Caleb Mathis is an owner & operator of a Chick-fil-A franchise in Columbia, TN (AKA Muletown). In this interview, he shares how he responded to COVID-19 to serve his team, support his customers, and ultimately have his most financially successful month to date in the middle of the global pandemic.

John Meese 0:01
Good morning, Caleb. How are you?

Caleb Mathis 0:02
I'm great. How are you doing, john? I'm doing good.

John Meese 0:05
I'm doing good. I haven't had my coffee yet, but it's okay. I hear brewing in the next room so I'll get some of the minutes. Yeah, it's close. Um, so Caleb, you know, you know, I've known each other for quite a few years. And a lot of what you were my boss actually, let's not forget that so right. But for anybody who's not had the pleasure of working with you or for you, could you do me a favor? Just take a minute and share a little bit about who you are what get you out of bed in the morning and you know, how you spend your day?

Caleb Mathis 0:32
Absolutely. So my name is Caleb Mathis and I am the owner operator for chick fil a here in Columbia, Tennessee. So I'm our local owner operator. I've been here now for over six years but I've been an owner operator for going on nine years now. I've been nine years in October so god bless and and celebrating 18 years with chick fil a this year as well. So from team member to owner operator, so that's The big story in itself, but really gets me up in the morning is just knowing that I get to do what I love every day. I love leadership development. I love just owning my own business and working through the entrepreneurial model, you know, starting things, building things and watching them fly and grow. And so we've managed to do that quite a bit over the last six years here, had quite a bit of success, been fortunate and had wonderful, wonderful staff. And so that's what gets me up in the morning knowing that I could come in and do what I love.

John Meese 1:36
Well, I love that well. And you mentioned you love the entrepreneurial adventure where you get to watch things kind of you build things you watch them fly, do they always fly?

Caleb Mathis 1:45
No, they often crash... and burn

John Meese 1:49
Trick question. You know, I wish I could start to set aside the stat off off the top of my head, but I know that the brothers had some crazy amount of crashes ebfore they had a plane that worked. So that's part of the it's part of how it goes so. Well, Caleb, I would love to talk to you about COVID-19. And specifically, I'd love to I mean, I'd love to I think you you represent not only a small business owner but also in the franchise world. I mean, I haven't actually I've had lots of guests on this podcast already, but I don't think I've had any who are in the franchise business model, which is a little bit different, right? I mean, you've got you are a business owner, but there's also a bigger umbrella company to work with. So I think there's some probably unique things to come out of your experience but and Chick-fil-a is a pretty special company. So there's that too. But I would love to know when did you first realize that COVID-19 was a real threat. Do you remember where you were What happened? If there was a moment where you had a conversation with someone or saw something in the news that made you go Wait a second, this is real.

Caleb Mathis 2:46
It was pretty interesting. So we had our annual we had our annual operator seminar this year and it was in a unique place it was on a cruise ship our our, Our company has grown to a position where we had to actually charter two cruise ships with the Symphony of the Seas, which is the world's largest cruise ship and with the Oasis of the Seas, which is like, somewhere in the second running there, but very close in size, very large cruise ships. And so going into this, I remember at the beginning of the year seeing reports from China, you know, you just kind of think, man is this thing going to kind of stay over there, they have a lot of strange things happening. But then as we got closer to actually going in February onto the boat, there began to be emails about precautions and be mindful of things. And so that kind of struck me as odd and it was still kind of a novelty in my mind at that point. But here we come through February and right into March and right there at the beginning, starting to hear about things happening out in Seattle, and then, you know, all the way come in to the east coast. Just started to catch my attention and I remember The day that chick fil a it was about a week before Governor Lee issued any kind of mandate or at the Tennessee State cup, right? Yep, that's right. Tennessee State governor here and he did his executive order. But a week before that Chick-fi- a sent out an email that said, it's kind of it felt very odd because all of a sudden they said, pull out all condiment stations, stop offering guests, refills and close your playground immediately. Just one day out of the blue we got email, we got phone calls and notifications like do, do this immediately by the end of the day at the very latest. And so that kind of honestly just hit me really hard. It felt like a gut punch because it went from a novelty to a well maybe we should just kind of keep an eye on this to all of a sudden it felt like they knew something that I didn't know. Yeah, and all of a sudden we had to take action. Very, very, very swiftly. And so it just kind of hit me like that. I mean, it was a very strange and very fast thing to happen.

