Laura Rea Dickey

CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc.

Laura Rea Dickey is the Chief Executive Officer of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. Dickey has won numerous awards for her work in the company, both as CEO and in her previous role of Chief Information Officer. D Magazine named her one of their “Top 500 CEOs” and in 2020 she was named as one of the fifty most influential women in foodservice by Nation’s Restaurant News.

Prior to working for Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Dickey worked on marketing campaigns with national brands such as Blue Mesa, Chick-Fil-A, W Hotels, La Madeleine and the American Heart Association. In her role as Chief Information Officer, Dickey transformed the way the fast-casual franchise company viewed technology, working to develop proprietary systems and implement big data into its business strategy. In particular, she was instrumental in the creation of a platform that synthesizes data from across the business to provide real-time feedback on sales and other key performance indicators. Additionally, she worked to utilize Amazon’s voice technology within the franchise locations’ restaurant operations, providing operators with access to crucial sales data without having to leave the kitchen and waste time running the metrics themselves. Dickey has been with Dickey’s Barbecue Pit for over a decade, and in that time reconstructed the way the company uses data. She has displayed a knack for taking insights derived from data and utilizing them to solve problems. Her work has been featured in Forbes Magazine and The Wall Street Journal and has helped facilitate the business’ explosive growth, adding roughly 100 locations a year and turning the once small Texas barbecue restaurant into an international success over 550 restaurants strong.

Where did the idea for Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc. come from?

My company is a family-run barbecue franchise, the largest in the world. My husband is the third generation to carry on the Dickey’s Barbecue Pit legacy, but there weren’t any plans initially for me to work for the business. I had my own career in marketing and technology working with companies to develop their brand identities, marketing campaigns, and data infrastructure but when Roland decided to take Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants national, he asked me to come on as a consultant. I quickly realized the kind of impact I could have on ensuring we maintained a strong brand presence and taking marketing to a national level, and so I ended up accepting the role of Chief Information Officer. I worked across practically every department in the company to implement information and computer technologies into our business model, so when the time came to restructure I was a natural fit to take on the position of Chief Executive Officer. My vision as leader of the business is to utilize information technology to ensure that we remain competitive in our industry.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Coffee, meetings, coffee, calls, coffee, emails, coffee, meetings…then tea, pugs, read and sleep. Repeat. I keep standing weekly meetings to ensure that I connect with everyone, and also have consistent daily dashboard calls to track progress. I’ve found that one of the biggest drains on company time comes from “quick meetings” turning into all-day affairs. It’s natural for there to always be things to talk about when you are coming together to discuss work, but at some point you lose out on valuable time you could be using to implement those ideas. By keeping things on a schedule, I feel up-to-date at all times and meetings can stay brief because everybody knows exactly when the next one is. I also try and keep my mornings fluid and my afternoons more structured. This way I have the flexibility to problem-solve while also keeping a schedule that prevents things from getting too hectic.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Taking data insights and turning them into actional brand and business solutions is my personal passion. I start by taking a dry erase board and a notebook, outlining my thoughts and then writing out a high-level process or plan from end to beginning. Always start with the end in my mind, identifying where you want to go and then working backwards to figure out how you’re going to get there. I make sure an idea can be explained in one page – like a press release, then I sketch it out storyboard style. I want to make sure that what I am trying to convey is comprehensive and understandable to all audiences. Finally, I bring folks in to walk through it, beat it up, challenge it, take it apart and rebuild it.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Instagram. The simple single visual is such a powerful tool for conveying a brand’s story and values. When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year we reallocated the majority of our marketing spend to digital channels including Instagram, and it has been amazing to find new ways to engage with our customers outside of the restaurant. Although it’s an older app (by today’s standards) it is constantly evolving to attract new users, and I believe it hit over 1 billion users last year. That’s huge. Instagram’s users are also among the most dedicated in terms of how frequently they log in, and 90% of people now follow a business on the platform. Most recently, video content has seen a huge growth in popularity, and I’m excited to see how Instagram tackles that and the rising competition of TikTok.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I read one hour per day and finish at least one book a week. If you look at some of the most successful people in the world, no matter what their industry I guarantee they are all voracious readers. By reading every day you are committing to intentionally seeking out sources of inspiration, tips and business strategies that will compound to make you a better leader. I try to seek out books and articles by people I admire so I can learn from the struggles they went through and the opportunities that came from them. Mistakes are inevitable for everybody, but by reading about somebody who’s been through it before you can hopefully avoid more of them than if you went into things blind. It may seem like reading takes valuable time out of my day, but the knowledge I gain from it makes me infinitely more productive than if I spent that time doing anything else.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Yes, it’s worth putting in the hours early in your career to accomplish your goals later in life. Go in early, stay late, and do it because you are passionate about your job and want to elevate yourself, not because you feel an obligation to or want to impress anybody. Work smarter, not harder, and you’ll see it pay off. Finally, fake it until you make it – every expert did the thing they’ve mastered for the first time, once. Don’t let fear of failure hold you back from pursuing a new or challenging opportunity, believe in yourself and your ability to learn a new skill.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Ketchup is the most terrible thing that can happen to food.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Read, proofread, listen to podcasts, and don’t email what should be a phone call. I’m a big stickler for that last one in particular. Tone and context are so easy to misread in an email, and they can lead to reactive responses rather than progress and action to move forward. This isn’t to say that I think email is all around evil – it’s an incredibly helpful tool that should be used. I’m just saying it’s important to recognize when they shouldn’t be substituted for a live conversation.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Evolve or fail. Embrace needed change and drive it. I try to remind myself each day that if business isn’t growing it’s dying and encourage a culture of growth as the company’s strategy. Growth is the framework that we use to drive all operational tasks, projects, and initiatives within our company. We have large, audacious goals, and by having a growth mindset and pushing for these big goals we create an environment of continuous improvement. Growth can feel scary because it involves taking risks stepping into the unknown, but it’s important to remember that the bigger risk is that more likely than not there is another competitor out there that is willing to take that risk and will “eat your lunch.” I also just have to mention – don’t let strategic parts of your business depend on outside vendors.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

