I founded Tasty Catering with my two brothers, Kevin and Larry Walter, back in 1984. Almost a decade ago we noticed that the corporate catering market was shifting. Our clients were no longer from our generation -- the baby boomers. And we were losing touch with what they wanted -- we were used to selling traditional roast beef, but people were looking for things like wraps with mango chutney.
To make matters worse, we, along with the rest of the catering business, were rapidly becoming commoditized. It was getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd, and the industry was losing its human capital. We were stuck in a rut and it wasn't clear how my generation, or the Gen Xers directly behind us, were going to get us moving forward again.
So, six years ago we did something radical (for us): We decided to skip a generation and hand the reins over to the youngest employees in the office, the Millennials. And we've never looked back. Last year, at a time when much of the catering industry was struggling, we turned a profit from annual revenue of $5.3 million. We have better name recognition, better internal communication and we've developed a much stronger corporate culture -- all because we looked to the next generation.
Fight fire with fire
Boomers don't make corporate catering decisions anymore -- their administrative assistants do, who are more often than not Millennials. Once we figured out that the demographics of our core customers had changed, we did what any self-respecting business owners would do -- we went out and found the expertise that we were lacking.
We started by hiring local high-schoolers for seasonal work during the summer. We then offered internships to the best and the brightest once they reached college. This means some kids have been with us since they were juniors in high school. These kids would take Tasty Catering problems back to their college classrooms and use them as real-world examples in their business classes. They would then bring back the solutions and explain them to us with the help of a whiteboard. They were and still are an incredible resource.
It didn't take long before our Millennial employees made lasting, positive impacts in two key areas: our corporate culture and our marketing campaign. When our CFO came on board a few years ago at the age of 25 -- he started with at the age of 15 -- he said that the way we ran the company was "too old fashioned." So we appointed an eight-member "good-to-great" council of employees -- so named because of the book that inspired it, Good to Great, by Jim Collins. The council, which was mostly Millennials but had representation from other generations, created a defining cultural statement that included basic tenets, such as our commitments to act morally, ethically and legally, and to treat all others with respect. Every meeting starts with a reading of these tenets. It sounds like a small thing but this has enhanced intergenerational communication and essentially switched this company from a dictatorship to a democracy.
Our marketing campaign experienced a similar renaissance at the hands of three college-aged women. Our old campaign consisted of direct mailing and ads in local newspapers and the Yellow Pages. The women, each with a degree in marketing, came up with these amazing out-of-the-box ideas. They put our logo on the tops of our trucks so people in high-rise office buildings would see when a Tasty Catering truck was making a delivery. They revamped the website and essentially turned our brand on its head. And when I asked them why they wanted to change the website font from the Monotype Corsiva I liked, they told me it was because it was as old as I was. They even took away my stash of old business cards and replaced them with new up-to-date ones.
Insight flows both ways
This process hasn't been a one-way street. The Millennials provide the fresh ideas but we old folks provide the emotional intelligence that the younger employees haven't had a chance to develop yet. What has helped us stand out from our competition is this blend of new ideas and maturity.
For example, our younger drivers didn't know how to greet the female receptionists at our clients' offices, especially the older ones. In this day of gender equality, they didn't understand that a little chivalry could still go a long way. Tom -- one of our older drivers -- taught them how to take off their caps when they entered an office and to look the clients in the eye during a conversation. We do call backs with our clients, and across the board they say that our drivers make the best impression. That's a big deal in our industry where deliveries can be the only face-to-face contact.
Meanwhile, when a new ad campaign had the marketing team scrawling slogans on the sides of our vans -- such as "Eat something. You're all skin and BlackBerry!" -- it was the younger drivers who explained to Tom what a BlackBerry was, and what texting was all about.
Leading by getting out of the way
The hardest part of this whole process, for me, was learning to trust these younger workers. When I talk about our approach at conferences and meetings, people often ask how long it took for the employees to make the shift. But that's the wrong question. The right question is how long did it take me to shift. It's hard to trust some young kids with the fate of your company. We were lucky because we had the chance to watch as these kids developed into young adults who understood the importance of work and the importance of integrity and honesty.
Our generation is getting older, and a new one is going to have to replace us. So we can either start handing over the reins now, or wait until the last minute and hope for the best. We trusted the Millennials with the brand and culture of our company, and their efforts in both of those instances were wildly successful. They continue to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are smarter than us, and as every good businessman knows, you always hire smarter than you.
Tom Walter has over 39 years of experience as a food service industry entrepreneur, including owning full service restaurants, bars, nightclubs and fast food restaurants. In all, he's started 28 businesses and acquired two, remaining an active principal in seven companies. Tom was inducted into the Chicago Area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2010.
-- As told to Peter McDougall