Dallas Morning News: Making the cut: Streamlining Dickey's Barbecue helped daughter-in-law's rise to CEO
Published: 09 Aug 2017
Earlier this year, Laura Rea Dickey was named CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc. — not all that startling until you realize that Rea is her maiden name.
She’s the 38-year-old wife of Roland Dickey Jr. and daughter-in-law of Roland Dickey Sr., the iconoclastic patriarch of the nation’s largest barbecue chain that dates back to 1941.
Her ascension to mistress of the barbecue pit is an anomaly on another front: She’s a terrible cook.
“That is not the part of the business that I impact, I promise,” Laura says. “It’s a Dickey’s family tradition that the men cook. So I got on board with that really fast. I can make reservations and a martini, and that’s it.”
That maybe true for the kitchen, but Laura holds considerable sway when it comes to technology, big data and marketing. In her previous role as Dickey’s chief information officer, she built an eight-year road map for bringing the family’s slow-smoked barbecue business into the lightning-speed digital age.
Such advanced technology is a must for a company that’s in a torrid expansion mode.
Four years into it, every restaurant operator can tap into point-of-sale analytics, study data heat maps and market directly to customers via the proprietary Smoke Stack system that Dickey’s co-developed with iOlap, a Frisco-based big data provider.
Dickey’s and franchisees can spot on the spot what’s working in the 565 stores and what’s not to make adjustments on the fly.
Customers can order online and have their food delivered by third-party services, such as Grubhub and Doordash. Come September, a customer app will use beaconing technology so that you can pick up your order curbside without getting out of your car.
Currently, the five company-owned Dickey’s Barbecue Pits, including the original on North Central Expressway at Knox/Henderson, are test driving Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service before it’s rolled out to all of its stores by the end of the year.
Not that long ago, the original flagship was still using a cash register and faxing in sales reports.
“It’s our Hey, Alexa!” says Laura. “An owner/operator or store manager can ask her: ‘Hey Alexa! When’s my delivery due to arrive?’ ‘What are my sales so far today?’ ‘What are my costs of goods this hour?’ ‘How many ribs do I have in the smoker?’ ”
Dale Smith, 49, who became Dickey’s first franchisee in 1995, is stoked about adding the voice system to his five D-FW stores.
“Geez, I started doing this 22 years ago, and I never would have thought I would be talking to Alexa to get information or to get things done,” he says. “As I understand it, you can continue smoking meats and preparing food while you check your email or place an order with Sysco. I’m pretty excited about that.”
'Not a bunch of fat guys'
At the beginning of the year, the family formed Dickey’s Capital Group, an umbrella company that owns its various investments including the barbecue company.
Roland Jr., 43, moved into the holding company’s top slot and Laura moved into his.
“Laura’s a perfectionist. She makes sure all of the details are tended to,” her husband says. “She brings high energy, creative vision that is absolutely remarkable."
She’s hardly the lone female running the barbecue business. Twelve of its 14 top execs are women.
“We’re not a bunch of fat guys grilling meat,” Roland says.
One of those women is Renee Roozen, brand president.
"My career had been in restaurants owned by private equity,” she says. “Meeting Roland Jr. and Laura cemented the deal for me. Decisions aren’t driven by a dollar checkbook. They’re driven by what’s right for the brand.”
Last year, Dickey’s opened 87 restaurants, bringing the total to 508 at year end, and it reported systemwide sales of $421 million.
As of last week, there were 565 Dickey’s stores with another 109 in the pipeline.
California is its hottest market, and Hawaii is about to get its first taste of Texas barbecue when one opens on the Big Island in the coming months.
Laura is still trying to convert the folks in Alaska, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
Dickey’s is the largest single restaurant purchaser of beef brisket in the country, buying about 10 million pounds (or 5,000 tons) of it each year.
The sacred pit
The first Dickey’s Barbecue Pit was founded by Travis Dickey, a World War I veteran, who enjoyed serving beer as much as he did barbecue. The original location, a converted schoolhouse, is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Dallas that has never shuttered its doors, changed ownership or moved locations.
“We have never remodeled or renovated the core part of Central intentionally,” says Laura. “It had a couple of fires, and the original pit actually fell off the back of the building in the '60s.”
Her father-in-law, whom she calls Senior, designed the second pit that’s still smoking meats today.
Senior’s side of the clan bought out Martha Dickey, widow of his brother, T.D., after his death in 2011.
“We’re 76 years young,” says Laura. “We’re third-generation, nimble and innovative. There are no sacred cows other than the pit, the barbecue and the quality.
“We say, ‘It ain’t legit if you can’t see the pit,’ ” she says.
That might sound like something from her colorful father-in-law’s mouth, but Laura came up with. it. “I always try to say, ‘Would Senior say this?’ That’s a good litmus test.”
Senior totally gets the need for what Laura does but remains an unabashed tech holdout, even refusing to use email.
