The right idea Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

It was 1988, and George Katakalidis had been playing soccer professionally in the United States since he was 18. As a member of the San Diego Sockers, sidelined indefinitely with a broken toe, Katakalidis — born in Greece and raised in Canada — was thinking about life after soccer when he had an epiphany.

“When I got injured, I started thinking through what I could do, and it sort of came to me,” Katakalidis says. “I love people. I’m Greek. I should be in the restaurant business.”

Though Katakalidis’ career as a restaurateur began humbly with two quick-service, food-court Greek eateries, today Daphne’s Greek Cafe is the nation’s largest chain of Greek quick-casual restaurants, with 75 locations throughout California, Arizona and Colorado and an annual revenue of $70 million.

Smart Business spoke with Daphne’s founder and CEO about leadership, the dangers of rapid growth and the importance of introspection.

Q: How would you describe your leadership style?

Leadership, per se, is not something that is easily defined with one specific style. I truly believe that it’s a combination of many different styles and experiences.

A good leader understands the situation and understands the problem and takes into consideration the entire environment — as opposed to singularly, the problem — and then knows what style of arrow, if you will, to pull from his quiver.

Q: How have you shaped your company’s culture?

We are a meritocracy. There are a lot of sub-bullets and subvalues associated with that, but there are no sacred cows. Nobody is untouchable. Everybody has to earn it. We try to make sure people are responsible, and in a meritocracy, you see a ton of responsibility. They’re responsible for their actions, responsible for their results, and so on and so forth.

Developing a culture starts with recruiting. You’ve got to try to get the right people in the system, and if the right people are very responsible, it translates to the rest of the organization.

What you’re doing is adding positive ions to the bigger atom. At the unit level, you want this responsibility from the unit manager, the general manager, and that, in itself, permeates down to the rest of the people. There’s no excuse why something didn’t get done. There’s no excuse why there’s a dissatisfied customer.

There’s an understanding why there’s a dissatisfied customer, but the responsibility is to follow up with that customer to make sure that we can take care of their needs.

Q: How can you recruit for those traits?

In the recruiting process, it’s very difficult. You’ve got some professional interviewers out there, so we’ve been very cognizant that we don’t hire off a resume. We need to make sure we spend time with the individual. We make sure that we let them know this is a special company where people get rewarded for doing great work.

It’s really tough to do. You just have to make sure you have a lot of touches with these individuals, meaning that you have to see them in different formats, spend a little time with them and get to know them.

Q: Is it possible, as you’re adding people, to grow too fast?

I heard a phrase at one of the conferences I went to, which I thought was brilliant — ‘Do not outrun your headlights.’ In reality, that’s the danger that a lot of people face.

Growing too fast is relative, meaning how high are your high beams? How far out can you see as a leader? If you can see pretty far out, you can go a little bit faster. If you can’t see too far out, don’t go that fast. So growing too fast is relative, and it’s relative to the individual that’s leading.

Leaders need to be totally honest with themselves. What are their strengths and their weaknesses? What are they really good at? They’ve got to put ego aside. Once they really assess what they’re good at, they need to do that with the management team. Once they understand what kind of team they have and what kind of leader they are, then they can assess how fast they need to go.

Q: What advice would you offer a brand-new CEO working to grow his or her business?

The best advice I can give is to really, really introspect. Take stock of yourself. Really spend some time and get to know yourself. What are your strengths, and what are your weaknesses? What do you love to do, and what do you hate to do?

The next thing is to do the exact same thing of your company and your management. Once you derive all of that information and you sort of plot it out and figure it out and mull it over, then you take a look at where are the real opportunities.

HOW TO REACH: Daphne’s Greek Cafe, (858) 784-0811 or