When Kendra Miller joined BJ’s Restaurants as senior vice president and general counsel in 2011, the casual-dining eatery had 103 restaurants in thirteen states. Today, it boasts 175 in twenty-three states. It’s by far the largest growth spurt the restaurant chain has experienced in a comparable period, and it shows no signs of slowing down.
Figuring out how to grow a business is one thing, but ensuring compliance and maintaining the culture that has made its restaurants so popular during that growth is another. “The growth has made my job fun and interesting,” Miller says. “The challenge has been to ensure that as we expand, we are paving the way for compliance in more and more states, and also that the cultural principles that bind all our restaurants together remain.”
BJ’s Restaurants began on the West Coast and focused its initial expansion in that area. Yet the company soon found that its business model works most anywhere, and the restaurants are now found in most regions of the United States. It offers a large, diverse menu and strives to be appropriate for all occasions. Consider the popularity of its happy hour among office workers, or how teenagers enjoy its pizza and soft drinks, and how often families come for dinner. BJ’s Restaurants also appeals as a night out for couples. “This is a concept that resonates with people across the country,” Miller says. “It’s a full-service restaurant that is premium casual—a nicer space than many casual-dining chains.”
All team members carry a “Promise Card” with them as a reminder of the company’s values. BJ’s Restaurants has recently winnowed down the size of the card to sharpen the focus on the core principle of connecting with every guest through flawless execution. “As we grow and expand into new markets, we are highly disciplined and focused on hospitality,” Miller explains. “All of us have that same focus and pride in our work.”
While the restaurant industry can tend to be filled with employees who see the job as a way station rather than a career, BJ’s Restaurants does not want its team members to see their roles that way. Miller has been involved in a number of initiatives during her five years at the company that are meant to attract and retain talent, improve esprit de corps, and mitigate risk.
For example, Miller’s team developed respectful-workplace training that focused on ensuring team members treat each other with respect and work through conflicts. “The training helps make our restaurants a positive place to work, and obviously the side benefit is it increases compliance and reduces litigation,” Miller says.
One aspect of Miller’s responsibilities is securing liquor licenses in each state in which the company has a restaurant—not exactly a simple task. “With each new state, and even local jurisdictions, there are new requirements our licensing team has to understand,” she explains. “There’s obtaining the initial license and renewals, and then there’s ensuring our promotions all meet the requirements of each state and each local community.”
While Miller ensures external compliance in each location, she also maintains focus internally as well. More than 40 percent of management hires are promotions from internal hourly staff, she says. “With our growth culture, we recognize that in order to fuel future expansions we need to find and keep team members who exude the BJ’s culture and want to continue to develop their careers with us,” she adds.
To encourage a diverse workforce, BJ’s Restaurants launched the Women’s Career Advancement Network (WECAN) several years ago, focusing on recruitment, development, and retention of female employees. The company also runs a discount program called “Extra Toppings,” which offers team members discounts on items such as cellphones, car rentals, and amusement park tickets. “We want to make sure we are providing competitive benefits for our team,” Miller says. “We take pride in the benefits we offer.”
Miller is also a director of the nonprofit organization, Give A Slice, which asks interested team members to donate a portion of their paycheck, even if it’s a dollar, toward a grant fund. When a team member becomes ill, or is in need, a manager or someone from the Restaurant Support Center submits a grant application. If approved, monetary support comes from the Give A Slice fund. More than 35 percent of team members regularly make donations, she says.
Miller points to the success of this initiative as a strong indication of cohesion during the company’s current growth stage. She says, “It epitomizes the culture of caring that BJ’s has to see all these people coming together to take care of each other.”