The Slaymaker Group Inc.: keeping the family dream alive as successful franchisee – and new franchisor

The Slaymaker Group Inc.: keeping the family dream alive as successful franchisee – and new franchisor – The NRN 50: The Franchisees

Whit Smyth

Five T.G.I. Friday’s. Nine Tony Roma’s. Eleven Winger’s. Volume of $40 million and a sparkling reputation for efficiency. That’s The Slaymaker Group of Salt Lake City, a leading franchisee in the Mountain States of Utah, Arizona and Idaho.

Wayne Vinyard, director of franchise operations for the Tony Roma’s chain, says: “They’re one of our most aggressive, growing franchisees. They do a great job of managing their restaurants.”

It wasn’t always so. Scott Slaymaker, the 40-year-old chief executive, was the earliest Slaymaker to follow — or be dragged — into his father’s dreams.

“My dad was a great entrepreneur,” he says, recalling the late Norm Slaymaker. “He was an insurance salesman who always wanted to be in the restaurant business. He became a Sizzler and had a restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska. He wasn’t great on administration, so he asked me to go up there and run it for the family.”

A student at Utah State University at the time, Scott Slaymaker had his own dream: to be an airline pilot. But like Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he kept putting his plans on hold for the family business.

Slaymaker spent five years in Anchorage, running the Sizzler restaurant and also opening three more units. “I came back with the intention of finishing college and becoming an airline pilot,” he recalls. By that time Norm Slaymaker had two more Sizzler restaurants in Wyoming and asked his son to look after them.

Again the flight plans were delayed as Slaymaker took over the restaurants in Wyoming, eventually opening two more. “I remember a lot of driving between restaurants on lonely Wyoming roads. By the early 1990s we had 11 Sizzlers.”

During the mid-80s, the family also operated six Chi-Chi’s in Utah and Idaho before selling them to Famous Restaurants of Scottsdale, Ariz.

Don Morehouse, who joined The Slaymaker Group in 1982 and is now president and chief operating officer, says Norm Slaymaker was his mentor. “He had great enthusiasm and love for the restaurant business. We all fed off it.”

That enthusiasm is shared today by Slaymaker’s core team of Scott, his brother Eric and Morehouse. But they don’t let it intrude on a diet of careful planning. “During the 1980s Sizzler was a darling of Wall Street,” Slaymaker explains. “Then they changed their concept and kind of lost their focus. Focus — that’s something Don, Eric and I talk about all the time. We run three concepts and don’t know if it’s wise to expand beyond that.”

Slaymaker remembers visiting Palm Springs for Sizzler conventions and eating at Tony Roma’s. “I thought their product was great, and Dad felt it could fill a real niche in Salt Lake City.” The company opened its first Tony Roma’s franchise in 1987 in Midvale, Utah. Today Slaymaker operates seven Tony Roma’s in Utah and two in Tucson, Ariz.

In 1989 their first T.G.I. Friday’s opened. “Dad really loved their flair, the awning stripes and the atmosphere of the place,” Slaymaker recalls.

When Norm Slaymaker died of cancer in 1995, he left a strong legacy. Wally Doolin, president and chief executive of Friday’s Hospitality Worldwide, says: “He was a very proactive person who dealt with everything on a win-win basis. He passed these qualities on to his family and to Don Morehouse.”

After years as a franchisee, the group is now becoming a franchisor with Winger’s. An American Dinner. The concept was launched in 1992 in a 1940s-style Pullman train car. “It wasn’t classy, but it did a big Buffalo-style Wings business, including basketball players in town to play the Utah Jazz,” Doolin says.

After the owner of the Pullman train car sold his lot, The Slaymaker Group built its first Winger’s in 1993. “That first location was a tremendous success,” Slaymaker says of the compact restaurants, which average 3,000 square foot, seat 100 to 110 and feature meaty, sauce-laden wings.

Eric Slaymaker, 36, who handles development and is also president and chief executive of Winger’s, says the scaled-down Winger’s concept is attractive to franchisees because it requires a smaller facility and less investment and can be profitable at $750,000 in sales.

“Being on the franchisee side, we understand what is needed to be successful,” he says. “We know the nervousness they feel when it’s time to sign a personal guarantee.”

