Prefacing a business with “third generation, family-run,” implies a certain level of success on the basis of longevity alone. Endurance doesn’t come without effort however, and as it turns out, a healthy dose of innovation. This is certainly true of Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit (www.dickeys.com), the 75-year-old brand that established itself by “taking barbecue mainstream” amassing legions of loyal diners nationwide along the way.
The company prides itself on maintaining its tradition of slow smoking all meats on-site and fiercely clings to homespun perks like kids eating free on Sundays. The strategy has proven to be effective for the fast casual concept, growing to more than 560 locations across 43 states and even being recognized by Technomic as the “fastest growing restaurant chain in the country.” Today, Dickey’s Barbecue is celebrating 75 years in business, and out of its open and operating 560+ locations, six are corporate stores and the rest are franchised. Many of those franchisees have owned and operated stores for more than 20 years, and as Laura Rea Dickey, CIO, acknowledges, there is a lot of wonderful opportunity and brand foundation that comes with that — especially when it comes to continuing the authenticity for which Dickey’s prides itself. “In that strength however, comes weakness,” she admits. “We have stores that literally have had to make the evolution from a calculator to a non-Internet POS all the way to today with cloud-based and digital technologies.” Technology — and more specifically data — has proven to be integral to the growth and success of Dickey’s and its franchisees. One of the main challenges facing the brand was what Dickey describes as an ocean of disparate technologies. The goal — and challenge — was how to close the gap in establishing a universal technology platform and how to roll that technology out to the business. Dickey admits that, while maintaining the authenticity of the brand through its barbecue was vital, when it came to technology there “was no sacred cow” (pun intended). The brand was in a period of heavy growth during 2008 when Dickey and her colleagues began strategic planning. By 2010, they had devised a six-year roadmap with one of the major focuses being technology. “We had done a lot of internal analysis to identify what technology we wish we had going into certain challenges, and we concluded that while we had adequate technology, we were not cutting-edge,” Dickey explains. “That was a true turning point for us. We realized that we had evolved in other ways, but we weren’t innovating with technology. We were continuing to patch and scale what we had which was supplemented with a lot of analog, data entry and very siloed ways of handling technology, information and communications.” Data first, the rest to follow One of Dickey’s first priorities was to meet the needs of owner/operators while pulling laggards up to parity as the restaurant landscape has advanced. “It was necessary to identify standards, not only for hardware and software, but for operating procedures as well,” Dickey says. “We knew we wanted to work towards a universal platform, but we had to identify what we needed first – and we decided the most important component was data collection.” Data collection was the restaurant’s first choice because it wanted to be POS provider agnostic. In order to do that, Dickey and her team knew they needed to normalize data collection. “Our first big strategic initiative, outside of identifying challenges, was to create a platform that collects all of our data; then we can manage what can hook into that platform from online ordering and loyalty to our POS provider,” Dickey explains. “We wanted to have data that was usable, actionable, and that would move at the speed of business so that we could spend time on analysis rather than data gathering.” To accomplish this, Dickey’s looked to its internal team to custom develop a system with technology partners to meet those larger objectives while being as easy to digest as possible for all levels of technological savviness. “We wanted something that would be palatable for all our owner/operators,” Dickey stresses, recalling that getting buy-in from all franchisees was one of the biggest challenges. “Explaining to operators why they would want to adopt change and migrate from paper to digitized forms, when they’ve operated successfully for 70+ years without them, was definitely an undertaking,” Dickey recalls. “That’s why having a long-term roadmap was so important, to show them that we had thought this through and the reasons we need to make this change.” Dickey’s in-house development team partnered with big data and intelligence service providers in order to develop the proprietary system that would become known as Smoke Stack. Dickey’s in-house team worked with business intelligence (BI) and data warehouse solutions provider iOLAP Inc. (www.iolap.com) and combined data integration software from Syncsort (www.syncsort.com) with a BI platform from Yellowfin (www.yellowfinbi.com) and Amazon Redshift (aws.amazon.com/redshift) for data warehousing. Smoke Stack is an advanced analytics solution that uses big data and cloud-platform technology for flexibility and to minimize ongoing resource requirements. Now Dickey’s is able to pull information from numerous sources through the reporting system and easily manage that data. Dickey explains that the first priority was starting with data that operators and managers needed to engage with most — operations analytics including: KPIs, sales data, inventory, etc. The next step was to parlay that into marketing and consumer data. A key piece of the data platform is BOSS (Barbecue Operations Support System), the management piece of software that Dickey’s built internally and uses to run the overall business. BOSS is an independent reporting system that flows into Smoke Stack in the same way that back-of-house and POS data is pulled in through different API connections. “The next piece of the puzzle in the roadmap was to get everyone reporting in the same way,” Dickey says. “We needed to gather data from all different points of contact, take all that structured data and improve reports, while taking all unstructured or siloed data and pulling that into the analytics systems as well.” Dickey’s in-house team developed a reporting agent that pulls data from the back-of-house computer through an API into Smoke Stack. Data is being gathered every 15 minutes offering a real-time look at the business through reports in the company’s analytics system. In addition to operations, POS and online ordering data, API connections were also created to pull in data from partners such as Spendgo (www.spendgo.com) for loyalty and Fishbowl (www.fishbowl.com) for digital marketing. Taking action with analytics Gathering data was only the first part of the challenge, the next initiative was establishing ways for the team to easily see and understand the information in order to make better business decisions in a timely fashion. “We have store level and corporate level dashboards, so when an operator logs into Smoke Stack they have access to all of those KPIs that we’re pulling in through the back of house agent,” Dickey says. “Whether they are on- or offsite we can give them sales information and reconcile that to inventory levels.” Managers can also go into the marketing dashboard and get a snapshot of brand and reputation management. This offers insight into current Spendgo members, media buy, plus sentiment analysis on Yelp reviews from Fishbowl. With this tool, managers are able to match operations with marketing in order to see what is resonating with customers. From a marketing standpoint, data is addressed in two ways. First, managers are able to change known brand initiatives including media and long-term objectives by listening to feedback from customers and coupling that with sales data and intuition. Secondly, data can be used to personalize offers to customers, drilling down to an individual customer or store to see what offers are most effective. Smoke Stack allows Dickey’s to enhance customer profiles to be more robust and “meet them where they are” through appropriate digital media. “Data drives those decisions, it doesn’t dictate it,” Dickey says. “There are certain things you have to have history and judgement to make decisions about.” From a corporate level, Dickey believes that having a line of sight into the franchisee level is an opportunity to help individual locations and ultimately the brand as a whole. She explains that Smoke Stack’s dashboards have realigned how the operations and marketing teams function every day in order to achieve this. “We are now metrics-based and data-driven in our decisions and our sales-driving efforts and that’s how we manage operations,” Dickey says. She explains that field directors and operations managers spend the first hour of every day reviewing reports and then gathering for a call to go over the results and identify areas of opportunity or focus. Smoke Stack has significantly reduced the amount of labor that used to be required just to amass data. Dickey and her team now can devote more time to analytics and action. The collaboration of Smoke Stack and BOSS allows Dickey’s to take operations, marketing and back-of-house behavior data to give the company a robust perspective into what is happening at stores. While data is a central component, Dickey warns that it is not a silver bullet. “Data isn’t magic, it’s like any other business resource you have,” Dickey says. “If you use it efficiently and effectively you will yield amazing, efficient and effective results. If you don’t and if the data isn’t actionable, and if IT is just a delivery mechanism or tactic and not part of your overall strategy, then your data is going to be worthless.”