You aren’t truly in the restaurant business; you are in the people business. You are only as strong as the people you employ. If you don’t have a strong team around you, you will not succeed. Surround yourself with people who embody your brand and your goals for the future and invest in them.
As part of our series about the lessons from Inspirational BIPOC Chefs & Restaurateurs, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ron Jordan.
Born and raised in greater Columbus, Ohio, Ron Jordan grew up in a family of self-made entrepreneurs. Hard work, entrepreneurship, and hospitality have become synonymous with the Jordan name, and the drive to continue the family tradition of entrepreneurial success and his passion for connecting people, fuel Ron’s leadership style.
Approaching his ten-year anniversary as CEO of Jordan Hospitality Group, Ron has successfully grown a portfolio of restaurants; including a national QSR brand and an upscale experiential dining restaurant, Hen Quarter, with several other exciting concepts on the horizon.
Previously, Ron served as Vice President of Retail for Jordan Hospitality Group’s partner company, Thompson Hospitality — the largest minority-owned food and facilities management company in the U.S. Ron has garnered awards from Smart Columbus, Columbus Monthly, Central Ohio Honors, and more. He participates in speaking engagements yearly throughout the state. Ron is also involved with numerous charities, including the Jordan Family Scholarship which allows him to mentor student athletes in tying athletic achievement to career and leadership development.
Ron and his wife, Dawn, have four daughters and live in New Albany, Ohio. As a foodie, Ron enjoys trying new restaurants and sampling local fare wherever his travels take him. One of his favorite pairings is a good cigar and a great scotch.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
For me, the restaurant business, it was in my blood. I stepped in and took over my family’s business. But my inspiration to grow it and make it the best it can be? That stems from the commitment I made to my grandparents years back to create generational wealth for my family and future generations of not only Jordan’s, but for the people our company employs.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?.
Jordan Hospitality Group got our start in the quick service restaurant industry with Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. The food we were cooking was anything and everything down home southern food. Given southern food was the type of food we’d been cooking for 23 plus years through our Popeyes restaurants, it was a natural fit when the Hen Quarter opportunity was presented to us. But with Hen Quarter, I really wanted to elevate that southern style of cooking and create upscale and experiential dishes. It doesn’t have to be a two-dollar dish to be food that speaks to your soul. Putting our own spin on traditional southern food really attracted me to doing what we do now at Hen Quarter. Through this marriage of concepts, we’ve created an environment that is totally different than what you’d see in either a quick casual or fine dining restaurant. We’ve really carved out our own unique segment of the southern dining space with the Hen Quarter concept.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “life lessons quote” has also become my definition of success. “Success is moving from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” I think that is the absolute best way to encapsulate how to have drive and passion within what you do. I always tell my employees, “We expect you to fail. We expect you to fail hard and fast.” At Jordan Hospitality Group, we’ve adopted this as one of our principal quotes and we use it every day.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
For me the funny story is a story about my mentor Warren Thompson and I placing a bet. We are both extremely competitive people. Hen Quarter was initially Warren’s original concept under Thompson Hospitality Group. Warren who is 30 years my senior, most definitely has more wisdom and experience than I do, but that doesn’t matter to me because I want to push the envelope. I had this idea that I could improve upon the Hen Quarter concept. The whole birth of what we now know and love as Hen Quarter was my attempt in doing so. So, I made Warren a 1 dollar gentlemen’s bet that I could be more successful with this concept. This silly bet and our spirit of competition has led to me being officially appointed brand champion of Hen Quarter and given an equity stake in all current and future Hen Quarter restaurants. I now dictate the agenda and strategy for the Hen Quarter brand and locations across the country.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
The hardest challenge or obstacle I’ve faced on my journey is access to capital. Getting access to capital as a business owner is already tough enough. But for members of a historically oppressed group of people to find that access to capital, it’s even tougher. People who look like me aren’t always taught a lot about finding equity but also, historically don’t have the same access to it as others do. When your capital is in a crunch, you have to pursue the slowest growth model possible. But in the current market, if you aren’t growing you are dying. To overcome this, we used real estate acquisitions through Popeyes, and spun it off and sold it to take care of some of the debt on our balance sheet. Overcoming the challenging of access to capital, has made me a smarter business owner because now I understand how to operate on a capital stack at the front of the game. I’ve cultivated a ton of great relationships and put our company in a position where we can have capital at the beginning of a project in the future.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
