Leisa: Hello, I’m Leisa Holland-Nelson and this is The BusinessMakers, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business. My guest today is Molly Voorhees, the President of Becks Prime, one of Houston’s favorite restaurants. Molly, welcome to The BusinessMakers.
Molly: Thank you, Leisa.
Leisa: I’m so glad to have you here. I personally am a Becks Prime customer. I am the Garden Salad with Ahi Tuna, no cheese, no onions. So that’s me in case you recognize me but—
Molly: Excellent, excellent. I’m happy to take care of you.
Leisa: Great. I want you to tell our listeners all about Becks Prime.
Molly: So, my dad started Becks Prime with Mike Knapp and John Storms back in 1985. So, we’re celebrating our 30th year, which is, for the restaurant industry, a huge accomplishment and something that we are all very proud of. Back in 1985 my dad wanted to start a restaurant company that did something different, that was focused on not a fine dining experience but not a fast food experience. He wanted to make food that he would want to eat. You know, I don’t think you can be in the restaurant industry unless you love food, but you know, Mike and Win really set out to do something different, and I actually like to say they invented the fast casual concept, which is—we see more and more of it today, which is you order at the counter, they cook your food to order, we grill everything, everything is fresh, and then they call you to the counter to receive the food or we run it out to you. That was very unique in 1985; it basically didn’t exist.
There was fast food where it was done very quickly, pre-prepared, or you went and sat down at a restaurant and had a full waiter/waitress experience. So, they set out to do something different, and actually, the original one over on Kirby had two—still has two drive-thrus. They believed they were going to do a ton of drive-thru business, which we still do today, and there was no indoor dining. It was all outside, which people don’t realize today. They enclosed it; they learned very quickly people wanted to sit inside, and then they added the patio outside. You know, really the story is a homegrown, sort of family, learn as you go, experience. It wasn’t a homerun success; people had to figure out, hey, this is something new. How do we order? What is this like? Wait, I’m going to wait 7 minutes in a drive thru? People will do that?
You know, everyone said, in the restaurant industry, to Mike Knapp, who had long, long history with Steak and Ale, said, well no one will wait. You know, well people wait. They want better food; they’re willing to pay more for it. This is a little bit about our experience. We’ve grown really slowly over the years, you know, a restaurant every couple years.
Leisa: How many restaurants are there now?
Molly: We have 13 restaurants.
Leisa: All in Houston?
Molly: 11 in Houston and 2 in Dallas. You know, we’re looking to continue to grow. We do it slowly, we like to buy real estate where we can, and it’s just been a really fun, long journey; 30 years.
Leisa: So, do you have a particular demographic that you focus on when you’re locating a restaurant?
Molly: We like to go where people like to eat good food. We need a very strong lunch business, and we’ve always found that we’re a restaurant, even though we’re very casual, informal, we’re a place where people will still have a business meeting. It’s fast, its quick, you know you’re not going to go have a business meeting necessarily at Burger King, but you’ll go to Becks Prime. And then we also really need the residential business at night to support us with families and busy young professionals. We do a ton of to-go business. That’s a huge part of our success. People are busy; they need convenience.
Leisa: They do, and I’m definitely one of those. I’ve got so many questions. One of mine is, I’m guessing when you were little and they started this business you were very young, and you probably came and played and worked and did all that stuff there.
Leisa: But did you think that you would one day be the President and running it?
Leisa: I mean, how did you get there?
Molly: Let me back up. You know, my dad is a full time lawyer and started this business, and I was 10. And Julie Knapp, Mike’s daughter, works with us as well, and we had the opportunity to go taste milkshakes and try out all the different milkshakes. It’s one of our favorite memories, you know. What are we doing? Why are we going to this milkshake factory to taste different recipes? And Julie really remembers handing out drinks standing on a milk crate. Or, Linell, who is our manager over at Memorial Park, you know, Dad would be working and Linell would come pick her up at school. You know we have these just really great memories of working in the business and getting to know the employees and, you know, Mike Geiszler, who has been with us for 29 years, you know, he’s like our brother. So, we’re very much a family business, even though we’re not. We have great memories. I did not think I would come back and be part of the business
Leisa: So how did you join?
Molly: I worked in tech out in Silicon Valley for 6 years, and then I went to Business school, and in that process started thinking about, I have always loved entrepreneurial businesses; I’m a builder, I like to grow things. You know, Becks Prime had grown slowly and it felt like an opportunity to come back and be part of something I really cared about, was proud of. I believed in the product, and grew it. You know we haven’t been in a blow it out, super-fast mode, but we’ve been able to continue to grow the brand, to work on professionalizing the systems. And so, for me, I was thinking about, ok what can I do that will be exciting, that I can have an impact on, that’s entrepreneurial. You know, or building something, and that I have a family history with is just a special, it was a special opportunity, very unique. And I love Houston and was pregnant at the time, so moving home, (Leisa: Made sense) raising a family here just, it felt good.
