BRENDA AND RICHARD LUCIO own the Blue-Agave-GrillBlue Agave Grill in Fort Collins, the fourth restaurant they’ve started in northern Colorado.

I was introduced to Brenda and the company a few weeks ago, and was particularly struck by the relationship she has with employees.  So I sat down with her this week to discover the secrets behind this.

As you may know, the restaurant industry is infamous for its levels of turnover.  Companies often pay below minimum wage, attracting youngsters who have little loyalty and given minimal training.

After all, why bother with extensive training when the employee’s going to leave in just a few months?

This company builds incredible loyalty, including many valued leaders who have been with them for many years.  Most have come up through the ranks, starting in entry level jobs and sometimes working in different restaurants during their career.

The Lucios own:
Blue Agave Grill in Fort Collins
Coyote’s Southwestern Grill in Greeley
Palomino Mexican Restaurants in Evans and Loveland

With 350 employees in four restaurants, Brenda takes on the role of the HR department.  Fortunately, she’s a very outgoing “people person” and loves finding and developing great people.

What’s the strategy?  Brenda cites her two key elements:

  1. Selecting the right employees
  2. Treating them right

OK, that’s what everybody does.  So let’s dig in to how it works here:

Selecting the right employees

Brenda’s always looking to hire great people, sometimes even creating positions when she finds someone who will be a great contributor.  Because she’s quite selective, she doesn’t want to get caught in the trap of being forced to hire the next applicant who walks in the door.

DSC_0003 Front door Blue Agave GrillFor being picky, though, she still believes it’s fair to interview anyone with an interest.  She’ll give a few minutes to anyone because she never knows when a great applicant might show up.

Brenda is always looking for the right team balance.  Who will fit in well with the others?  What skills are needed next?  A restaurant crew is, after all, a blend of people working well together – not just a bunch of independent job roles.

And she doesn’t promise long term employment.  If someone works out well, then there’s probably a great career ahead of them in the company.  But that longevity depends entirely on the value they provide, the attitude they bring to the job, and working well in a team.

Treating employees right

Once someone is hired on, the relationship has just begun.  Brenda invests a great deal in nurturing a great culture and developing her employees.

She can’t do this all herself, of course, because of the size and structure of the business.  Her focus is to develop, support, and respect the role of each manager and team leader.  She lets everyone know that her door is always open for comments and concerns, and takes responsibility for making sure that any issues are addressed, either by herself or the rest of the management team.

Her watchwords?  Fairness and consistency.  These came up many times in our conversation.  She’s often dealing with employees who are in their first job, so she finds it crucial to train them to develop the right skills, behaviors, and attitudes.  Inconsistency will destroy this development as surely as perceived unfairness.

This really isn’t any different than what you’d learn in business management classes.  The point is that it’s hard to execute, day to day, week to week, and month to month.  It takes constant attention and determination.

The result is an incredibly loyal workforce which delivers a memorable experience for their customers.  Every employee I met is having fun, enjoying their work, and delivering with professionalism.  The Lucios are rewarded with a waiting list of great candidates – because it’s known as a great place to work.

Where to from here?

As you know, I always want to know where the focus is in these great companies.  Brenda’s giving attention to:

  • Continuing to have customer service drive everything their employees do
  • Developing and nurturing the great management team as the company continues to grow
  • Investing for quality (rather than shaving expenses) because growth and customer experience will drive sustained profits

As an aside, I was interested to find out more about how Brenda and Richard manage this as a married couple.  We’ve all heard horror stories about how running a business can end up destroying a marriage.  Their approach?

  • Leverage complementary strengths:  Richard is the visionary and leads development of the menu.  Brenda focuses on operations and working with people.
  • Don’t discuss business during family meals.
  • Don’t go to bed worrying about the company.  Instead, read the daily reports first thing in the morning.

I’m excited to see the vitality and sustainability in this business, and have every confidence that it will continue to grow and prosper.