Servant Leadership Helps On The Border Restaurant Achieve New Heights

Amy Fisher Executive Connection, Issue 12 - July/Aug 2014, Technology Leave a Comment

He was On the Border’s first IT hire. Now VP of IT Chris Andrews shares his philosophy for restaurant chain success, and improving the guest experience is just the start.

By Amy Fisher

Chris Andrews models his leadership approach around servant leadership. Vice President of Information Technology (IT) at On The Border, he says he tries to empower the people he works with and ensure they have positive tasks and goals outlined. He wants to make sure members of his team never feel like “just another cog on the wheel.”

Andrews’ father modeled this kind of leadership at his company, so it is a way of life exemplified for the younger Andrews as he grew up. “I shouldn’t separate that from my business and personal lives. If that’s kind of my mantra and what I do in my personal life, then I should carry it throughout everything that I do.”

As such, Andrews tries to give employees all of the opportunities to improve that he possibly can. “I’m big on training,” he explained. “I want to make sure their career goals are lining up with what I can provide for them, so we have tons of different training—and not just technical. If someone wants to improve presentation skills, we provide that training.”

Key to being a good servant leader, according to Andrews, is keeping an even playing field. “It’s very rare that I would introduce someone as ‘an employee who works for me.’ I work with ‘my team.’ I’m here to make sure they’re successful.”

Andrews_Chris_photoStarting From Scratch

Andrews was able to hone this leadership method via his previous work in consulting and public accounting. Early in his career, he worked for KPMG and Grant Thornton, but before getting there he says he was pretty technical. His time with these organizations taught him how to bridge technology and business, “not just in objectives, but also in lingo.”

Andrews learned to tone down the technical talk and explain things so that everyone in every department could understand. He gained exposure to big companies, learned how to assess an IT organization quickly and worked on the evolving technology at these companies. Now at On The Border, he can successfully navigate his team as the servant leader he strives to be.

On The Border began as a single restaurant in Dallas, opened by three friends more than 30 years ago. It still offers classic and contemporary Mexican food, including sizzling, mesquite-grilled fajitas, but now On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina is a leading full-service restaurant with 159 locations in 36 states, Puerto Rico and three countries.

Andrews joined the company in 2010 as its first IT person, and spent his first year there upgrading and replacing all of the technology. At the time, On The Border had a transition services agreement with Brinker, through which the restaurant group would be supported for slightly less than a year while they built their infrastructure, systems and team from scratch. Andrews learned how to bridge divisions and talk with other department heads who were trying to learn the business and its IT aspects. He says he spent a lot of time speaking with various mentors and people who had different setups, learning what they liked and didn’t like in order to get the ball rolling and hit deadlines.

“It’s a unique situation in that we were able to build things from scratch,” Andrews said. “You don’t want to throw in just anything, but you don’t have time to make the optimal or perfect solution. One of our mantras became, ‘perfect is the enemy of the good,’ and it was true.”

In building his team, Andrews looked to hire “hard-chargers and people who were hungry.” One of his big selling points was that new hires would be able to come in and make a difference in the company. He added that he has always believed in tapping one’s own network first for talent.

“You can usually get good, raw feedback,” he said. “A good number of the first people who started here were people I had previously worked with, or my Director of IT had worked with, or friends of friends who could vouch for the new members. And for our Point-of-Sale and Help Desk Team, we looked in the restaurants, and that has worked tremendously for us.”

Building Bridges

After his first year, which Andrews describes as “organized chaos,” he made it a point to sit down with his peers in other departments, specifically when they were crafting their budgets, and listen to what they were setting aside dollar-wise for the next year and what they were trying to achieve. He has partnered closely with On The Border’s Marketing Team, and it has worked out especially well because he can work with them throughout the whole process of meeting yearly goals.

“It’s not only me building a bridge with another department head, but it’s them reaching out to their peers in other departments as well,” Andrews said.

And in establishing strong business partner relationships, he finds the keys to success to be time as well as understanding where your business partner is coming from and where they’re trying to go. The relationship won’t work well if the parties are only meeting once per quarter.

“I have to talk to them a lot—weekly, even daily sometimes,” Andrews said. “We have a lot of great hallway conversations or even flybys.”

IMG_2180Connecting With Customers

Andrews and his team also have done quite a bit to improve operations and the guest experience at On The Border restaurants. “Recently we selected about 50 stores to do table and wait management via the iPad, and it’s really improved our quote times. It’s amazing.”

He explains that with this development, instead of telling customers the wait for a table is perhaps 30 to 45 minutes, a typical wait time, they are able to quote a more accurate count of 15 minutes. This makes a huge difference, especially for families. Andrews has six-and-a-half-year-old twins, and he says if he and his family go to a restaurant and the wait for a table is 40 minutes, they go somewhere else.

On The Border has been able to improve this system immensely and keep guests at their restaurants. Another big win for the company, according to Andrews, is guest acquisitions. The company has an email database, called Club Cantina, from which they send out offers and promotions. Now they can give guests the option to sign up for it while they wait for a table.

“That’s been a really big win for us because we spend a lot of dollars trying to acquire people into that database, and now we’re tapping into the guests who are already in our restaurant,” Andrews said.

Capturing Moments

During his early days at On The Border, while the company was in transition, Andrews kept a journal of what he was doing. He says he is not typically a journal person or someone who has written accounts of different times in his life, but that “I just knew this was going to be such a hard time in my life and there were going to be things that I’d never done before; I needed to capture some of those moments.”

As he built the IT group, Andrews made sure to write at least once per week, and put down advice for his future self. He still pulls out the journal every now and then, and says not only are there a lot of good lessons in it, but also that it recounts some of the fun times he and the team had working long days and eating meals together.

In looking back at past struggles and triumphs, Andrews is motivated to continue to be the best leader he can and look forward to On The Border’s bright future.


Amy Fisher is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

Chris' Key Partners:
IRG (Telecom, Managed Services) | Reliant Security (Security, Managed Services) | Pingtone Communications (Hosted VoIP Provider) | NoWait (mobile wait-listing network)

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