It was the year 2000, and John Scardapane was in his salad days leading Saladworks LLC.
The phrase “salad days” derives from a line in the first act of William Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” in which Cleopatra laments her earlier involvement with Julius Caesar:
“My salad days, when I was green in judgment, cold in blood…”
Scardapane isn’t cold-blooded, but the former chef was green in judgment as he led the restaurant chain he founded in 1986 toward a franchising concept that could serve as a springboard to rapid growth, but required the corporate leadership to provide a strong, stable support system for prospective store owners. It was something Scardapane had yet to address.
“I was very green about multi-unit operating,” he says. “We had no structure, we had no core values, we had no manuals, no training programs. We were doing extremely well, but our volume was covering a lot of our seams.”
Scardapane — also the chairman and CEO — decided to begin franchising the stores to family members and friends, hoping they would take the restaurant concept and run with it the way he had. Scardapane’s family and friends had expanded Saladworks to 25 locations as the century turned, but nothing was standardized except for the restaurant name.
“It got to the point where I either had to start building an infrastructure to support them properly, or find someone who could do it,” Scardapane says. “I had no success finding anyone else, so I decided to start building the infrastructure.”
In 2002, Scardapane began selling franchises to the public, and now Saladworks is a chain of more than 100 stores with locations in the New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta areas, along with locations in California, Florida and Missouri. The company employs 2,500 between corporate and franchised locations.
But to get there, Scardapane had to build a growth plan, a strategy for the future and a culture. In short, Scardapane needed a system that worked.
Define your culture
In the early years of the previous decade, as Scardapane began franchising Saladworks locations to family and friends, he knew something was missing from the business equation. But he wasn’t sure what it was.
Scardapane sought out the assistance of executives at Commerce Bank and Wawa Inc., two companies he admires. Through those companies, he found a pair of experienced executives who were willing to mentor him and help grow Saladworks.
“We found a banking executive at Commerce Bank who showed me how Commerce developed their culture and strategies,” Scardapane says. “The gentleman from Wawa came in as a consultant. I asked him to spend a couple of days in the company, go around to every employee and talk to them, come back and give me your opinion on what is happening. He came back to me after a few days, and told me he was extremely impressed. He felt we were running a company structure like you’d have for 500 stores, but he felt the one thing that was missing was a culture.”
Scardapane wanted to know the reasoning behind the need to develop a culture, and why it was critical to his company’s success.
“I asked him, ‘What is a culture and why do I need it?’” he says. “We talked about it, he helped me put everything in writing, and everything else evolved from there. I found out that once you have that culture in place, that is when you can start empowering everyone in the company to make decisions because you know they’re all going down the same path.”
Scardapane decided to craft five core values that would serve as the foundation of Saladworks moving forward: customer service, a passion to be the best, valuing other team members, doing what is necessary to get the job done, and hiring the best people. Those five principles became Saladworks’ DNA, and something at the heart of the vetting process when Scardapane and his team are searching for new franchisees.
“Whenever we’re interviewing potential new franchisees, we want to see if they match our culture,” he says. “We’re really interviewing them concerning whether they have the passion to be the best, are they willing to do the right thing, do they have integrity and honesty. Are they going to do whatever it takes to get things done, and are they going to grow future leaders? Each department has specific questions that pertain to their area, but they all follow those guidelines.”
But even if you hire the right people, you won’t be able to fully engage them in your company’s culture without involving them in the process of shaping your plans for the future. Each year, Scardapane involves his corporate staff in the strategic planning process. Involving the corporate staff allows the home-office work force to better reinforce the culture among the franchisees.
“Everybody has a chance to ask whether we have lived up to our values in the past year,” Scardapane says. “And we look at whether those values are reflected in our programs for the next year. So it’s basically us asking ourselves, ‘Do we still believe in our values?’”
Scardapane drives the discussion down to the franchisee level by taking selected franchise owners and putting them through the same process. To make a truly open forum where no opinion is off limits, he bans members of corporate leadership from the franchisee discussion.
“Nobody from the home office is there,” he says. “I have a consultant help them get through the process, but anything they say never gets back to the home office regarding who said it. Then we compare their strategic plan and what the franchisees think the strategic plan should be for the coming year to the one we did for the home office.
“That way, we have a home office strategy and a strategy from the field, from the people who are actually out there working in the stores. It does two things: It helps us understand what is going on in the field, and it gets the franchisees to buy into the company culture. We share the information in a PowerPoint presentation every year at our convention for all of the franchisees.”
