Growing Together: An Interview with Fry the Coop Owner Joe Fontana

By Kendyl Kearly | Will Blunt

By

Kendyl Kearly
Will Blunt
Restaurateur Joe Fontana of Fry the Coop
Restaurateur Joe Fontana of Fry the Coop

A hospitality industry lifer, Joe Fontana likes to take care of people. He was the kind of bartender who had a favorite drink ready as soon as the guest sat down. Now that he’s running five locations of his hot chicken concept, Fry the Coop, Fontana wistfully spends more time on the computer than with customers. But through technological efficiencies and clever growth strategies, he also gets to take care of staff.

What’s your approach to staffing?
There’s this quote that really struck a chord: “If you want to prosper for a year, grow a plant. If you want to prosper for 10 years, grow a tree. If you want to prosper for 100 years, grow people.” We want to open 75 stores in 10 years. We want to do partnership programs—so we start with a dishwasher making $13 to $15 an hour, then they become a prep cook then a kitchen manager, someone who knows the system. We would partner with them to open a restaurant where they’d be a part-owner. Then it’s a waterfall system where they open three stores. It’s franchising only for inside people. Or we might do an employee stock ownership plan. The whole idea is to grow the company so we can grow our people and give them the pay they deserve. We haven’t gotten there yet, but that’s our idea.

How do you retain employees in the meantime?
We just launched full benefits, so anyone can get health insurance. That’s expensive, but the more revenue you bring in, the more you can do for people. We donate a lot to the community, but we are also setting up a fund for the crew if, for example, someone needs a down payment or their car breaks down.

When there’s such an emphasis on the employees, good hiring seems especially important. We have an H.R. person and are constantly hiring. We set up interviews whether we need someone or not. Thursdays are interview days. If we find someone who’s great, we make room. With restaurant turnover, you should always be hiring. Being short-staffed puts so much stress on the whole team.

How do you stay efficient enough to keep growing?
It’s all technology. Jolt is a task list app. Every person in the restaurant has a Jolt list and has to check off “chores” before the shift change. It has to be signed by a manager, and you know what you need to knock out. I also use HotSchedules, and Google Suite helps us stay in contact with documents and folders. Slack has been pretty cool for constant communication.

How does communication factor in? 
Every store does end-of-day reports, end-of-week reports, and end-of-month reports. Emails go out to everyone in a store with information about sales, complaints, incidents. They do a pre-shift talk to go through notes from the night before. It’s crazy that some of these guys who work Monday through Friday don’t even know the weekend people. This keeps everyone on the same page. 
It’s kind of a pain in the ass to keep growing. But if you want to create opportunities for the staff, you’ve got to keep going. The goal of opening those stores isn’t for us to be on a boat with money. It’s all to help the crew.

 

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