Thomas Stager: Dynamo of Success

Thomas Stager | President | Krystal Restaurants | LLC
Thomas Stager | President | Krystal Restaurants | LLC

Thomas Stager is an expert in operational turnaround, expansion, and rejuvenating brands by growing sales and profit – Thomas believes in a hands-on, result-oriented leadership style that assembles managers and leaders to develop high-performance teams, deliver outstanding revenue, and execute plans that result in increased shareholder value.

It is precisely this expertise that landed him the position of President at Krystal Restaurants, a 90-year-old legendary franchise that was struggling to maintain its business in the lockdown. Thomas not only led the organization successfully through the pandemic but also scaled its success to new heights by launching initiatives and developing strategies that prioritized people, sales, profit, operations, and culture.

Impressed with his work, CIOLook reached out to Thomas Stager, asking him to share his journey as a business leader, his successes in creating turnarounds for multiple organizations, and his vision for Krystal Restaurants.

Below are the highlights of the interview:

Brief our audience about your journey as a business leader until your current position at Krystal Restaurants. What challenges have you had to overcome to reach where you are today?

I started my professional journey with the Arby’s Restaurant Group and dedicated nearly three decades to the organization. During my tenure with Arby’s, I focused on operations and developing strong teams to help lead to growth and success. Throughout my career, I’ve taken on these leadership roles that have allowed me to help and develop others to expand their own potential and, in turn, help organizations flourish.

I firmly believe in strong communication across the board, from executives to managers to field teams and beyond. I also believe in being hands-on to not only rally the troops but to demonstrate that I’m also taking action for our shared goals and missions.

After Arby’s, I moved to the fitness space and served as COO for Jakked Dragon – Crossfit and then headed Next Level Training as CEO.

In 2018, I took on the COO role for Golden Child Holdings  This was a historic time for the organization, as GC Pizza Hut was on track for a significant store-level EBITDA improvement on top of a growing minimum wage hike increase. During my time with the company, I was part of a successful turnaround that focused on people, sales, profit, operations, and culture. I later transitioned to CEO for GC Pizza Hut & Partner with Golden Child Holdings.

My extensive and successful turnaround experience is what brought me to Krystal. I joined the organization in 2020, during the height of the pandemic when many restaurants and companies were struggling. The company was not only dealing with the pandemic but also with new ownership. I’ve taken the vast experience I gained throughout my career and am channeling my energy to turn our legacy brand (90 years) into a legendary one – a brand that meets the needs of today’s consumers.

At Krystal, I’ve been focused on growing our own teams as well as helping build our future leaders. Last year, we launched a new paid internship program that was my brainchild and means a lot to me. The program provided college students with the opportunity to gain real-world experience at our company and connect them with professionals who are active in the careers that they’re looking to pursue. It was very exciting to see the program come to fruition for our company to be able to offer this opportunity to students.

Tell us something more about your company and its mission and vision.

As a legendary brand, there’s a fine balance between staying true to our heritage while also evolving to stay current with the times. Over the years, we have developed a unique and highly craveable menu, which we remain steadfast in maintaining. We’ve also offered our food at a great value, and we’re committed to that as well. We strive to consistently deliver with our food, value, and our connection to our fans. In building loyalty, it’s imperative to be genuine and find those shared connections with customers, as well as our teams and partners.

Enlighten us on how you have impacted the restaurant industry through your expertise in the market.

Throughout my career, I have served in leadership positions that have allowed me to cultivate my skills to become a turnaround expert. This has included operational turnarounds, as well as strategic planning for expansion and rejuvenating brands. With my 30+ years in the industry, I’ve been fortunate to work alongside teams who are committed to growth and change and are willing to go on these journeys with me to make the significant shifts required to succeed in turnarounds. Again, it’s the strong and open communication, trust building, and development of solid teams that can help drive success.

From my years with the Arby’s Restaurant Group to GC Pizza to where I am now with Krystal, I have been able to really dig into these brands, connect with the people, and find solutions to help grow and evolve.