If you need to build or revamp your culture, Scardapane suggests you do what he did: find a mentor and have that person analyze your business.
“There are a couple of books out there, like ‘Good to Great,’ but they won’t give you the details and development, how to actually put a plan together,” he says. “You really need some support and structure and someone to take you through the process. Once they’ve gone through once or twice and shown you how, you and your team can take the ball and run with it.”
Maintain your momentum
Scardapane has learned that without an established culture and empowered, educated work force, you’re going to find growing your company to be a difficult prospect. You may have the capital and manpower to grow, but you won’t be able to harness it in any meaningful way.
Once you’ve established a culture and have the right people on board, however, you need to become something of a maintenance man, with team members constantly on the ground in all of your locations, offering support and promoting accountability.
Scardapane keeps his cultural momentum strong with a team of business coaches who each oversee a handful of Saladworks franchises. It’s the coach’s job to maintain contact with their franchise owners and address any issues they might be having.
Finding business coaches and training them is an involved process in and of itself.
“We’ve found that even if you have experience in your field, even if I bring in a guy who has 15 years of experience in the restaurant, it takes about six months before he can go out and support franchises. He has to know everything possible about owning and operating a Saladworks store. He can’t just read the manual. You have to spend a lot of time in the store working as a business coach before you can adequately support the franchisees. It takes a lot longer than most companies realize.”
One of the continuous challenges facing Scardapane is how to maintain a growth support structure that can stay ahead of the rate of growth. He wants to have a system that is capable of continually absorbing new stores into the fold, which means committing people and dollars to support locations that haven’t opened yet, and doing it months in advance.
“You really have to bring in the structure before you expand,” Scardapane says. “If I know we’re opening 25 stores this year, I’ve already brought in two business coaches, and they’ve already been in the pipeline for four months. That’s why the whole system needs a lot of cash flow.
“Where companies fail is they go out and sell a lot of franchises, but they don’t have the infrastructure to support it. They’re trying to backfill the infrastructure, and they don’t have the people to support the stores that are opening.”
If you’ve built the system properly and everyone in your organization is adequately supported, your company will begin to develop its own momentum. Leaders will groom other leaders, the daily business of the company will be well-managed and you will be free to pull back and view your company’s course with a wide-angle lens.
“Once you’ve been doing it for a while, you can do more managing on a macro level,” Scardapane says. “Once you get used to the ideas of others paying off, and watch them start to grow future leaders, you start believing in people and you start giving them more responsibility. And you become more open because of that. You start to realize that you don’t have to do everything yourself. That’s important, because as a leader, you really have to recognize that you’re going to need the help of others, and that sometimes their ideas are going to be better than yours.”
Scardapane wants team members who are smarter than him in their area of practice. He doesn’t want to have to be the expert on everything in his company. He wants to know that once he’s defined the boundaries of the company playing field through the culture and strategic plan, he’ll have star performers on the field making plays.
It’s the only way to ensure the culture he established more than a decade ago remains strong and allows Saladworks to continue its rapid growth, carrying Scardapane well away from those salad days of old, when he was learning on the job.
“It’s about what the leader does once he’s built the infrastructure of core values and strategic planning,” Scardapane says. “Then, it’s time to let people grow and make their own decisions. My entire team knows that the only time I get upset is when they don’t make a decision. I don’t get upset over a wrong decision. I get upset when they make no decision.”
How to reach: Saladworks LLC, (610) 825-3080 or www.saladworks.com
The Scardapane file
Born: Camden, N.J.
History: I was a chef at a New Jersey country club in 1985 or so, and I could see our golfers were eating more salads than burgers. We had a section of the kitchen that would make these very attractive salads with various vegetables, and I started to have an idea for putting the salad concept into a food court environment. An opportunity came up to buy a location at the Cherry Hill Mall, and I brought the idea in there. But the people who ran the mall told me that salads wouldn’t be successful enough to pay the rent. They asked me to find another concept.
On the third try, they agreed to give me a chance if I’d sell sandwiches as well. They thought sandwiches would be strong enough in sales. I agreed, and opened my first store in 1986. The salads were so successful, we became the highest-grossing counter in the food court.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Our major tipping point as a business was bringing the culture into the corporate office and franchise system. So my most valuable lesson is you need to have a culture.
What is your definition of success?
Realizing our vision would be our success, and that vision is to be the greatest restaurant brand. What I love to do is build something great. I get a sense of satisfaction watching our home office people rise through the ranks and watching our franchisees become successful.