Executive Chat with Rebecca Patt, SVP Development of Wray Executive Search
Featuring Eric Houseman, CEO of Stovetop Restaurant Group
Eric Houseman started with Red Robin in 1988 as a bartender and left in 2014 as President/COO. Since then, he has become CEO of Stovetop Restaurant Group, a company that is developing emerging and existing restaurant concepts nationwide.
Tell us about your career path. How did you go from bartender to president at Red Robin?
At the age of 16, I started my restaurant career at Ming's Chinese Restaurant in Vancouver, Washington, as a bus boy but quickly moved on to KFC and became a shift lead nine months later. I kept that job until I left for college, where I started my career with Red Robin in 1988. I started as a bartender while I was going to college in Bellingham, Washington, but back then, I never had any dreams or aspirations of having a career in the restaurant industry. I was just making money for tuition, rent, and beer money --- sometimes not in that order!
It never really occurred to me back then that restaurant concepts had departments like purchasing, marketing, human resources, accounting, food and beverage, etc. After five years with the Bellingham Red Robin, thinking I should put my degrees to work and not be a bartender all my life, I briefly left and began working for Metropolitan Bank. Eight months into it, I realized that I had "ketchup in my veins," and I was not destined for a desk job. I returned to Red Robin International as an assistant manager, making $22k a year, and within 10 months I got promoted to my first General Manager's position at the Pier 55 restaurant in Seattle.
After turning around two or three different restaurants, I got promoted to my first regional position in Seattle. After that, I took on a Senior Regional Directors role and eventually ran Oregon and Washington as the Director of Operations for Red Robin.
In 2000, I moved my family to Colorado and took over Vice President of Operations reporting directly to Mike Snyder, the CEO. In 2001, we began the road show for our IPO that successfully executed the following year. In 2005, Mike retired and Dennis Mullen, chair of our audit committee, took over as CEO. I was promoted to President and Chief Operating Officer. When I started with Red Robin, we had 42 restaurants, and when I left we had over 550.
What sticks out, though, in my mind, are all the people along the way that grew with me. I remember hiring hosts and dishwashers that now are regional directors, vice presidents, and various department heads who are making a difference in a $1.5b business. I think as an industry we need to continue to focus on providing upward mobility and development and, most importantly, visibility, to our next generation of leaders.
What have you been doing since you left Red Robin?
Leaving Red Robin after 26 years was a difficult decision because it meant not seeing many of the people that I regularly enjoyed seeing grow and flourish and become inspirational leaders themselves. I hold very many fond memories of Red Robin but more so of the people that made up the company.
After leaving Red Robin, I formed StoveTop Restaurant Group along with three long-term Red Robin associates who were from inside the organization and successful Red Robin franchisees. We secured the franchisee rights to develop the Twin Peaks brand (eight units) in the Oregon and Washington market. We have successfully opened our first Twin Peaks in Tukwila, Washington, which is just south of the Southcenter mall.
Subsequently, I also formed a partnership with Sizzling Restaurant Group, which has an ownership stake in Flipside Restaurants. Flipside restaurants are based out of Cleveland, Ohio, but we operate restaurants in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Breckenridge. Flipside is a chef-driven, casual, fine-dining concept with hand-crafted, grass-fed beef hamburgers and amazing craft beers and wine. Also, just a few months ago, along with HAN Holdings, we signed a multi-unit deal to develop Jersey Mike's Subs in the Miami-Dade market.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I think being in the restaurant business gives you an excuse to never fully grow up! Our industry is constantly changing, evolving, and improving and new challenges are always on the horizon. This certainly is a journey because there really is no finish line!
With that said, I'm looking for the next big challenge personally and professionally where I can put my talents to work and help see the business grow but more importantly, help people grow!
What tips do you have about how to build the best possible company culture?
1. The leaders (no matter what level) don't take themselves too seriously --- we are in the hospitality business and what really matters is what happens at table 51 between that server and the guest on a Friday night! Too many things get in the way of letting our front-line managers do what they do best. As leaders, it's our job to remove obstacles so that our front- line team members can deliver on the brand promise.
2. Actions speak so loud I can't hear what you say. It's tone at the top: everyone must be engaged to the greater good of the organization. Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
3. Recognize and reward the behaviors and the actions that will make your organization successful. Celebrate those things that distinguish you from the masses. Our team members are our greatest brand ambassadors, and many times their actions are overlooked or forgotten. Celebrate them, recognize them, and place them at the top of your inverted pyramid.
Now for the hard-hitting question: would you rather live in outer space or at the bottom of the sea?
I've been diving for almost 20 years, and I absolutely LOVE the bottom of the ocean. Nothing is better than a cool crisp morning heading out on that dive boat, just awaiting the time the captain says, "the pool is now open," and everyone back flips in. I've seen amazing creatures and extraordinary reefs and met many friends along the way. It is the reason pollution and global warming should be the center of discussion.
That said, being the very inquisitive person I am, I would have to vote for outer space. Such a new frontier that we don't know much about and hey, who wouldn't love floating in air!!!
Want to recruit top talent for your restaurant executive team? Contact Rebecca Patt at Rebecca.firstname.lastname@example.org.