At one point we launched menu sizing, but we didn’t use our own data well; we weren’t being smart with what our guests were saying they wanted. It worked for our operators, but the update didn’t build sales and so we pulled back the rollout. Since then we have built our own data platform that brings together information across all aspects of the business from customer satisfaction surveys to marketing promotions to inventory systems, and we now make sure that any guest-facing change is driven by just that: the guests. We listened to what their needs were and relaunched menu sizing 18 months later, and our sales lifted 4 percent in under 45 days as a result.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

If you don’t know what 30A is you can thank me in advance for the tip. It’s a collection of small Florida beach towns that stretch between Panama City and Destin along County Road 30A. Local shops, shrimp and grits, the emerald coast, each little community is completely unique from the next. Someone should design a private street trolley line that connects all of the towns from Green Mountain to Rosemary Beach. It could run every 30 minutes per stop guaranteed 8AM to 12A and sell day, week and annual passes – I’ve thought about doing it myself.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

My Apple Watch. I finally gave in and bought one and it has turned out to be incredibly useful. My favorite part is the health apps, but I have also noticed that I am actually less neurotic about checking email and text now. It’s nice to be able to track your heart rate and avoid pulling out your phone every five minutes to check the notifications.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

We’re Microsoft and AWS. I love AWS, their ecosystem and security are amazing. We also use Redshift and Precisely (formerly Syncsort) in our development, but other than that everything else is proprietary. Whenever possible, don’t let strategic parts of your business depend on outside vendors. It may require a bigger capital investment in the short-term, but in the long-term the benefits of having control over as many aspects of your business as possible is worth it.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Radical Candor by Kim Scott. This book continues to seem more and more relevant. The challenge of being both direct and conscientious in business is an important one to tackle, especially at a time when digital communication can easily see things misconstrued. It may seem better to downplay challenges and more ideal to avoid conflict, but that is never the case. This book beautifully illustrates why, and proposes many effective ways to be kindly yet effectively candid.

What is your favorite quote?

I am lucky to have worked with many great folks, but some of my favorite influences that are accessible to other people come from the books, podcasts and publications below. All of these have affected how I think, approach challenges, or even how I write.

Key Learnings:

  •  Take risks, but make sure they are driven by hard data.
  •  Read frequently.
  •  Fake it until you make it.