If The Slaymaker Group is fortunate, it will find franchisees as good as itself. Twice the group has been Tony Roma’s Franchisee of the Year, and Bob Page, president of the Roma Corp., notes, “They’re a leader in the franchise community and frequently sought after for advice by other restaurants.”

The company also has been named Domestic Franchise of the Year and Operator of the Year by the Friday’s chain. “They’re one of the best examples of a franchisee-franchisor relationship,” Doolin says. “They have always challenged us to improve and do the right things but in a way that recognizes the unique differences in their market versus the rest of the system.”

Vinyard of the Roma Corp. thinks Slaymaker’s success stems from an infrastructure dedicated to supporting its restaurant managers. “They’ve also got an outstanding training program,” he adds.

Taking training to a new level at Slaymaker is Suzanne Bronzati, sister of Scott and Eric. As he head of human resources, she initiated a program to help restaurant managers learn to handle problems, deal with complaints and be leaders.

“I sat down with our managers and said: `What are we missing. What do we need?'” she says. “We like to promote from within. That meant many of our managers had been hourly workers who never had leadership training.”

Morehouse, the day-to-day operations person, spent 10 years at Brick Oven Restaurant in Provo, Utah, before joining the family. “I started in the restaurant business in the early 1960s,” he says, ticking off a succession of jobs, including short-order cook, waiter, assistant manager and general manager.

With more than 30 years’ industry experience, Morehouse says: “We always remember that we’re in the restaurant business at Slaymaker, not the financial or development business. We’re driven by the general managers at each restaurant, and our focus is on guest satisfaction.”

For Morehouse that philosophy was hammered home by Glee Zumbrennen, owner of Brick Oven. “He was never satisfied,” he says.

As the years go by, Morehouse sees the restaurants business as getting tougher and tougher. “Our guests are more demanding on the service side,” he says. “Why? I think it’s a lack of time in their lives, for one thing. Also they have more options for eating out today. They don’t get mad; they just don’t come back.”

Employment is another challenge. “Nobody puts in 10 years going through all the restaurant phases,” he says, thinking of his own career. “Our training is designed to help opportunity happen a little faster than it used to.”

Barbara Bown would second that. She started as a waitress at the T.G.I Friday’s in downtown Salt Lake City and has moved up to bartender. “The training was a lot more intense here than at other restaurants where I worked,” Brown says. “They want the service to be A-plus all the time.”

Morehouse believes the company’s success is rooted in a philosophy of controlled growth as well as in an intense focus on training and execution. “We’ve been small and have expanded at a very smooth rate,” he says.

Four new Tony Roma’s are planned for 1998, three in Phoenix and one in Boise, Idaho. The existing restaurants average around $2 million per unit, slightly above the national chain average.

The four T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants in Utah average around $2.8 million, slightly below the national average. “But that number skewed because there are no liquor sales in Utah,” Slaymaker says, pointing to the fifth restaurant in Boise, Idaho, which does between $3.3 million and $3.4 million.

“Probably in the first quarter of 1999 we’ll open another Friday’s,” he says, adding that the company is evaluating how it wants to expand with this concept.

In today’s tight restaurant market, Winger’s could be hot. According to Eric Slaymaker, “Companies are faced with rising real-estate costs and increased competition. The idea with Winger’s is that you can put these stores in areas where larger concepts won’t work.”

With forethought that is typical of the company, Scott Slaymaker adds: “There’s a lot to be done with Winger’s. We have to find the right fit and refine the menu.”

But as usual with restaurants, it comes down to people. “You’ve got to do it with people. You’ve got to challenge your employees,” he says. One of the best in this area was Tom Gregory, former president of Sizzler. “I always admired his ability to put the right people in the right places.”

With more Tony Roma’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Winger’s on the way, one might say that The Slaymaker Group is flying high, an apt analogy in the light of the chief executive’s lifelong dream to be a pilot.

Today the dream lives in a different form. “I fly my little Cessna over 100 hours a year,” says Slaymaker, who has grown to love the restaurant business and where it has taken the family. “I told a friend — a captain with Alaskan Airlines — that the difference between us is you fly where they tell you to go. I fly where I want to go.”

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