The tip-off that Texas Roadhouse does things a little differently than most popular casual dining chains is a small, yet telling detail: what would typically be called a corporate headquarters is instead known as the support center. In fact, the words “Support Center” are given equal billing in size and stature to the Texas Roadhouse logo on the side of the building.
The restaurant chain’s twenty-four-person legal department has adopted this supportive mentality; the team has established a strong reputation within the company for being a true business partner to other departments and field operations. In fact, the legal team’s internal mission statement is a call to not only protect, but also grow the brand. “We don’t want to be the ‘team of no.’ Everyone on the legal team strives to be proactive strategists more than we are compliance managers,” says Puja Gatton, senior counsel of litigation and employment. “We want to help provide creative solutions whenever possible to help support the business.”
Like Texas Roadhouse’s signature bucket of peanuts in the front lobby, fun pictures in the hallways, in-house contests, and the thank you notes that “roadies” (employees) send each other, the legal department’s attitude is quite befitting to the company culture. “Our company culture helps shape what we do every day and creates a more emotionally invested and more passionate workforce,” she says. “It is clear that we put our money where our mouth is when it comes to treating our employees like family.”
Gatton originally envisioned being a psychiatrist, not a lawyer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Northwestern University before changing course and enrolling in law school. However, her love of and interest in listening to people and her ability to effectively troubleshoot have become invaluable tools in her current role at Texas Roadhouse.
“Employment law is truly about people and the relationships between people and their employer. It’s, ‘This employee is acting X way, and we need to determine if solution Y or Z is going to be best for the situation.’”
“Employment law is truly about people and the relationships between people and their employer,” she explains. “It’s, ‘This employee is acting X way, and we need to determine if solution Y or Z is going to be best for the situation.’ At minimum, this requires the ability to understand the perspectives of all individuals involved, as well as a fundamental understanding of the potential solutions available. So, I think my interests in listening and troubleshooting lend themselves very well to this area of law.”
In providing consultation, developing policy, and managing litigation, Gatton represents Texas Roadhouse’s core values of passion, partnership, integrity, and fun, with purpose in her work. The company’s entrepreneurial spirit is reflected in the fact that each restaurant’s managing partner has a significant level of autonomy and ownership in the restaurant. The biggest challenge with decentralized authority, from Gatton’s point of view, is finding a way to walk managing partners back that doesn’t discourage them too much. “We try as much as possible to let them run their own show,” she says. “We opt for a much more collaborative approach in how we partner on business decisions.”
Keeping up with the requirements of state and federal law is another challenge in itself for Texas Roadhouse, which has about fifty thousand employees. Since its founding restaurant opened near Louisville in 1993, the business has grown to cover forty-nine states and five foreign countries. The company opens roughly thirty new restaurants per year. Ongoing growth creates an ever-increasing chance of employee issues, but Gatton feels the sooner the legal team can partner with the restaurant managers, the better. “I believe complaints or issues raised by employees can be a gift,” she says. “If management is made aware of an issue, they can take steps to make the situation better before it gets worse.”
On a larger scale, Gatton’s work is about helping to protect the company’s brand by providing guidance on a variety of issues to better support the restaurants and its managing partners. In managing litigation related to something that might happen at a restaurant under the Texas Roadhouse umbrella, she’s able to take a considerable load off that managing partner’s mind. “So, what I’m saying to the team at that restaurant is, ‘I’ve got this. You go back to focusing on what you do best: legendary food, legendary service. Let me handle this for you,’” Gatton says.
In a career that has included plenty of legal research and writing, advice and counsel, and litigation in private practice before turning to in-house work (she spent six years working in-house for a senior living organization before joining Texas Roadhouse in 2014), Gatton has developed a deep appreciation for the makings of a great workplace: purposeful core values, a progressive attitude, and the philosophy that if you treat people right and they’re willing to learn, everything else sorts itself out. “I’m a fellow roadie with people who are my internal clients,” she says. “I gain credibility because they know I’m just as passionate about the brand as they are.”