John Meese 5:09
Well, so that would have been about March 20. March 20. March 21, just

Caleb Mathis 5:15
A little before that for us probably like more March 15 for us.

John Meese 5:19
Oh, March 15th. Okay, great. So yep, March 13. It was when we close my business core Columbia. So that's how I was using juice as that barometer, but that's good to know. Okay, so as a business owner, how did you respond?

Caleb Mathis 5:34
I basically, uh, you know, you know, just trying to go back and think through it, john really was a little bit of shell shock in the beginning, sure. But is this an overreaction? Is this is this just some kind of crazy blown up thing but after a couple days of that just kind of getting over it? First thing I wanted to respond to do is Hey, Are we safe? Are we a safe place for customers to come to? Is this a safe place for my team to work? Is this a safe place for me to be? Right? Nobody knew anything about this virus. Nobody. Everyone just knew that it was bad in China. And it was coming over here quick. And so those were the top priorities, top thoughts in my mind, and then very swiftly behind that was, are we going to be okay, is my business going to be okay, are we going to be able to stay open? Are we going to have to shut down what's happening? And I would tell you, John, in the beginning, there was a major there was a major feeling. I'm sorry, this

John Meese 6:42
This is rea small business, right?

Caleb Mathis 6:44
Yeah. It's a real small business. Yeah, that's right. So we have a phone call in here. So I thought I had that muted. But anyway, I will tell you, john, in the beginning, we really had just an onset of fear. And so I had to overcome that fear and Realize that I'm in a position of influence with my team and in my community. And so, after the onset of fear, I decided to respond and say, Okay, guys, let's start working on a plan to stay open, to stay employed with who wants to stay employed. I think initially, there's a lot of fear people didn't want to come to work. But those who want to work those who can work, how do we continue serving our community? How do we continue keeping this team employed? And how do we make it?

John Meese 7:30
Yeah. Well, and what so let's talk about that. What does that mean, exactly? What kind of strategies that you put in place?

Caleb Mathis 7:38
Yeah, what that really started mean and John is we had our dining room close. And so fortunately for us, we'd already really put a pretty big focus early on with making sure that we were kind of amping up our drive thru experience, but this kind of started to force us in to making that the number one priority because now we've shut down the dining room, we've shut down public restrooms I didn't completely shut down carry out service, but it was virtually non existent. So the only way forward was going to be through mobile curbside ordering and through drive thru, right. And so basically, that's where we said, okay, let's stick our eggs in this basket. This is the way we we can serve our community. This is the way we stay employed. This is the way we make sales. So it began, we really began the conversation of how do we make this better than it's ever been faster than it's ever been? Because this is our lifeline. And if it doesn't work, if it's limited, then there's no other way.

John Meese 8:47
Yeah. Well, how has the economic crisis affected your business so far? Because we're talking now in July so if you know a few months have passed since then, we've we've seen some of the ups and downs. So how has that impacted your business?

