Todd Graves oversees one of the fastest-growing restaurant chains with one of the highest average unit volumes in the country. That’s not to say he’s forgotten his roots, however.

In fact, he speaks fondly of his time spent working in oil refineries and commercial fishing en route to building his first Raising Cane’s restaurant in 1996. Now, 550 Raising Cane’s locations later, he wants to ensure other restaurateurs can follow that same dream, despite the unprecedented Covid-19 crisis that has devastated much of the industry.

In doing so, the Raising Cane’s founder/CEO recruited experts from his own company, as well as celebrity friends like Shaquille O’Neal and Snoop Dogg, to help 10 independent restaurants struggling through the pandemic for a new series called Restaurant Recovery. The program will stream exclusively on discovery+ beginning today with Chili John’s in Los Angeles, which has been around since 1946.

The idea behind the show came from Graves simply wanting to “pay it forward” in a challenging environment in which 10% of all restaurants have closed. Raising Cane’s itself experienced some of those pressures in the past year as dining room closures went into place. The chain’s sales were down by as much as 30% at one point.

But the company recovered quickly and, like many chains, is back in growth mode. That disconnect between the haves and the have nots is largely what has motivated Graves for this Restaurant Recovery project.

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“We have been getting those extra sales from independent, family-owned restaurants. Those restaurants have a soul, a character. They’re a family’s work, their American dream,” Graves said during a recent phone interview. “Being up in sales doesn’t feel good if we’re taking that away. Their dream is just as important as mine.”

Graves has explored a number of ways to help independents weather the storm and landed on the Restaurant Recovery idea, which includes investing $100,000 per restaurant of his own money.

“Our first step is trying to help them be more safe–guiding them in changing their ordering system to digital, or adding Plexiglas, for example. Second, let’s stop the bleeding and get you some sales,” Graves said. “A lot of restaurants haven’t advertised, so we’re helping them with billboard campaigns, radio, social media. These restaurants are predominantly dine-in, so we’re helping them add curbside and carryout.”

The ultimate goal, Graves said, is to set them up to not only survive the pandemic, but to thrive after it’s over.

“This is something disrupting their business and we are helping them figure out how they can expand that to have more savings in the future. A lot of these people have such great ideas, but they can’t do anything with them because they’ve just been keeping their head above water,” he said.

After Chili John’s, Graves and his team move on to Dallas’ Smokey John’s and Baton Rouge’s Poor Boy Lloyd’s. Other markets featured in the series include St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and New Orleans.

Graves said he hopes people who watch the series will be inspired to support local restaurants even more than they do now.

“I have a good story to be in a position to help. It was so hard for me to open my first restaurant and to keep it going. I think great restaurateurs need help from someone who has been there. They’re not paying themselves, they’re racking up debt and still paying their employees. They’re in survival mode,” Graves said. “I’m a chain and I’m saying maybe come to us a little less and go there a little more. They’re special and unique.”

Graves believes that because his chain is relatively insulated, he has an obligation to help in such a way, and that a rising tide lifts all boats.

“These independents work just as hard as me and their business is just as important as mine,” he said. “When these restaurants are lost, the backbone of our communities is lost.”

Raising Cane’s reignites its growth strategy

As Graves fights to help a handful of these independent restaurants, his chain continues to grow. Raising Cane’s pandemic low was negative 30%. Its sales have since rebounded and are now up 10%, still without dine-in business.

The plan is to open 75 net new units this year and build up to 100 net new units next year. The goal is to “stair step” development up from there.

“We want to make sure we do those 100 right, then go to 110, then 120 and make sure those restaurants are doing extremely well,” Graves said.

Staffing a growing system, however, has presented a major challenge in this environment. Graves said the competition over labor, in fact, is the highest it’s been in his 25 years in the industry. He believes Raising Cane’s has an advantage in offering industry-leading compensation opportunities.

“But it’s still challenging. In this industry, you have natural turnover and are constantly replenishing your staff,” he said.

As a number of chains offer enticing incentives, such as one-time bonuses, he doesn’t see Raising Cane’s joining that fray.

“Those monetary incentives generally don’t last long. Sometimes you get the people who come into your business for the wrong reasons. Maybe they get extra bonuses, or they get that or this,” he said. “Then, when the money runs out, they leave. Stick to your guns and talk about the benefits you have internally in your company. You’ll get better crew members and they’ll stay with you longer.”

Labor pressures aside, Graves predicts the entire industry is on the cusp of a “monstrous recovery, sales-wise.”

“The pent-up demand to go back to dining at restaurants and having that experience is through the roof,” he said. “The way things are going now, with vaccinations continuing and consumer confidence rising, I see the Roaring 20s coming for restaurants, bars and entertainment venues. For independents, if they make it through this, they’re going to experience a lot of that support because they’re going to be stronger.”

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