I’m not artistic, but what I feel like I’m really good at doing is creating art from food. Even at home. I can’t draw, but I can plate a dish. All of this to say, if your phone doesn’t eat first, it isn’t going to work. Me being a millennial has a lot to do with how we present our food. I’m an old soul and not on social media much, but I know if the dish isn’t beautifully plated, we are already at a disadvantage. If the shrimp and grits doesn’t look like the best shrimp and grits before it tastes like the best shrimp and grits — we’ve already lost. If you aren’t building your dishes and menus with the millennial and gen z market demands in mind, it will be a detriment to your business for years to come. In the restaurant, I let my chef bring me a first draft and then we edit together. We both love this creative process … what do we need to add to it? Is it a rosemary sprig, red pepper coulee on a black plate? This collaboration helps us create dishes that both look and taste amazing and are truly representative of the experience we want to become synonymous with our brand.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
I’m probably the worst or best person to go to dinner with depending on what your opinion of food is because I will order five things and sample a little of each! So, the “perfect meal” to me would start with the Fire Roasted Seafood Tower from Maple & Ash in Chicago. Then I’d want a few bites of the Mediterranean Branzino dish from Catch in New York City. Finally, I’d end with a Japanese A5 Wagyu experience form Prime 112 in Miami with their lobster mac and cheese, lobster mashed potatoes and broccolini. To drink, I’d take a 2002 Dominus with my steak. And with the seafood tower, I’d do a 2002 Dom Perignon with a strawberry. As for dessert, I prefer to drink my dessert. I’d probably sip on a scotch, cognac or espresso martini after dinner.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are! It actually feels like what project aren’t we working on right now? The one thing about the pandemic is it has given us the opportunity as business owners around the world to rise or fall with the occasion. At Jordan Hospitality Group, we’ve put together a strategic vision for the next 24 months and what we’d like to see come out of all of this.
For our 2021 vision board, we are currently looking to launch a couple of restaurants that are original to the Jordan Hospitality Group brand. We are also looking into more hotel consulting services in the restaurant space as well a launching a brand-new social club around the U.S. in 2021.
These upcoming projects will really take us into another stratosphere when it comes to our business. I believe it will position us to be one of the primary Black-owned hospitality groups and will put us in a position where people will know what experience is synonymous with Jordan Hospitality Group and our brands. I hope it makes us one of the go-to places for experiential dining. We want to be that next echelon wave of talent and success in the industry, and we want people to recognize this in us.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Do you have any advice for “up and coming” young chefs who are in need of guidance to become successful in the culinary world?
That’s a tough question! I’ve recently read an article where Les Wexner said his biggest regret is not taking more time to look up and appreciate the things he’d accomplished as he was doing it. That’s the toughest part to realize as an entrepreneur … you get stuck in this everyday world. Everything you do becomes synonymous with your brand. So, the advice I would give is the same advice I received early in my career. Take a vacation every 90 days. Not to pat yourself on the back, but to recharge and go back into the game with a rested set of eyes and ability to reclaim your motivation. Be mindful of taking care of you, your time, your loved ones. If you do that, the rest of it will take care of itself.
For young people and up and comers, I’d say be smart and get a mentor. If you get a mentor, that will help you avoid a lot of mistakes. Also, don’t forget as an entrepreneur or rising chef, you need to be ready to bet on yourself. If you are willing to take a risk on you every day, all day, your internal investment and reward will be much better long term.
COVID-19 has been a trying time for all of us. How are you growing your business during COVID-19? What advice do you have for any chefs who are trying to stay relevant during this time?
The biggest thing we’ve done is done to grow our business during the COVID-19 era, is to reinvest in our employees and staff. I took my time to reopen. We could have reopened on May 21, but we decided to wait until June 10 to make sure our employees were receiving the right amount of investment in them from us. Investing in their training and also in their well-being by providing them with two mental health days weekly, has helped so much with employee retention and attraction. Retaining our best employees and attracting new employees that are the caliber we are looking for, has been one of the things I can most attribute our growth to during COVID-19. And these are learnings we are building into our business long term because we’ve had so much return on these efforts.
More than most, the restaurants industry has been heavily affected by COVID. For chefs trying to stay relevant, I have one word. Consolidation. We have seen and will continue to see consolidation, contraction and open spaces. If you are a chef in waiting and someone new, this is the best time to start something new. Maybe it’s a ghost kitchen, a space for just carryout or you go the food truck model … but go after it. Strike while the iron is hot and set yourself up for long term success with a conservative model now. Put yourself in a position where 10 years from now you’ll be saying “I did it. I took the opportunity and it worked out.”
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- You aren’t truly in the restaurant business; you are in the people business. You are only as strong as the people you employ. If you don’t have a strong team around you, you will not succeed. Surround yourself with people who embody your brand and your goals for the future and invest in them.
