Laura Rea Dickey
Chief Executive Officer
Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc.
Laura Rea Dickey
Laura Rea Dickey is the CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants, Inc., the largest barbecue franchise in the world. Prior to her appointment as CEO, Dickey spent eight years as CIO for the business, during which time she was instrumental in creating scalable processes and procedures for practically every department in the company. Dickey is known for turning data insights into brand and business solutions, and has been nationally recognized for her achievements in the intersection of marketing and technology. Fast Casual Magazine named her one of the “Top 25 Movers and Shakers” within the industry for four years in a row, and Nation’s Restaurant News named her to “The Power List’ and as one of the 50 most influential women in foodservice. She has also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Hospitality Technology for her work implementing Amazon’s Alexa technology in the company’s restaurants, and the proprietary “Smoke Stack” data system she developed has been profiled by Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.
AmericanReporter: Would you tell us what led you to Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants?
Laura Rea Dickey: It’s not something I necessarily ever would have predicted for myself. Like any good Texan I’ve always loved eating barbecue, but I can hardly say I had a lifelong passion for it. I started my career in marketing and worked for a number of years helping brands develop their identities and strategizing campaigns, and I specialized in helping companies compound and utilize data to drive them. However, when my husband became the third generation to run his family’s barbecue franchise he asked me to come on in a consulting capacity to help with his plans for rapid and widespread expansion, knowing I had worked with other national fast-casual brands such as Chick-Fil-A and La Madeleine. I dove in headfirst and began applying my experience with information technologies and creating data-driven results to other areas of the company besides marketing. It felt good to be working for one company, getting to watch it grow and see the results of my work in action, and so I ended up accepting the chief information officer role.
AmericanReporter: And how did you come to be CEO of the company?
Laura Rea Dickey: In my time as chief information officer I worked across practically every department in the company to implement information and computer technologies in our business model, from marketing and IT to team training. We pride ourselves as being a company that ensures every decision we make is backed by hard data, but so many of the amazing new information technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data hadn’t been applied yet in the fast-casual sector. Rather than wait for somebody else to develop the technology, I took matters into my own hands and worked with a big data and business intelligence service provider to develop a proprietary system that synthesized data from our point-of-sale systems, marketing promotions, loyalty programs, customer surveys and inventory systems. Through the system we were able to get real-time feedback on sales and other key performance indicators, and “Smoke Stack” ended up getting profiled by Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. When we outgrew our previous corporate structure, we knew my work would best be continued in the chief executive officer role.
AmericanReporter: When one thinks of technology one doesn’t necessarily think of barbecue, or the fast-casual industry for that matter. Why have you placed such an importance on it?
Laura Rea Dickey: There are two main reasons for that. Firstly, the fast-casual industry is an increasingly saturated space, and although Texas barbecue had never been franchised on a national level before we were still facing a lot of competition. Secondly, we had ambitious plans for our expansion and growth efforts, and by utilizing technology we were able to pay attention to the numbers and scale effectively. We’ve worked to implement technology across the board at our company, both in our corporate office and in the restaurants themselves. For example, we developed a system that allowed our franchisees to utilize Amazon’s voice technology in their restaurant operations helping them keep up with their metrics and data without having to spend all day in the back office.
AmericanReporter: How do effectively bring these ideas to life?
Laura Rea Dickey: Big picture-wise, I always start off the computer and use a more tactile medium such as a dry erase board or notebook. I like to work backwards, starting with the desired end result in my mind and then working backwards to figure out how I will get there. By identifying where I want to go, I am able to outline my thoughts and write out a high-level process or plan. Once I have that plan, I work to condense it to one page –– by doing this I make sure that it isn’t too convoluted and can be explained easily –– and then I turn it into a storyboard. I know that everybody on my team has different means of visualization, and in order to get my idea across effectively I want to make sure that I am making my information clear to all audiences. Finally, I bring folks in to walk through it, beat it up, challenge it and take it apart. Then the rebuilding begins.
AmericanReporter: What has been a learning experience for you in terms of utilizing data to drive change?
Laura Rea Dickey: I think when you create a means to have a large amount of data at your disposal it can sometimes be difficult to know how to translate that information into results. For example, at one point we launched menu sizing, but we failed to use our own data effectively. Rather than paying attention to our guests’ needs we were looking at it from an operator’s standpoint, and while the system worked great for them the update didn’t build sales and so we pulled back the rollout. We now know to make sure that any guest-facing change is driven by just that: the guests. We listened to what their needs were and relaunched menu sizing 18 months later, and saw our sales lift 4 percent in under 45 days as a result.
AmericanReporter: Any other technological trends that are exciting you lately?
Laura Rea Dickey: It may seem old hat at this point, but I’m still amazed at the power of Instagram. It’s constantly evolving to attract new users, and I believe it hit over one billion last year. Its users are also among the most dedicated in terms of how frequently they log in, and 90 percent of them now follow a business on the platform. When utilized well, that simple square visual makes for a powerful tool in conveying a brand’s story and values. When the coronavirus pandemic hit last year we reallocated the majority of our marketing spend to digital channels including Instagram, and it has been amazing to find new ways to engage with our customers outside of the restaurant. With video content gaining steam (TikTok is evidence of this) I’m excited to see what direction Instagram takes in order to tackle that.