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Business Observer Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009 10 years ago

Survive and Thrive

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Gulf Coast fast-food restaurant owner Jonathan Ith isn't about to back down from a minor roadblock like a recession. He spent most of his youth, after all, in a life-and-death survival mode while growing up in the killing fields of Cambodia.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Gulf Coast fast-food restaurant owner Jonathan Ith isn't about to back down from a minor roadblock like a recession. He spent most of his youth, after all, in a life-and-death survival mode while growing up in the killing fields of Cambodia.


Jonathan Ith's staff of 50 restaurant greeters, cashiers and cooks have heard him utter his “do the unexpected” mantra so many times, they likely roll their eyes in unison when he says it nowadays.

But the repetition works.

Even in the throes of the recession, Ith owns one of the most successful and growing Chick-fil-A's stores in the Southeast, an accomplishment he attributes partially to his belief that fast-food doesn't have to come with low-quality service.

“This is more than just a quick food place,” says Ith, whose store is in Bradenton. “We want to sell service.”

Ith's number one rule of treating customers like gold is a 180-degree turnaround from how he was treated while growing up. Ith and his family are survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime, which tore through Ith's native Cambodia in the mid to late 1970s, killing more than one million people through executions, starvation and slave labor.

The Ith family survived a treacherous journey until immigrating to America in 1981. Ith, 11 years old at the time, didn't speak a word of English when his family enrolled him in a Bradenton elementary school.

He went on to graduate high school and college. He also worked his way up from being a cashier at a Chick-fil-A in the Sarasota Square Mall to owning the Bradenton store in a 50-50 partnership with Chick-fil-A's Atlanta-based corporate office.

And now that store, at the front of a shopping plaza just west of Interstate 75 in east Manatee County, is barreling through the recession with vigor. Confirmation lies in the lines five and six people deep during lunch and dinner rushes almost every day of the week.

In fact, Ith's Chick-fil-A has reported double-digit percentage sales growth nearly every year since Ith and the chain opened it jointly in 2001. It surpassed $3 million in sales last year and is projecting $3.3 million in 2009.

Those numbers were also reached while closing on Sundays, a dictum straight from Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, devout Christian. So Ith forgoes a potential top customer traffic day once a week, which means he losses out on as much as $430,000 in annual sales.

'Ladies and gentleman'
Nonetheless, instead of draining the store's success, the recession has provided Ith yet another opportunity to train and retrain his staff on the finer points of fast-food service.

For example, it's not an accident that the cashiers and staff of his Chick-fil-A are trained to say “my pleasure” instead of “your welcome” in response to thankful customers. That's right out of the famed Ritz-Carlton 'ladies and gentleman treating ladies and gentlemen' training manual.

Ith also takes a page from Publix, another customer service champion, in a second aspect of the store's daily service first mentality. Cashiers and front-service personnel regularly ask customers if they would like help taking their tray to the table.

“Everything goes back to training,” says Ith. “I really believe that.”

So much so that after employees at the Bradenton Chick-fil-A watch the standard corporate training videos, they go through a few more internal training sessions that Ith designed.

The focus on service sets up Ith perfectly for his second anti-recession weapon: Be aggressive and innovative in making sure the Chick-fil-A brand is thought of as a top-tier fast food choice. That includes spending $15,000 in one week on free food giveaways, which Ith did in July.

“Some [restaurant owners] in this economy are just digging deep and laying low,” says Chick-fil-A corporate spokesman Jerry Johnston. “But Jonathan is doing the opposite. He is not holding back and taking a bunker mentality.”

Living through the killing fields
Ith also has another angle on surviving the recession: Perspective.

Ith was born in 1970 in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital city that was evacuated by the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge regime. It was the early phases of what was later termed the “killing fields”; by the time Ith was five years old,
Khmer Rogue soldiers had overtaken his hometown.

One of Ith's searing memories of those days: Walking barefoot on hot asphalt as armed soldiers herded him and his family out of their house. There was no time to grab a pair of shoes.

Ith's family was eventually rounded up and placed into a farming camp. Ith recalls that part of his requirements were to herd cattle and water buffalo. Other relatives dug ditches and planted and tended to rice.
In 1977, when Ith was 7 years old, the Khmer Rouge moved him to another camp — this time without the rest of his family. He slept on a cold and bare floor in an overcrowded room filled with other young boys.

Ith was reunited with his family in 1980 and technically, the Iths were freed. But while Vietnamese soldiers had liberated Khmer Rogue-run camps, the country was still in the midst of a war.

So the Iths moved to United Nations-run refugee camps in Thailand, where they sought political asylum in the U.S. And the Iths had an in: Ith's father had a cousin who was living in Bradenton when the Khmer Rogue took control of Cambodia.

That cousin sought help from several local churches. The Bradenton Christian Reformed Church ultimately decided to sponsor the Ith's in their trek to America.

'Raving fans'
Ith assimilated quickly to his new country. His first job was with the Chick-fil-A at the mall, where he served drinks and worked the cash register. He enjoyed the job — and the extra pocket cash — so much that he transferred to a store in Palm Beach while attending Florida Atlantic University.

Soon after graduating from FAU with a degree in business and marketing, the Chick-fil-A corporate office asked Ith to move to Port Charlotte and run a floundering corporate-owned store there. Within 18 months under Ith, that store had turned profitable.

In 2001 Ith was selected to open his own store in partnership with Chick-fil-A. The chain's franchise deals are split arrangements, where the corporate partner usually pays for the store and inside equipment. It then essentially rents the store back to the franchisee for a share of sales and pretax profit.

The franchisee pays a $5,000 entry fee, but there are limited other start-up costs. The catch, not surprisingly, is that such a low barrier to entry facilitates considerable competition: The corporate office opens about 80 stores a year, selecting its applicants from a list of 10,000 hopefuls.

Ith's success with the Port Charlotte store was the ticket he used to separate himself from the crowd with the corporate folks. And aside from his wife and two children — Ith's wife Lisa is expecting the couple's third child this fall — he considers May 24, 2001, to be one of the proudest days of his life.

That's the day he and the chain opened the 4,000-square-foot Bradenton restaurant. The location was key to the store's early success, as it was a mile from Lakewood Ranch and a few hundred feet from Creekwood, two housing communities on the verge of a big growth boom.

Since the boom subsided, Ith has turned inward to continue the success. In late July, for example, the store went on a $30,000 marketing blitz, half of which was paid for by the corporate office.
The effort included a Saturday carnival, daily free-food giveaways and lunchtime trips to the dozens of offices around the restaurant, to push the catering side of the business.

The blitz even included a special night out for regular customers, a group Chick-fil-A refers to as its “raving fans.” Those customers, by invitation only, were treated to a fancy dinner at the restaurant that included white tablecloths, china glassware and table service.

The giveaways were worth it, says Ith, as customer counts were up by as much as 50% in the days after the specials ended. “It was a lot of hard work,” says Ith. “But it got people excited about Chick-fil-A.”

Executive Tip

Jonathan Ith has a message for entrepreneurs: Don't be afraid of customer complaints.

Ith, owner of a Bradenton Chick-fil-A, actually encourages his customers to complain. Not that he wants customers to have something to complain about, but he gives everyone who comes into his store ample opportunity to let him have it.

He offers three choices: A comment card by the front door, his e-mail address or a 1-800 phone number, where the caller is routed to a private call center Ith contracts with.

The idea is that customer complaints are often the best way to gauge what's good and bad about the store, from food to service. Adds Ith: “The customer that tells me what I'm doing wrong is the one that really cares about my business.”

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