Leisa: Were they looking for someone or did you approach your dad and say, I want to do this.
Molly: You know I approached them. I approached my dad and Mike and I said hey, I’m really thinking about this. Is this interesting to you? And, the business had been run very lean, and they really had no reason to hire me unless they were going to grow the business, because it was operating; we had 8 restaurants. I mean, they definitely hired me with the intent to grow the business. That was our plan. And I came home in between my summers in business school and I worked every function. And I will tell you we grind in house daily to a certified Angus beef. It is a really high, high grade—no one else is doing this high grade beef. I went through every function again, sort of ingrained myself back in the restaurant business. Then I worked throughout my second year of business school just doing projects and sort of getting ready with a plan of what we needed to do. It was just fun. I love what I do, I’m so proud of our employees, they’re proud of the product.
It’s always good to work for a company where everyone cares as much.
Leisa: What was the biggest challenge or change you made when you first got there?
Molly: You know, I think the challenge is, here comes, you know Molly. Oh, she’s the daughter of the owner. She’s just getting this job because of who she is, not because of what she’s capable of. And I think it’s always hard to walk into that kind of situation. You have to just work hard and, I think prove your competencies and that you’re going to make a difference, and you’re going to make their jobs easier. You know and then slowly everyone gets behind you. That took time.
Leisa: And you were, you know, you were not fresh out of school, but you had been in school, (Molly: I had been in school) which is a pretty cloistered life for a couple of years. If you had a do over from the beginning, what would that be?
Molly: I think if we could try some new things faster, if I could have been able to persuade and convince that we should move in a certain direction more quickly. Everything just, the amount of patience required was really challenging, and now I feel like we’re in a place where the first answer I get is not no, it’s ok, I need some time to figure out how we’re going to do that.
Leisa: Which is much better.
Molly: Which is just better because we’re now all on the same page. I mean, I think about in the last 3 months, we’ve added 3 different delivery services to our platform very seamlessly, very quickly. You know, we rolled that out and we were able to—we have a whole new distribution channel for our food that we’ve never had before. You know and it’s something we’ve always felt really nervous about because we were so concerned about how fast consumers would get our food. We want customers to be happy, we want them to have hot food, and you know now there is so much more control over it, and the customer is more in control over the delivery experience. They’re the ones going out to the third party; we’re not hiring the third party.
Leisa: Right. So they’re calling and having it picked up basically.
Molly: Yeah, it’s just great. You know, so now you can get on DoorDash or Favor and order so quickly, have it delivered; I mean, that’s a whole new distribution channel that Houston is just now experiencing (Leisa: Just, yes.), and my team was so receptive to implementing that; our team. I was amazed, and I just don’t think that we were as fast 9 years ago; now we are.
Leisa: So tell me about fabulous trees on Augusta.
Molly: Fabulous trees.
Leisa: And they’re just, how old are they now, do you know?
Molly: We believe one is 400 years old and the other one is over 450 years old. They drink an entire swimming pool of water every week. Their roots go all the way across Westheimer.
Leisa: I mean, it’s unreal. I mean, they really are everywhere.
Molly: They’re just beautiful, and you know we’ve spent a lot of time and energy and resources to make them a special place in Houston. You know, if you get on top of the building next door to us and look down, I mean, it’s all green. You really can’t even see the restaurant. It’s just such a beautiful place, and we’re so proud of it, and you know we have a long history with Trees For Houston. When we were building our Heights location, I went out with Barry Ward and hand-picked our oak trees that were going to go around the restaurant, and it was just such a, you know that’s a neat opportunity to get the chance to do that, but it’s part of our identity.
Leisa: Ok Molly, you’ve got a great brand here in Houston. Dallas is a newer market; how is everything going for you there?
Molly: You know, it’s been a challenge. We’ve been hugely successful at one of our restaurants there. The other one has struggled a little bit more, and so it’s been a challenge. We are growing, sort of how we grew in Houston to some degree, which is people have to learn about us, and in the restaurant industry we all love to talk about where we like to eat. And that sometimes is a slow process, but that word of mouth, we found is our strongest marketing advocate. And so, slowly we have been building and building our business there. So, it’s going well; it’s been slower than we would have liked.
Leisa: So marketing for you; is it viral, or do you do postcards, or is it online, or social media? How do you really—what is the marketing strategy for Becks Prime?
