaurants and developing them into managers earning a healthy annual salary with health insurance, paid vacation and 401K plans. With each consecutive Souvla location, we look to the next generation, find those with drive and passion and empower them to realize the best versions of themselves; working at Souvla is not just a job, it’s a career.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve got a few, but good one from the archives is “those who anger you, control you.” I don’t recall who said that one, but it’s quite true. Inevitably, some person, guest, agency etc. is going to say or do something that will truly set you off. This happens constantly when operating and growing a restaurant organization. When that happens, it is important to take a step back and ask yourself, “wait a minute, am I really going to let _____ control me?” It helps put things into perspective, and you back in the driver’s seat.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Mandatory restaurant service. Everyone should spend one year working in one (or more) roles in a service-based operation like a restaurant. As a nation, we’d all be much nicer and more respectful of each other.

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