Nicky Gibson’s Taste for Talent

Nicky Gibson puts people first at restaurant chain Zoës Kitchen

As a student at Mississippi State University in the mid-1990s, Nicky Gibson had her eyes set on a career as a chemical engineer. After graduation, she worked as a sales engineer in the petroleum specialties division at ExxonMobil. She found it satisfying but not sufficient; she was searching for more.

“I’ve always had a personal philosophy to strive to make a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “The sales piece of the job just wasn’t filling my bucket.”

As Gibson tells the story, she was in the right place at the right time on a couple of occasions and had the opportunity to do some professional, career-recruiting work. She fell in love with this challenge.

“I jumped into that role as a recruiter and as an HR professional. I learned everything I could,” she recalls. And she hasn’t looked back.

Since 2014, Gibson has been director of talent acquisition at Zoës Kitchen, a fast-casual Mediterranean restaurant with more than two hundred locations, mainly across the southern United States. The restaurant prides itself on offering fresh, simple, and tasty food. Beyond the menu, Zoës promotes the Mediterranean lifestyle—where one lives every day to the fullest and emphasizes time spent with family and friends.

“I love recruiting. If people are true recruiting professionals, they should be able to find people anywhere. We shouldn’t have to use an agency.”

“I remember meeting with the company’s CEO, Kevin Miles,” Gibson says. “He told me that Zoës puts people first, and that really resonated with me.” In addition, Zoës mission to “deliver goodness from the inside out” hooked her.

“Although that might sound hokey and weird, as I thought about it, it made sense,” she says. “It means that everything we do at Zoës, from an e-mail to a smile, needs to deliver goodness. That’s certainly what I try to do every day, and I encourage my team to do the same.”

From Zoës home office in Plano, Texas, Gibson oversees two field recruiters and one home-office recruiter. She explains that the engineering skills she learned in college haven’t gone to waste. In the few years she’s been with the company, she’s streamlined and restructured Zoës talent-acquisition system. In doing so, she has saved the restaurant hundreds of thousands of dollars.

When she came on board, Gibson says that Zoës had some recruitment systems, but they were haphazard. In fact, the restaurant was using a recruiting agency to hire for basic, general-management positions. Zoës was spending more than $200,000 a year to hire people who would be earning $40,000 to $45,000 a year.

“It didn’t make sense,” she says. “I suggested that we create a real, high-powered recruiting team with the skill set to go find these people and in turn reduce our agency costs.”

This involved some department restructuring and filling recruiting spots with people who were excited about the brand.

“One of my strengths is process improvement or process re-engineering,” Gibson says. “I’m big on establishing formulas and sticking to them. I always tell my team, ‘If you execute the process the same way every time, you will get an end result, which is hiring the best person for the job.’”

This approach has worked. Gibson says that this past year Zoës did not spend a dime on agency costs, and that this year the company does not even have a budget for a recruiting agency—something Gibson is particularly proud of. “I love recruiting,” she says. “If people are true recruiting professionals, they should be able to find people anywhere. We shouldn’t have to use an agency.”

Gibson and her team aren’t content with good managers; they want great ones. She is excited about the company’s new employee-assessment system that’s being considered. It will be designed to be interactive and to have capabilities for video-based evaluations and gamification that will replace an antiquated, one-hundred-question paper assessment. This technology can evaluate not only a person’s answers to survey questions, but it can also analyze an individual’s gestures and voice inflections, among other things.

“I’m excited because I think it’s going to be a game changer for us,” Gibson says. “It will help my recruiters assess talent better on the front end of the process and make our system more efficient.”

The majority of Zoës Kitchen’s employees are hourly workers, but that doesn’t mean that working for the company has to be just another restaurant job. In fact, Gibson is adamant that if Zoës wants good talent on every level, the company has to get people excited about being a part of the organization’s brand and culture.

For Gibson, that process starts from the first click on the career page at the Zoës website. “I’m working on putting our culture and values front and center,” she explains. “Potential talent should know first and foremost who we are, what we do, and what we have to offer beyond just shifts and benefits. We want to sell you on the brand. This is why you want to come to work with us at Zoës.” The new career web page made its debut in July 2017.

Gibson also realizes that not every hourly employee at the restaurant is going to make a career out of Zoës. However, she wants whatever length of time people spend working at the restaurant to be a positive experience.

“If you leave us, I want you to say, ‘That was the best job, I ever had,’” Gibson says. And that’s the Zoës way.