Describe in detail the values and the work culture that drives your organization.

When I joined the organization, our team developed core pillars to help steer the brand as it was undergoing a turnaround. The U.N.I.T.E.D. initiative underscores the following for team members across our system: Value the Truth, Enjoy Your Work, Make Informed Decisions, Be Accountable to Our Guests, Grow and Evolve, and Find a Way. The initiative places priorities on people, sales, profit, operations, and culture.

Over the past two years, we have been laser-focused on our people, from upgrading our leadership teams and filling critical management positions to creating and implementing bench guidelines and tools for corporate and field operations. We developed a Future Leader Program and have been strengthening our collaborations with franchisees. We also developed and launched our Talent Lifecycle Tools and Guidelines to support the hiring and processing of team members.

Our turnaround approach has been a holistic one that involves creating a culture that embraces our diverse community of team members and encourages open lines of communication. To support our varied groups of employees, we reinvigorated our Young Professionals Employee Resource Group, created and launched a Veteran Recognition Program, and created and implemented an Intern Program. To encourage dialogue among key team members, we created and implemented Krystal Breaks – monthly Zoom Communications with District Managers and corporate teams.

A safe workspace is paramount, so we launched our Talk to Me program, which encourages employees to speak up if they feel, hear, or see something that requires special attention.

Undeniably, technology is playing a significant role in almost every sector. How are you leveraging technological advancements to make your solutions resourceful?

Over the past two years, we’ve implemented 30 new POS/BOS franchise systems to support our partners. We continually work with franchise partners to develop systems that fit their needs and help them run their businesses as efficiently as possible.

For our latest restaurant prototype, we took a look at our kitchens and reworked the designs to elevate execution. As new tech becomes available, we explore these options and how we can continue to improve for the benefit of our teams and franchise partners.

As the consumer landscape changes, we’re also implementing and exploring ways to better serve our guests while also meeting them where they are with technology. Many younger consumers, who grew up with tech, prefer to use these tools for their everyday lives, including how they interact with restaurants, order food, and more.

What change would you like to bring to the restaurant industry if given a chance?   

As an operations guy, I would like to see everyone, from finance to social media, spend some time in the restaurants so they can see what impact their work has on our front-line workers. These individuals are the backbone of our organization and keep our brand running. It’s critical to personally see and understand these impacts, especially as we look to grow as a collective.

What, according to you, could be the next significant change in the restaurant industry? How is your company preparing to be a part of that change?  

I think you will see smaller and smaller footprints, more automation, and virtual brands working alongside bricks and mortar locations. Our latest restaurant prototype is an example of this. We’ve reduced the footprint and added a second drive-thru, as well as a pickup area for online orders and third-party delivery.

During the pandemic, a number of restaurants, including ours, focused on off-premises services. This is something that is on the rise and will continue to expand.

Where do you envision yourself to be in the long run, and what are your future goals for Krystal Restaurants?  

I hope to continue to guide this brand into its next evolution from legacy to legendary. I want to attract more franchisees to our concept and dominate the markets in which we do business. Our teams have been dedicated to growing our franchise program, which offers comprehensive support for our partners.

Franchisee collaboration and trust are critical for us. We try to involve our franchise partners, when possible, in our development efforts. They are key to our growth, and we strive to demonstrate how important they are by turning to them for ideas and input on how we plan for the future.

To attract new franchise partners, we’ve been developing new restaurant designs that are operationally sound and enable our franchise partners to maximize their investment. Our new design drives down labor costs while increasing the speed of service and, in turn, creating a better guest experience.

What would be your advice to budding entrepreneurs who aspire to venture into the restaurant industry? 

My advice to budding entrepreneurs is to believe in themselves and set their minds on achieving their goals. When building your business, create a culture where people want to work, hire a great team, pay them well, and give them the flexibility to do their job. People like three things when it comes to work: autonomy, a great work environment, and money. If you can hit these drivers, then you can set yourself on the path toward success in the industry.