Caleb Mathis 8:59
So I'll say we have been incredibly fortunate and blessed to have come out through this thing up to this point doing okay, beginning we took a dip. We were really having a banner year going into this. I mean when I say banner year, I mean the best I've had of my career. I don't know what was going on, but people were buying a lot of chick. And I do think some of that was because of our focus on Drive Thru. And so we did take that initial dip. That was kind of scary. We we dropped about 23% off of our trend in sales, kind of immediately middle of March all the way through middle of April, and it was kind of a little scary at that point. When you go, Man, I'm having this incredible year and all of a sudden I'm dropping almost 25% of my business, overnight, right now. And that's that's a great position compared to many other things people in certian areas

John Meese 10:01
Lots of people dropped 100%. Overnight,

Caleb Mathis 10:03
Exactly 100% 75... I mean, so 25% is substantial, but not as bad as it could have been. And so we, we got through that in March. Yeah. So think about middle of March through middle of April. So it was like a month, but not a true fiscal month. And so, as we got in the middle of April, I could tell when the stimulus checks came in, because when those stimulus checks started coming in, our business started to pick back up. I think people got a little more settled, the initial fear wave kind of started to move on a little bit. And so I think people still want to eat and they had a little more money in their pocket. And so throughout all this, John, we've managed to rebound in April, with winded up with a sales increase. Not a strong one. But we did have a sales increase. And then in May it's like we hit the rocket fuel here and just through through it all on the fire and just blast it off here and we had a banner month in May, we had a record month actually.

John Meese 11:16
are those are highest gross sales

Caleb Mathis 11:18
Highest sales we've ever had in a month. That's right, and that's what the dining room closed. So we did not introduce any new service in May, we didn't open our dining room back up, even though certain capacities were lifted in May, and but for them to May, being a national brand we kind of have to work with a parent company and and want to be mindful of what is reflective of the brand nationwide. And so chick fil a asked us to remain closed and my team felt safer with it being closed as well. And so but despite that, we had a record month and and so in June was also a very strong month for us as well. So that's good. We're coming out hopeful through this so far.

John Meese 12:06
Okay. Well, I'm curious, as you're talking to, you know, you talked a lot about your team. So that's important. But let's let's talk about your customers for a minute. So obviously, there's things you're doing that are changing and changes hard for any customer, let alone when the entire world is changing around them. So how did you communicate to your customers about the changes that were happening? And was there anything you did in terms of either customer service or marketing communication that you felt like was particularly effective?

Caleb Mathis 12:29
Yeah, so a couple things that we did that I that really early on, I felt like were really important. The first thing I did was I kept in pretty strong communication with my team, my actual team members. One I did, I tried to make sure that they understood what was going on. As we went through, I didn't leave them in the dark. I tried to make sure that they had a clear picture of where we're at and what's going on. And I feel like that created a little bit of stability for them, which in turn when it comes customer is dealing with a team member that is unsure. I think that's going to create kind of a bad vibe and a bad experience. Whereas my team understood what we were doing for safety, what we were doing to kind of keep things going. And so I think that was the number one thing that we did well, from there going to the actual guest, John, I did communicate through social media and said, Hey, we're dealing with the, with the best information we can, we're following CDC guidelines. We are working on safe service. And we're committed to cleanliness, sanitation and and really social distancing, to make sure that you are able to get fed have your needs met and not have to worry about safety and security. And so that was, I think, really important to get that message out there. I think a lot of people were trying to make sure their message was heard. I just wanted to make sure my customers knew directly from me. It wasn't just a corporate branded. little note, it was actually a personal one for me. And from there, you know, I've mentioned early on about the fear that kind of set in for us. So one that I was that kind of hit me one day when I was meeting with my top level leaders. I, we were just talking about that. We said, How do we, how do we inspire hope into our team? How do we keep positive thinking going? How do we overcome fear? And so one thing that just hit me while I was I was doing that said, You know what, we advertise a lot of things, in this business. We advertise products, we advertise our service, whatever. So why don't we advertise some hope and positivity? No, we got together and we made some of the cheesiest sayings you can think of whether it was choose hope or have a great day share a smile, and we made up about 15 real estate signs with these designs had no product placement, no advertising for sales, we only wanted to advertise hope. That moment and we wanted to bring positivity to the table

