— By Katie Lee —
Farmer Boys marks its 40th anniversary with a new post-pandemic appreciation for quality and convenience.
As Farmer Boys celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, the Riverside, California-based fast-casual concept recalls a memorable, milestone 2020 in which it opened four new restaurants, entered a new state (Arizona) and saw its total systemwide sales increase by $17 million — all during a global pandemic. Also in summer 2020, Farmer Boys’ senior vice president of operations transitioned to president and chief operating officer — during perhaps the most operationally challenging time that restaurants have ever faced. Recently, we spoke to the new president and COO, Dave Wetzel, who served in the Operations role just 6 months before his new position — and COVID-19 — presented itself.
“I picked a heck of a time to take over a company!” joked Wetzel in June 2021. “There were a lot of things that helped in the transition. First of all, I had those 6 months in Operations so I got a foundational understanding of the brand and how it operates. COVID obviously threw some huge wrenches in [the planned transition], but we have a really good leadership team.”
What makes a great leadership team is consistent communication — which Farmer Boys made sure to do throughout the pandemic. The team initially met via Zoom 3 days a week with everyone in the organization: every franchisee, every general manager. “That, more than anything, has helped us weather the storm with COVID and keep us moving in the right direction,” Wetzel says. “It’s helped the teams pivot quickly with the unbelievable changes that have happened over the last 15-16 months.”
When Wetzel took the helm, he parlayed his Operations experience to focus on boosting the drive-thru component of the business. The company had already been investing in new headsets, sophisticated timer systems, video systems for the kitchen, and deployment of new technology when COVID struck. The subsequent dining room shutdowns meant the drive-thru became a lifeline.
“We put a lot of time and energy into drive-thru when I got here, and that paid off because when COVID hit, we went from less than half of our business to over 75% of our business through the drive-thru,” Wetzel explains. “That’s really what carried us through.”
Delivery, too, was a secondary channel whose expansion was already underway at Farmer Boys prior to COVID — which turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “We were in the middle of trying to get rid of all the tablets and integrate [delivery] vendors directly into our POS,” Wetzel recalls. “That work had begun when the pandemic struck, and we accelerated it. Now it’s fully integrated.”
Farmer Boys was founded in 1981 in Perris, California, by five brothers who hail from a farm on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Of the 99 restaurants currently open — none closed during the pandemic — approximately two-thirds are franchised and one-third are corporately owned. Franchising efforts have been reignited as the pandemic appears to be receding.
“I think that [franchising] mix will probably hold,” Wetzel says. “We like being an operator because that’s what provides you the legitimacy to be able to lead the brand. I think it’s risky when you get down to a very small percentage of company-operated units because you lose some of that day-to-day expertise that’s really critical to being able to coach and lead the franchise community.
Daily operations acumen is a key perspective that Wetzel brings to the top job as well. “If you’re not paying attention to what’s happening in the restaurants on a day-to-day basis, you’re probably looking in the wrong direction. I grew up in Operations — I started in restaurants when I was very young — and I’ve never moved away from it. A lot of that knowledge that I take for granted, I’m not sure a lot of executives have ever experienced. When I walk into a restaurant — don’t put me behind a grill — but I can certainly recognize pinch points and to some degree understand what the operators are experiencing. If you get the operations right for the managers and the team members, I think that gets the experience right for the guest.”
As part of its push to put the guest experience first, Farmer Boys looks at new opportunities, products and technology through a ‘convenience’ lens. How can Farmer Boys appeal to customers in a convenient way, either via drive-thru or digital orders? Of course, the challenge is to provide quality food on the go, paired with efficient service, ultimately allowing guests to experience your brand how they want it, when they want it, and where they want it.
“One of the things I think everyone has learned from the pandemic is: Convenience is almost as important as the quality as the food that you provide,” Wetzel says. “We’re lucky in that we’ve got that model with the drive-thru and we’re one of the few brands — maybe the only brand — with a drive-thru where we’re still preparing food fresh daily, cooking to order, and are able to deliver to the guest relatively quickly. Obviously, freshly prepared food makes the times challenging, but we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We are able to deliver that trifecta: convenience, speed and freshly prepared product.”
In addition to drive-thru and delivery (both of which were expanded during COVID), mobile ordering provides another channel for convenience. “Our next step is to go to that mobile ordering to provide our guests with another convenient way to get to the brand,” Wetzel says. “It bodes well for us because each time we’ve expanded our channels, we’ve seen a nice sales reward for that. I think this will be another one.”
Alternative revenue streams have remained key because Farmer Boys’ dining rooms did not fully reopen until late June. “It’s funny because we’ve got people who we’ve hired who have never served a guest in the dining room,” Wetzel says. “A lot of the training we’re doing right now has been to set ourselves up to reintroduce our guests to our dine-in business. If we can sustain the sales that we built and grew through delivery and drive-thru — and add back in those customers who have been wanting to come into the dining room — we will have another record year.”
Surviving — and thriving — during the past year has been no small feat. Wetzel recalls the first month or so when COVID-19 first hit: “The initial surge was frightening. The bottom fell out for everybody. We reacted very quickly: we closed our dining rooms, introduced all kinds of PPE, we put the shields up at the cash registers, masks, gloves, social distancing, controlling the flow for To Go business into the restaurant and out, a lot of signage… We just pulled out all the stops.”
The back of the house presented unique challenges, however, especially when it came to social distancing. “We had to keep our cooks separated, and our kitchens aren’t that huge,” Wetzel remembers. “In the front of the house it wasn’t quite as difficult because we weren’t getting a lot of counter business; the counter business that was coming was To Go.”
Today, Wetzel says, things are slowly getting back to a more recognizable version of ‘normal.’ Still, in light of the unbelievable burden weathered by the back-of-house over the past year, Farmer Boys recently tapped an equipment consultant to comb through the brand’s entire equipment package, piece by piece, checking each piece for efficiency, effectiveness, recovery time, and more.
“We want to make sure that all the tools we’re providing our team are the best tools that they can possibly have to be able to execute,” Wetzel says. “And with the hiring shortages and difficulties in hiring and recruiting, we owe that to them. The job’s never been easy, and now it’s even more challenging as staffing gets harder.”
Wetzel continues to praise the outstanding group of operators that are the backbone of the Farmer Boys franchise. “I know everyone says that, but I’m telling you, we’ve got folks who really care about what they do in the restaurants,” he says. “I’ve got an incredible executive team who’s just gotten stronger with time. You know, you learn who you’re with when the [going gets tough]; we learned very much that we’re with the right people. The executive team got stronger, got faster, got more in tune with each other. That’s my favorite part: going into work and getting to interact with people who care about what they’re doing.”
Farmer Boys has set a goal to grow both store count and average unit sales volumes by 50% over the next 5 years. “I’m really optimistic that we will achieve both of those goals,” Wetzel says. “We’ve weathered the pandemic exceptionally well, and that just bodes well for us going forward. I think you’re going to see good things as we keep stepping forward.”