What started as a humble gathering spot where friends could enjoy great American food on New York City’s east side is now an international casual dining phenomenon. TGI Fridays has grown to a network of seven hundred restaurants in sixty countries, but each bar and grill retains the personal service and liberating spirit that’s been part of the company’s culture since 1965.
Senior Vice President and General Counsel Jennifer Rote has been with the organization for nearly two decades and is helping the iconic brand chart its path into the future.
Rote, a Lonestar State native who studied criminal justice administration at the University of North Texas and attended law school at Texas Tech University School of Law, went straight in-house with another classic American company. She joined RadioShack in 2000 and spent four years negotiating and writing store leases and amendments as a real estate attorney.
By 2004, RadioShack was on the decline, but Rote had found her passion in real estate law. Then, TGI Fridays was building dozens of stores per year and developing a new concept called Pick Up Stix. “I wanted to find a new challenge and go somewhere where I would have the opportunity to really build out the real estate function,” Rote explains. It was a perfect match.
It didn’t take long for Rote to learn two things. First, she loves the TGI Fridays brand. “I bleed red and white,” she says. “This company has a wonderful atmosphere where people can truly be who they are.”
Secondly, casual dining is always susceptible to the ebbs and flows of the economy. When discretionary spending sinks, many consumers either stop eating out or choose to replace occasional trips to mid-market restaurants with less frequent visits to premium hotspots.
This harsh reality gave Rote an opportunity to generalize her practice as TGI Fridays navigated the economic downturn of 2008. As decreasing budgets shrunk the legal department, she moved outside of a strict real estate role to take on responsibilities in litigation and international locations.
An encouraging boss and mentor helped guide Rote along the way, and the process strengthened her bond to the company. “I was already aligned to the values and the culture here, but I really started to see firsthand how we value individual voices and contributions,” she explains.
Eighteen years after she joined the organization, Rote is now responsible for all legal aspects, but she’s not just delegating. “I always imagined that a general counsel at a high level would hand out the work but we’re a lean team that works together and that’s part of why we’re successful. We really know what’s going on inside the business,” she says. TGI Fridays’ legal function that once had more than twenty professionals now includes just three lawyers and six paralegals.
Now Rote is in the next growth phase of her career. CEO Ray Blanchette is doubling down on culture and people strategy; he asked her to take on various HR responsibilities to ensure the company’s policies that govern its eight thousand corporate employees are sound. Blanchette, like Rote, knows the culture well. In fact, he started as a kitchen manager and spent a quarter-century working his way to the top spot at TGI Fridays (he appeared on the 2020 season premiere of the CBS series Undercover Boss).
Rote is also getting back to her roots in real estate. Corporate has had a long-standing agreement not to operate in New York City, where other owners run one TGI Fridays location. The company recently reacquired that location and the territory and can now serve the community that helped launch it over fifty years ago. Under Rote’s leadership, the organization has also been buying back many other franchises it sold over time.
Today, TGI Fridays’ legal team is helping the business navigate another economic downturn as it pushes innovation and reinvents the brand while staying true to its history. To do so, the team is helping support creative concepts like virtual-only brands delivered through Uber Eats and DoorDash. This and other features like an enhanced rewards program are helping the business weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, the company has announced plans for a small-format restaurant called Fridays Corner Bar to get back to its bar roots, as well as monetize and accommodate the ever-growing demand for takeout and delivery. TGI Fridays also recently partnered with Reef Technology and committed to introduce up to three hundred new delivery restaurants in North America in the next five years.
These efforts are yielding results. In early 2022, TGI Fridays announced that the business had experienced forty-one straight weeks of same-store revenue growth compared to pre-pandemic numbers and double-digit growth over the last two quarters of 2021. By summer 2022, digital sales volumes were up nearly 300 percent versus data from 2019. Those numbers outpaced most, if not all, of the company’s peers in the fast casual space.
After eighteen years, Rote and TGI Fridays are still a perfect pairing. The beloved restaurant chain has maintained success by evolving and changing with the times—and Rote has evolved right along with it.
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