John Meese 15:14
You put those on your property

Caleb Mathis 15:17
Yeah, so we put those everywhere. And then I specifically wanted, we got an 18 foot banner across the railing that is in our drive thru. So every customer that comes through our drive-through that gets to see this banner that says meal town is strong, choose hope. And you know, today that's still there. But in the beginning, I felt like that was really important for our customers and this community to see, hey, we're a strong community. We're going to get through this. It's going to be hard. There's going to be challenges, but I wanted them to know that we were not only committed to their safety, but we're committed. We're committed to making this a positive place for people to come. I wanted them to feel uplifted and if they can't come in my dining room and Get second mile service and all the things that we provide with chick fil a, I want them to at least come onto my lot in my building and and be there and No, man, we're going to get through it.

John Meese 16:13
Well, I love that. And I could say as a customer that's come to the drive thru quite a few times in the last few months with my kids. You know, don't worry kids, we're going to go get to waffle fries that we've enjoyed seeing those sides. They've brought a smile to my face. So that's good. And you know, a meal town for anybody who's listening. And it's like, wait a second what? So we live in Columbia, Tennessee, the mule capital of the world. We all affectionately referred to our town as mill town. So, kale, you mentioned something there briefly about second mile service, and I know what you're talking about, but would you mind expanding on that concept a little bit? Because I think that's one of the things that really inspired you to put the signs out there. Right. There's no marketing, there's no sales strategy attached to putting signs out there that say, you know, have hope, you know, right, so yeah, so what is second mile service?

Caleb Mathis 16:57
Yeah, so second mile service is kind of a Chick-fil-a concept. Our owner, Dan Cathy, really introduced probably a decade or so ago, maybe even a little longer, but I'm gonna say around a decade. And it was kind of the concept that, hey, regular service, you know, getting your order, right, fast service, clean restaurant, all those kind of things are really just basic needs in a dining experience, whether it's quick service or dine in somewhere, though, so we call that first mile. You expect it when you go in. Second mile is what is not expected. It's that above and beyond. And I tell you, it's one of those things when it was introduced, it seemed like a foreign concept, especially for quick service, fast food kind of environment where you go, what does that look like? Well, that's when you're sitting at your table and someone comes by and says, Can I refresh your beverage or can I carry your tray for you or can I remove this tray for you? And you didn't have to get up, you didn't have to change anything or anticipating needs. And really the way that we kind of inspire our team to do it, I don't tell them, hey, do X, Y, and Z. And that second mile service, tell them, Hey, this is serving from the heart. So this is the parameters, like we want it to be something above and beyond, but make that unique for how you want to interact with that guest that day. And I think that kind of keeps it organic. And it's been something I think it's been successful for Chick-fil-a.

John Meese 18:32
Oh, very much, though. Very much. So I think that Yeah, I've seen that be incredibly successful for chick fil a in terms of building a tribe of, I mean, I don't know any other. You know, at the end of the day, it's a fast food restaurant that sells chicken, right. So I don't know any other fast food restaurant that sells chicken that has such a diehard loyal fan base, because they feel loved there which is special. So so thank you for sharing that. I think that's a special concept, I think, and I would would it be fair to say that that kind of that inspired your approach with You know, whether it be with the signs or with you know,

Caleb Mathis 19:02
100% You know, john, I think that whole thing is just influenced the way that I lead and do business. It's really a heart issue at the end of the day for us not, I think that's what makes it unique. There's a lot of places that do a lot of nice things. And I think there's businesses that do it and not realize that they're doing it because they're just good people. But we've kind of captured it and said, Hey, like, what's above and beyond for our customer? And I think advertising hope is above and beyond.

John Meese 19:31
That's great. I love that. So Caleb, let's talk to a sec for a second. I love to get your advice for other business owners who are in a similar position, right? So whatever the crisis may be, it may still be COVID-19, or the great lockdown and maybe another crisis, but there's someone listening to this right now, who they're in a similar position as a small business in a small town with a team and they're trying to figure out how do I build my business in this economy in this crisis? How do I lead my team? What advice do you have for that business owner.

