As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Roger David. He started his career at Gold Star as a dishwasher and now leads the organization that boasts two iconic brands in its portfolio as President and CEO of GSR Brands, the parent company and franchisor of two successful brands: Gold Star Chili and Tom & Chee. David oversees a team of dedicated professionals working to continue building the Gold Star brand that the first generation of his family began more than 50 years ago. Since being named president and CEO in 2015, David has expanded the business to include Tom & Chee, the famous grilled cheese melts and soup restaurant chain that rocketed to stardom thanks to a successful appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank, and the creation of GSR Brands.
Under his leadership, Gold Star has completed strategic updates to all areas of its business in order to drive success and growth for the next 50 years and beyond. A $25 million investment translated into a new restaurant look, menu and guest experience for its 80+ locations throughout Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. David believes restaurant brands are built table side and has advanced the company’s training and development efforts, as well as a deliberate investment into facility efficiencies in order to build environmentally-friendly restaurants, which pays off for franchise owners who are realizing improvements in labor costs, energy usage and employee productivity.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’m the oldest in the family. The year before my father passed, I lost a brother to leukemia when he was 12 years old. Definitely shaky for a young family at the time. I went to high school, college, and grad school in Cincinnati. I’ve done everything here. I’ve grown to appreciate Midwest values. People here are approachable and down-to-earth. There’s something in the Midwest that I’ve really grown to recognize and love over the years, and this has permeated into the organizations I’ve run, too. Organizations have to be based on some kind of ground rules. Every business has inherent values associated with its culture, and relationships are key in our franchising business. I found that I loved the values I was raised with here in Cincinnati and have enjoyed my life here.
I attended the University of Cincinnati as a marketing and management double major and then went to Xavier University for my MBA.
My father definitely tried to discourage me from the restaurant business. He had worked with his brothers to start and run his own restaurant, and I think he thought I could do better for myself in another industry. I really didn’t know if I would ever be in the position that I’m in, but I’m certainly grateful for it.
After my studies, I worked at Gold Star Chili for about 10 years in the marketing department. Prior to that, I had worked in the restaurant kitchen and as a server on the floor. There certainly was always an aspect of the hospitality business that got into my blood.
I eventually left my family business to get into the dot com industry, but my timing was bad, and when that industry crashed, I ended up getting involved with a packaging design company that was focusing on brand design consulting. I was passionate about brands and passionate about the emotional side of the transactions that took place. It came together really well as I have an advanced appreciation for the power of design.
What I didn’t like about the consulting space is that you could only recommend things, not actually implement for the client. In my role today, I can be part of developing strategy, and certainly ensure its execution.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
I don’t think there was one particular inspiration that pushed me in the direction where I’ve landed. I remember, as a kid, meeting a banker who used to work with our family. I remember being struck by his professionalism and how he carried himself. There’s been multiple experiences like that, people who I’ve respected and appreciated in the business world. Each of them contributed to my pursuits in the restaurant industry, drove me forward in a way.
My time at the design firm was a tremendous experience, too. In thinking more freely, being more innovative. But overall, the people I’ve gotten to work with, to learn from, and to grow with have inspired me. There wasn’t one individual who shaped me, it was everyone. I never had a specific mentor, but I’ve learned to be mentored by those around me, and that’s really shaped me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “takeaways” you learned from that?
One of the mistakes that stand out to me from my younger days was that I ordered some point-of-sale material that wasn’t correct. It got delivered, and all the information was wrong, and I was responsible for it. I remember walking down the hall to the CEO’s office and being incredibly nervous — I had to admit to this man that it was my mistake and that it was going to cost the company extra to fix it.
I was so nervous about addressing that situation, but the CEO at the time said, “Don’t worry about it, get it ordered, we’ll take care of it,” and it became a total non-event. At the end of the day, we’re all human, we all make mistakes, and we need to rebound from that.