When we first acquired our Popeyes restaurants in Michigan, and acquired the personnel that came with the business, we didn’t realize how much we were in a deficit for human capital at that time. We quickly realized that the pool of talent we had was attracting more of the same type of talent instead of the talent we knew we needed for business to run smoothly. We were managing the business from five hours way but didn’t have the people in place to help us succeed. We learned really quick that the people you employ are a direct representation of you. I can’t be there shaking hands and welcoming guests at all of my restaurants. I need strong leaders at the foundation, so our message is never mismanaged.
2. You get what you pay for. Sometimes as business owners we cut corners and hire people for relatively low wages, but most of the time the price you are paying is going to be a reflection of the talent you will receive long term. That will be the standard that your brand is held to go forward; so spend a little more to put the right people in the right places and make the people you have in place feel valued.
At the onset of our acquisition of our Michigan based Popeye restaurants, we hired a district manager who required less salary than two better qualified candidates. We felt this individual’s experience matched what we needed, and it came at a slightly lower cost to the business. Seemed like a win win, so we went with that candidate. That decision ended up costing us much more money in the long run. If I could do it over again, I’d pay more for one of the other candidates.
3. Do not allow too much creative control for your team when it comes to a menu. Absolutely trust your team and make sure your team is empowered, but I’ve been in positions with a couple of our brands where the team had too much control over the process and not enough oversight and it led us astray from who we were as a brand.
In January of 2019, we had a plan to change the menu at Hen Quarter for spring. Our plan was to get it solidified by the end of February and ready for a March launch. The team was in charge of this menu development which led to deadlines getting continually pushed. We ended up with a menu tasting that wasn’t presented until April. Though the food was good, I wasn’t pleased with our direction. We put dishes on the menu that didn’t fit our vision. At the time, I wanted to give the latitude to the employees and staff. I took a leap of faith and bet on them, unfortunately it did more harm than it did good because the dishes were difficult to execute. When we reopened during COVID, we got rid of dishes that didn’t sell, changed some things up to ensure proper execution and consistency, and put more seafood on the menu which all seem to be positive changes for our customers.
4. Be prepared to find as many ways as you can to generate revenue independent of the actual restaurant. When you can drive revenue both inside your restaurant and outside those four walls, you are creating your own capital.
In late 2018, I sat with my creative director in our year-end review, and I told her I wanted to carve out a brand-new division called Jordan Creative Company. With our consulting division, we go in and do food photography, websites, and other marketing consulting. It’s become a whole new revenue stream for us that we can turn into 200,000 dollars a year on the budget. Our margins our low. And it benefits us because not only did we create an in-house marketing department for ourselves, but we can also generate revenue creating marketing resources for other food and restaurant businesses.
5. Understand as much as you can tax law, and depreciation in your business income.
When I first got more involved at Jordan Hospitality Group, my grandmother was still running the business which at the time consisted of just one Popeyes restaurant. For tax years 2011, 2012 and 2013, they used a tax accountant to prepare their business taxes. Though we thought these taxes for the businesses had been prepared correctly, in 2014 I went to the bank to get financing for our expansion, and I was laughed right out of there. The financials weren’t matching up with our returns. This was an embarrassing experience for me, and after that, I got to work learning and understanding business tax law. I work closely with our accountant now and due to my deep knowledge on the subject, I can double check the work and there are never any surprises.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
The one dish you’ve got to try and my personal favorite at Hen Quarter is our fried lobster tails. We take two South African lobster tails, deconstruct the tails, dust bite size pieces of lobster meat in cornmeal and fry. We then stuff that fried lobster meat back into the tails and serve with rosemary, our dynamite sauce and Cajun butter. I think this dish is a great representation of who we are because it has a southern flair in it, but it’s not southern enough to run people off that don’t understand that style of cooking.
You are a person of enormous 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.
If I could inspire a movement, it would be to go into low income communities and communities of color and take the time to show the people in these communities how many resources and programs are out there that are severely underutilized for minority business owners. It’s terrible to see that we have as a country set aside contract programs for minority owned businesses but we don’t teach minority business owners to go after these contracts; leaving many contracts that were reserved for minority business spend unawarded or awarded to non-minority owned businesses simply because the minority enterprise leaders had a lack of awareness, understanding or tools to go after those contracts. With an increase in the education and access to these resources, we could see a huge change in the disparity of wealth we have in this country. I know this could have a dramatic effect on these individuals lives and the generations that follow. A lot of people think their only ticket out of the hood is through athletics or scholarships, but it could be through entrepreneurship if more access and support was available.
How can our readers further follow you online?
IG: @jordanhospitalitygroup / @henquarterdublin
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!