Laura considered it a personal victory when she got him to trade in his flip-phone for a smart one — only to find out that he didn’t really give it up and makes no bones about using it.
Then there was the first text she received from him. “I was, ‘Oh, wow! We’ve crossed this threshold.’ And then I realized the woman next to him was texting for him.”
Beefing up when times got tough
Laura, who migrated from Oklahoma City to Texas Christian University in 1997, has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. “If someone were to sum me up, I hope they’d say, ‘She had a curious mind.’ That more than anything is what attracted me to philosophy,” she explains.
Roland and Laura were working professionals when they met at a bar. “We migrated to each other because we were both too old to be there, and we had business cards,” she says. “So it was like, ‘Oh, you have a business card, I have a business card. Perhaps we can talk.’"
Laura is a strategic thinker — right down to picking her wedding date. She chose Oct. 28, 2006, because that was the Saturday before Halloween, and she figured that having a holiday bookmark would help both of them remember their anniversary.
Dickey’s was blowing and going, having just passed the 130-store milestone in 2008, when the economic lights went out on the restaurant industry.
Roland Jr., who was president of the barbecue business, asked Laura to step to the family plate. She’d been doing strategic planning, data analysis and marketing for clients of The Point Group, and he wanted her to bring her expertise to shore up Dickey’s and then some.
While other restaurant companies sought shelter hoping to weather the storm, Roland and Laura decided to crank things up.
“She came in with that marketing and community experience and really got things stepped up,” says Roland “That put us on a sharp trajectory of growth, and we’ve never looked back.”
“I have a personal mantra,” says Laura. “Evolve or fail. And it definitely was that moment for the company. And we chose to evolve.”
They came up with a smaller prototype that would mean significant savings to franchisees. “We went from a 5,000-square-foot dinner-house buffet to a 2,200-square-foot unit with an open kitchen,” she says.
Laura recently spoke at family business conference as a “married-in” — part of the family but not genetically so.
“There’s an absolute alignment of values and interests,” she says. “But it also allows me to be one step more objective.”
“You get tunnel vision sometimes,” says Roland, “because you’ve been doing this for so long, having grown up with it. So having her come in with an outside perspective and seeing us like the rest of the world sees us is just incredibly valuable.”
As to why the 70-year-old patriarch allowed Laura to become CEO of the family’s crown jewel: “It's still true that a woman in business has to work twice as hard as a man to succeed, and I saw in my daughter-in-law the intelligence and commitment to work twice as hard to successfully run the company,” he says. “Plus, she's already hitched to the wagon.”
Senior says he’s happy to let Laura and Roland run the business while he acts as the company’s folksy ambassador at large.
Maurine Dickey, his wife of 50 years and a two-term Dallas County Commissioner, runs the family’s nonprofit, Barbecue, Boots & Badges, which supports local law enforcement, firefighters and their families across the country.
“Putting the Dickey's family on an org chart would be like walking in a minefield,” says Roland Jr. “People expect us to have titles, so we’ve stuck one on each of us.”
His brother, Cullen, who is in real estate, and sister-in-law, Allison, are not actively involved with the business but are part owners in the family’s holding company.
Laura's a bit of an independent observer when it comes to sizing up the family.
“I always describe Senior to someone who hasn’t had the pleasure of entering his orbit as Rodney Dangerfield and Winston Churchill have a baby,” she says. “That’s my father-in-law to a T.
“Then you have Maurine who has this driven, highly charged focus that’s the opposite of Senior’s sporadic mind.
“Maurine and Senior met on the debate team in college at SMU. That’s a perfect analogy for their relationship,” Laura says. “They’re polar opposites. Roland Jr. and I are polar opposites. We don’t vote the same in elections. I’m the token liberal Libertarian, and that provides for interesting discourse at the family dinner table. But the common ground is that of curious minds of different perspectives coming together.”
As for her husband: “Roland is a perfect hybrid of his parents,” she says. “It’s interesting to see which hat he puts on depending on the situation and what the business needs are.”
So who’s the boss?
“It depends on who makes coffee first that morning,” she says.
“She’s had me on a wild-goose chase for years thinking that I was her boss,” says Roland. “The only time I’m the boss is at dinner because I make it, but even then she picks it.”
Laura Rea Dickey
Title: Chief executive officer, Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc.
Grew up: Oklahoma City
Resides: Highland Park
Education: Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and master’s degree in communication, Texas Christian University, 2001 and 2003
Personal: Married to Roland Dickey Jr. for 10 years. They have a pug, Miss Cleo, and a Chihuahua mix, Charro
SOURCE: Laura Rea Dickey
Dickey’s Barbecue Restaurants Inc.
Corporate offices: Dallas
Ownership: Dickey’s Capital Group, owned by six members of Roland Dickey Sr.'s family
Home office employees: 140
Units: Five company-owned, 560 franchised and 109 in the franchise pipeline
2016 revenue: $420,912,898