I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Watson.
Charles is the Chief Executive Officer at Tropical Smoothie Café. Prior to ascending to the CEO role, Charles was the Chief Development Officer for Tropical Smoothie Café. Charles was responsible for all aspects of Franchise Development, Real Estate, Design & Construction, Franchise Administration and Legal. Under his leadership, the Tropical Smoothie Cafe system grew from 265 open units to 725 open units. Tropical Smoothie Café currently has over 800 locations nationwide. A veteran franchise professional, Charles has worked for several hospitality-related companies including Wyndham Hotels & Resorts, Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), US Franchise Systems, Inc. and Hospitality Real Estate Counselors (HREC). Charles is a graduate of The Hotel School at Cornell University (BS) and also holds a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from The Terry School of Business at The University of Georgia.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up working in my father’s restaurant doing everything from washing dishes to waiting tables and even cooking. After high school, I attended the Hotel School at Cornell University to further pursue hospitality. I stared my career in the hotel business, but ultimately, I never lost my love for the restaurant world, so I got pulled back in!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting out in the business? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that moment?
I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes along the way…and there are some too embarrassing for print! But, I’ve learned from each one. I have two big takeaways from my learnings over the years. First, there’s no substitute for hard work. Second, you have to be a sponge and be open to learning all the time. There is always someone who knows more than you and does something better than you. Seek that person out and pick their brain.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’ve read so many great books. From a leadership perspective, I would have to go with Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team as the most influential because it includes the principles I use the most. To me, building trust among team members and creating a welcoming culture is just as important as creating a successful strategy for a business. Without PEOPLE, nothing gets done! And by the way, we spend a lot of time at work. That time should be spent with great people with whom we can develop relationships, work hard to accomplish goals, and HAVE FUN!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you got started with Tropical Smoothie Cafe, what was your vision, your purpose?
Our mission at Tropical Smoothie Cafe has evolved over the years, but we are best known for our mantra Eat Better — Feel better. In simple terms we want to be the most beloved restaurant brand and we feel like the way to get there is to inspire better. That better encapsulates who we are as a brand — it’s bigger and bolder. We want to inspire our guests, crew members, franchisees and corporate staff alike to be better, do better, care more, etc., and that can occur in a myriad of ways, not just health. We humans are always striving to be better at the things we choose. At Tropical Smoothie Cafe, we focus intently on the communities where we operate. We must serve those communities if we want those communities to support us, so we have a variety of purpose-driven activities our franchisees participate in. Given they are independent owners, they get to determine what will have the biggest impact in their communities and what their passions for philanthropy are, and execute against that passion. We do the same at a national level with our charity partner Camp Sunshine, an amazing camp in Casco, Maine for kids with life threatening illnesses and their families to enjoy a fully supported camp experience.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
People First/Relationships Rule. As I mentioned earlier, without people, nothing gets done. Happy, driven people produce great business results.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers any personal or family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Being on top of your family (I have a 5-year-old and 7-year-old) for months on end and the upending of the “routine” you are accustomed to can be hard. Roles get blurred and have to be discussed. Communication, even when it is hard is my only advice. You can’t fix it if you don’t talk about it. I will also say there are benefits — a mid-day hug from a 5-year old-daughter can get me through those late afternoon conference calls!
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our biggest challenge, as one would expect, is ensuring safety in our cafes — it is and MUST be our number one priority. Deep cleaning and sanitizing, wearing masks, packaging food to go, glove wearing, to name just a few. Some of these are new to our operation, but our franchisees have done an incredible job going above and beyond to make sure our crew members and guests feel safe and welcomed in our cafes. It takes hard work and discipline every day to ensure that the number one priority is always the number one priority, but without it we have no business. There are additional costs that come with this, but those costs are the unavoidable table stakes in this environment, and we are happy to take on those costs to ensure a safe environment.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Having an attitude of gratitude is always the go-to for my family and me. We live in a country where, though certainly far from perfect, does have a very high standard of living. So, for the average person having a roof over your head, food on the table, a car in the garage is a standard of living unmatched in the annals of time. I try to take it back to that, to be grateful for my family’s health, safety, and comfort and then shift to, “What can I do to help someone else who may not be in as good a position as me?” Getting outside of yourself and doing good for others is a great way to cure anxiety and put things in perspective. Our franchisees know this as well. They recently gave away 230,000 smoothies to front line workers and first responders battling the pandemic across the nation. We started talking about how we needed to “give back to get through” the very difficult business environment. Our franchisees gave of themselves, and we are seeing the business results come back as they serve their communities. Folks that they donated smoothies to a few weeks ago are now frequenting their local cafes, and they continue to build on those relationships.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-COVID-19 economy will look like, but we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-COVID-19 economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-COVID-19 growth can be a time of opportunity.
Restaurant supply will shrink for the industry, and only the strong, trusted consumer brands, and to some degree the favorite local spots, will get through. I am a National Restaurant Association member and I hate to see the restaurant industry suffer, but limiting supply will have its advantages for those restaurants and brands that can get through it. Real estate opportunities will be more plentiful, labor shortages will likely not be an issue, and brands that have captured financing programs based on great economics will be able to expand through the crisis.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
In the restaurant business, I think we are certainly seeing the shift to interacting digitally and will have to determine what hospitality looks like when it is digitally enabled. I believe that hospitality and service will always be at the forefront, but what customers value in different channels and how they interact with and use your brand will continue to evolve. Knowing what your customers want, what makes using your brand convenient and adds value to guests, and then adding a hospitality component will lead to success for the brands that adapt.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, how do you plan to rebuild and grow Tropical Smoothie in the Post-Covid Economy?
Our brand has been luckier than most because our digital channels and take out options allowed us to continue operating during the pandemic while other concepts had to fully shut down. We have spent our time focusing on enhancing these digital channels and executing on our “anytime, anywhere” strategy to reach our guests. We will continue to lean into this with the goal of complete convenience for them and understand how we can make their experience with us something that elicits a momentary escape from the everyday with our products.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Solve problems for your guests. New environments create new opportunities. What is your business uniquely set up to do, with a few tweaks, that can delight your guests? This is an opportunity to “throw everything against the wall.” Try anything, test and iterate and see what works. Rarely do we have these opportunities where our guests are as understanding as they are right now. You may find a product or service that changes the game for your company going forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” — Woody Allen. This speaks to the fact that all the planning in the world doesn’t account for what will inevitably change. In order to deal with those changes and see them as opportunities, being grounded in “I am not in charge of everything and many things are out of my control” allows you to roll with the punches and adapt. The only constant is change!
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow along with Tropical Smoothie at Tropicalsmoothiecafe.com. We can also be found at our social channels below: