Evolving technology, global expansion on the menu for Dickey's in 2021

Published for Dallas Business Journal, by Catherine Leffert

Laura Rea Dickey is a 2021 Women in Business honoree and was honored at an event on Aug. 24. For more information on this year’s honorees, click here.

80 years since its start, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc. is still learning new tricks. The World's Largest BBQ restaurant took lessons from the pandemic, and came out stronger, larger, more successful, and highly agile.

The third-generation, Dallas-based restaurant chain is evolving technology, picking up advancing industry trends and expanding globally in five continents. CEO Laura Rea Dickey said the COVID-19 pandemic forced the brand to be more tech-savvy. “We are such a better restaurant based on the lessons that we've learned from COVID,” Dickey said. “We're financially stronger. We've added multiple revenue streams, we have really diversified the revenue streams for our restaurants so that we had a good strong core of revenue streams. The ability that we have now to lean on third-party delivery, our technology infrastructure, our at-home business...has certainly expanded because of the pandemic and COVID.

As CEO, Dickey isn’t new to barbecue or technology. She’s been with the company for over a decade and served as chief information officer before taking the helm as CEO in 2017. Over the past few years, the company has added new wings and burger brands under its umbrella, created a sauce company to sell products, adopted new third-party delivery and ghost kitchen systems and grown into markets like Japan and the United Arab Emirates. The company had to move 90% of its business online during the pandemic, slowing down its 550 stores throughout the U.S., but is now planting more brick-and-mortar locations across the country and globe.

Here’s what else Dickey said about the company’s adoption of industry trends and international expansion:

Can you talk about your ghost kitchen model and what you learned through the process? Ghost kitchens have actually been around in the Asian market for a long time. And so that market has been a very technology-forward market where consumers are very comfortable and had embraced almost six years to a decade ago, the beginning of virtual kitchens or ghost kitchens, as we think of them. The pandemic really just expedited American acceptance of that business model because third-party delivery instead of becoming a niche really became a primary way that folks were engaging with restaurants. And we were able to go into markets with partners that could be very quick to market. It has a much lower overhead has a much shorter commitment time. An average ghost kitchen will be one-third of the startup cost of a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It'll be one-third of the time to market. You also usually have a quarter to a third of the lease commitment. Ghost kitchens absolutely provide that opportunity. And that's what we saw and provided the opportunity for virtual brands to expand, which was yet another revenue stream.

You’re part of an aggressive international expansion. What allowed Dickies to do that versus many other hospitality brands that may be coming inward over the last year? I think first and foremost, as a third-generation, privately held company, we have the ability to plow back. We're not beholden to anyone other than our small family board and our operating partners. That gives us a lot of freedom to seize on opportunities where we can look forward. We have the ability with very strong evidence to reinvest in how this unique opportunity presented itself largely because the competitive landscape was shrinking. I think another piece that makes us a naturally good partner is that folks really seem to respond to what is authentically Dickey’s and authentically Texas barbecue. There's still this great love for American brands, particularly American food in international markets. Barbecue is something that is still very much a novelty. It's not a crowded category. There isn't really anyone close to our size. We had great partners that were looking to expand their portfolios. Maybe they had American brands, maybe they didn't, but they were all restaurateurs, to begin with. That was very important to us. They all knew their local markets very well. And they were all financed and funded to expand the brand, to well past 10 units in any market 10 restaurants that we were looking to. So it was just a natural fit. This interview had been edited for brevity and clarity.