Molly: We’ve tried a little bit of everything over the years, as you do. I think we have been most successful using our existing customer base to help tell their friends, and bring in their friends. So, we use social media, we do use direct mail. We have actually found sometimes billboards placed in the right location with the right message. So many people don’t know that we are doing everything from scratch. We are basically a scratch kitchen and we are producing food in 7-10 minutes. We have as good of a steak at our restaurant as you would get at the fine dining locations, and educating consumers about that is really hard. Because really, at the end of the day, they care about what it tastes like. You know, is it juicy, is it hot, is it good? But you know here we’re going to so much trouble to make sure that you get your salad exactly how you want it. You know, 50% of our customers come in and customize something.
We’re ready for it, you know, we’re good at that, that’s our advantage. But that takes time to build the knowledge about how we’re different, why we’re different.
Leisa: What about delivery?
Molly: You know it’s this really exciting, new distribution channel for us. We’ve been working with DoorDash and Favor, we’re in discussion with UberEATS. They’re all slightly different, their platforms, but what’s so exciting for us is delivery is something that we never felt like we could get into because of the complications with managing drivers, and now there’s this distributed working force that can do the work for us and the customer is in control of the ordering. And we’re finding, so far, we’re only a few months into it, it’s a really exciting new channel for us and for so many restaurants. As a mom I love it because, heck, I can get Becks Prime delivered to me when I don’t want to go out with my 2 kids so, or any restaurant. The UberEATS model is really interesting. We’re going to try testing it out to see how it goes.
Leisa: It’s a particular meal, right?
Molly: Yes, it’s a particular meal, and so we’ve designed some very specific meals that we think carry, you know that’s an industry term, but carry well to the customer. Our Chicken Kirby salad is an enormous hit in our restaurants and so that’s a great product that we think will sell really well, so we’ll see.
Leisa: What about franchising?
Molly: Franchising. You know that’s a really interesting question. We get asked frequently about it, even requests in to franchise. We are control freaks, and we want everything to be incredibly high quality, and we’re very particular, and it’s important to us that if you go to our Heights location, or you go to our Augusta location, or you go to our Oak Lawn location in Dallas, that you get an incredibly consistent experience. You can rely and count on us. And when you start franchising, you have to have everything down to the minutiae of the science, and we’re cooking everything from scratch in our kitchen every day; we are spicing our own pecans. And it’s just a harder model to grow if you don’t have absolute control over the end product. So, we’ve always chosen to stay a little bit smaller and maintain high quality product.
Leisa: You know Molly there’s a lot of family owned businesses. What advice would you give to a young person coming in to a family owned business as you did?
Molly: You’ve got to really like your family, a lot, which luckily I do. I have great parents. My dad and I have always been very close. I think of our Director of HR who is Mike Knapp, our Chief Operating Officer’s daughter, as my sister. And, so you want to have deep relationships. I think the other thing is you’ve got to stay humble. You can’t go in there and start telling everyone what to do, and starting fires, and being difficult. I think you’ve got to slowly persuade and build consensus to get new things done or to grow the business, and I’m so lucky because I came into a company that had a great foundation. I think what’s really funny about working for a family business, now go with me here a little bit, but you know, you are able to say things that are totally inappropriate, cross the line of being professional when you work with family.
Because if you have that deep, positive relationship, at the end of the day you’re probably going to say I love you, right? So you don’t usually tell your boss that you love them (Leisa: That’s right) after you fight with them, right?
Leisa: Yeah, so you have a great place to make up.
Molly: And so, yeah, and I think that adds a spark and a fire that can be really good for a business, you know. If you have a place where you can argue passionately, and believe, and have opinions, and then still reach consensus and walk out of the room and say, oh, love you, talk to you later. I mean, I think there’s been time when other people would look in the room and see our management team and the way we converse and be sort of put off, and yet I think it’s one of our biggest strengths.
Leisa: So, I have one last question.
Leisa: If you had to give advice to the next generation of entrepreneurs who want to achieve the kind of success that your dad did and then that you’ve enhanced, what would you tell them?
Molly: Take a deep breath, you know, and remember that I think you’re going to have really good days and you’re going to have really hard days, and that if you think everyone out there who has been successful hasn’t hit some major roadblocks and obstacles, you’re really fooling yourself. And I think that was a hard, that’s been a hard lesson for me in recent years, is that when it doesn’t go perfectly that it’s all over. Well, it’s not all over. That’s just kind of how it goes, you know. It’s an up and down, and I had a good friend, when things were not going perfectly, say, huh is this the first time you’ve stubbed your toe? And it hurt a little, and they were right to some degree. You know, I think that taking a deep breath and moving on and picking your head up and plowing down the road is probably the best advice I can give someone.
Leisa: Thank you so much for being here, Molly.
Molly: Thank you, Leisa. This has been a pleasure.
Leisa: Great. That wraps up my interview with Molly Voorhees, President of Becks Prime. This is The BusinessMakers Show, brought to you by Comcast Business, built for business.
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