It seems like a simple thing to appreciate now, but at 24 years old, it was a huge deal and left me a lot to appreciate and understand.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first graduated with my undergraduate degree, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was lost. My parents were immigrants to the United States and worked for themselves, and they had no real idea of how the corporate side of the business world worked. I did not take advantage of the opportunities the university offered, mostly due to lack of knowledge and understanding of how it could help me. Once I worked for a while, I began to see the value of advancing my education and decided to get my MBA. My MBA was one of the most empowering experiences I ever had. I was so motivated to learn and apply my experiences to an organization, or better yet, own my own business.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I get passionate about the things that I do. At the end of the day, it’s about pride. I take a lot of pride in our accomplishments, our learning, and really, the most pride comes from seeing the people around me grow professionally and personally.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Despite the pandemic, 2020 was one of our best years ever. We were able to pivot and grow sales in 2020. We’re primarily a franchise concept, and the spirit of our franchisees and the teams they have in place really stepped up to face this past year’s issues. They worked collectively with us to manage through this pandemic. I know they’re tired, and they’ve been working endlessly ensuring the safety of their team, of their families, and of their guests as well. We couldn’t have been as successful as we were without the owners we had in place.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Not only do we offer a unique selling proposition and investment opportunity, we work to ensure that all of our owners identify with our brand’s values of Respect, Passion, Courage, and Integrity. If I’ve learned anything from my years in the restaurant industry, it’s that anyone can put food on a plate and serve it, but not every restaurant can make you feel at home, can make you feel like family. And that’s the type of franchisee we look for, the person who believes in embracing his or her community, who believes in hospitality and service. It’s not what every potential franchisee wants to do, and that’s fine, but for us, it’s a critical difference-maker.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burnout seems to happen the most when someone is forcing themselves to do something they don’t want to do or don’t have the appropriate resources. If a person’s passionate about their work, about their offerings, then all of a sudden, work doesn’t feel like work anymore — it’s something that energizes you and gets you going in the morning. If you feel like you’re starting to burn out, it’s a good sign to take a breath, step back for a moment, and take a look at the work you’re doing, and try to understand what part of it is wearing you down.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m lucky and fortunate to be running the family business that my father and his brothers began together. From the start, they instilled the brand’s value system throughout the company. Our family history is about being one with the community — we work to support causes that focus on education, that help to feed the hungry, and that help people in need. Our charitable work has been recognized and awarded repeatedly over the years, and it’s a real honor to be in a position that allows me the opportunity to give back.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1 . DON’T NAVIGATE ALONEThe amount of resources available to help you shape your approach towards your work is unbelievable. When I was younger, reaching out and talking and meeting people was such an essential part of business growth and personal development and perspective, and I definitely did not do this enough. I wish I had worked harder to find mentors earlier on and I truly believe it would have saved me a lot of time spinning my wheels trying to figure things out on my own. We all need someone, don’t navigate alone.
2 . STAY UNIQUE BUT ADAPT
When you first start working, you want to fit in and be accepted, but you also want to stand out and show your unique value. It can cause a lot of angst. Lean in to who you are and the values that shaped you. You’re unique, stay that way — it’s where your hidden value resides.
3. INVEST IN YOUR STRENGTH
Some of us are visionaries, and some of us are not, but every visionary needs a teammate that can help bring the vision to life. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you will build the right team and advance your organization. We all like to think we are both, to some degree. But recognize where your strength lies and invest in that.
4. HIRE BIG AND DIVERSE
Always hire for tomorrow. The team you create and nurture will allow you to do what’s most important to your organization, which is to be an inspirational leader and to foster a culture that is authentic, diverse, and motivates.
5. PLAN TO PAY IT FORWARD
Be mindful of the people who helped you along the way and plan on paying it forward. The best thing we can do is support and inspire the next generation of leaders.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Everyone at GSR Brands is a leader in one form or another. We support that mindset from our values to our career calibration review — if our employees feel that their own growth and development is as important as the growth and development of the organization itself, they will be more likely to want to continue to be a part of our team for the long haul. We are only as strong as our people.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me.” This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowledge alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Without experiences you can’t develop and thrive in the gray we navigate daily. Experience is what feeds your personal uniqueness and differentiates you from the pack.
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