Caleb Mathis 20:02
So it's going to be unique for your situation clearly, but I think the first start for anything is taking a moment, excuse me a moment to catch your breath. Because the next step that you make after you've been hitting the face with a with a crisis, you know, it's, it's one thing to avoid getting punched or know that a punch is coming, but when something punches you unexpectedly, their next move determines how the fight goes in my opinion. And it's not just getting up. It's not just taking a swing at something. You have to make a quick decision, but you got to take a moment to say, okay, I've just get I've just gotten hit in the face. I've just gotten punched. What do I do next? And I think that the first step has to be securing your team Because your team's the economic engine of whatever you're doing, you may only have one team member that works for you. Or you may have in my case, we have 92 team members on our, our payroll. So we're not as small as we used to be when you work for me, John. But, but how do you get your arms around, working with, with your team, whatever that looks like and making them not only feel safe, but also feel like hey, okay, I'm in this with you. You're, you're part of what we're doing. Let's let's move forward together. We need each other in this situation because they need to understand that that if the business isn't running, eventually someone doesn't get paid. Right? And so I think that's the first step you got to make but from there, then it's okay, how do we do this? what's what's going on? assess your reality. You know, for us, we realized even though we kept carry out open, customers did not want to come in and get the dine in, through carry out experience if that if that's a thing, right? Because they're unsure, there's so many things they're unsure of. So instead, they're wanting to go through a drive thru they're wanting a mobile experience that may be kind of touchless to an extent. Yeah. And then there's some people who justmdon't care either way, they're just trying to get some chicken. And through that we had to really say, Okay, what is this one of our customers need? And the hardest part, john, is when you're in a pandemic. Normally, we have months if not years worth of data and understanding what customers want. So then we can craft our business and we can shape things and we can do whatever we want to do. But let's not forget, we just got punched in the face and the fights not over. So it's not months and months of data. Instead, you got to go Okay, what do I think my customer needs, and then let's respond and you got to be flexible because sometimes you may have made one more step. wasn't quite right. You got to move again. Quick. And that's just my advice to you get your team on board, get them secure, make sure that vision is still strong, even if it's kind of altered a little bit because of circumstances, and just be transparent. Hey, guys, I don't know what we're doing. I don't know what to do. I don't have the there's no pandemic plan book out. Not yet. Anyway, maybe I know. Well, we might get one by the end of this, John

John Meese 23:29
have you played the board game? It's I guess that's pretty close to a handbook.

Caleb Mathis 23:32
Yeah. But I don't want to respond to the to the like, the craziness that's not anything about business and so. And so I think being able to assess that and say, Hey, we don't know what to do. But we have to do something. And let's let's do our best. What do we think this is? And let's let's try our best with it. I think the businesses that I've seen do that have become agile, and they figured it out even though it was messy. Then there's some that that kind of said, well, we're just going to wait this out and go back to business as usual, not just business as usual. A little ways away.

John Meese 24:08
Yeah. Well, thank you, Caleb. I think that's sound advice. I appreciate you sharing that. So Caleb, where can we find you? Normally, I would say we find you learn about you online. But in your case, where can we find you to get some chicken?

Caleb Mathis 24:18
That's right. So we are 605 South James Campbell Boulevard. That's Columbia, Tennessee. So we are on the kind of South End of Columbia. And we're kind of nestled in a kind of a busy growing area here, near the hospital near Walmart. And we're loving life.

John Meese 24:39
We'll get lots of stuff out and get some chicken and waffle fries this weekend.

Caleb Mathis 24:43
Yeah, after after we've set some new records. It's been awesome

John Meese 24:45
Thats great. I love to hear that. Well. Thank you, Caleb. I appreciate your time. Keep up the good work.

Caleb Mathis 24:49
Thanks.

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