BTC Podcast Ep 5: Corey Kline, Noodles & Company & Caring for the Customer | Hathway

BTC Podcast Ep 5: Corey Kline, Noodles & Company & Caring for the Customer

Published by Kevin Rice, CMO
July 2, 2020

Corey Kline, Noodles & Company & Caring for the Customer

On the fifth episode of our food and beverage podcast, Beyond the Counter, we welcome Noodle & Company’s Corey Kline. As the VP of IT, Corey tells Jesse and Kevin how a strong partnership between his team, marketing and operations has been critical to the company’s success and the steps they took to create that cross-department alignment and support. He also shares where they refuse to cut corners, the type of technology they’re getting into next and how their commitment to being truly guest-focused has contributed to the company’s culture and success.

Check out this episode and a handful of others on your favorite podcast platform or the video below.

 

Video Transcription

Kevin:

Corey, how’s it going man?

Corey:

Good! How are you fellas doing?

Jesse:

Great.

Kevin:

Fantastic, how are you hanging in? Are you guys post quarantine at this point?

Corey:

I guess we are – in the Denver and the Boulder area. Honestly, we’re still not venturing out a whole lot given we live about 20 minutes outside of town in the mountains and there’s just not a ton of reason to anyways. It’s not that different from our day to day, other than our office for Noodles & Company is not formally open at the moment. Even if you are using the office, it’s not a very good space for any sort of collaboration. My biggest reason for leaving the house in 2019 was to go to work. And since I don’t need to travel to work, I’m at home, it’s great.

Kevin:

Gosh, we must be 80 or 90 days into this. How are you staying sane?

Corey:

Well actually we’re pretty lucky. My mother-in-law moved in with us. She relocated from Florida at the start of March. I have gotten a lot of sympathy from folks for having a really young child at this time when schools are closed and he just started going to school. We’re really lucky that there’s three adults in the house that can spend time with him and, Jane has spent a ton of time with him during the day.

Kevin:

Nice. I saw some photos Jesse, took your son out paddle boarding the other day?

Jesse:

Yeah, I took my a 10 and a half month old paddle boarding the other day.

Corey:

I saw that, it was darling.

Jesse:

He took to it like a fish in water, but man, if I didn’t have my wife at home taking care of him, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this quarantine, so good on you for bringing in the expert help. We had talked about bringing the in-laws in and we kept kicking the can down the road. So it’s like, Oh, it’s only going to be another couple of weeks. They’d have to quarantine for 14 days anyways. And now we’re just like, Oh, we wish you would have!

Corey:

Time to make that call.

Jesse:

So Corey, what’s your what’s your favorite quarantine drink or refreshment?

Corey:

Oh you know, curbside beer pickup is great.

Kevin:

Something really satisfying about it.

Corey:

Yeah, right. What else is satisfying about it is that I’ve been trying to only go every three weeks. My mom better not hear this right…! I’m a beer drinker, you get to buy this insane quantity of beer. I feel like I’m in college, except for the fact that it’s 10 times the cost because I don’t drink s**t anymore.

Kevin:

Right. Yeah.

Corey:

Yeah. Like I said, I’m mostly a beer drinker. I love everything from Melvin brewing. They’re outside of Jackson, Wyoming just delicious beer and it’s been a nice time to enjoy as much of their product as the sunset will allow.

Kevin:

We’ll have to get a happy hour on the books here sometime soon. I know our teams have done it, so we’ll have to keep them regular as we’re still getting on the other side of quarantine.

Jesse:

Did I not get invited to the Noodles happy hour? What’s up with that?

Corey:

Matt is the only one who gets invited, but you can be invited too!

Jesse:

We’re hosting our own for clients. Maybe they just knew you guys already had one.

Corey:

We were due for a great trip out to spend time with you all. I was so looking forward to that just because I like it out there, but also it was going to be a really good time to kind of re-baseline. I’m like “Really!.. now? It’s a bad idea to get on a plane right now. Can it be like in a week?”

Kevin:

Thanks again for joining us. We’re excited to chat a little bit about you, your role, kind of what you do at Noodles & Company. We’ve had the pleasure of working together for a few years now. You’re the VP of IT at Noodles & Co maybe you could start by just telling us a little bit about yourself, your role and your time at Noodles.

Corey:

I lead our IT team. We’re like a lot of restaurant companies that are pretty multidisciplinary team. We support everything from the partnerships around digital, which is also in close partnership with our marketing team anymore. All the restaurants systems – we support the network, we support the phones, support all the enterprise applications, data and analytics. We’ve got a lean team of 24, I consider us really fortunate for the team that we do have. The restaurant industry is small, we all talk, I know all of my peers. We’re more fortunate with both the talent and the size of our team than a lot of organizations are. We have a pretty seasoned team, we do have some pretty new folks to the organization, but we have a number of people that have been with us for a very long time, including one member of our IT team is the longest tenured employee in the entire company, the entire company. You go into the HR system and sort by hire date and it’s him, which is neat.

Jesse:

Are you allowed access to the HR management system?

Corey:

No, not across the board. I have asked to see that just because it’s interesting. My nine years pales in comparison to his.

Kevin:

Tell us a little about the last few months, the impact COVID-19 had on the organization. Really curious, personally for you, how did that affect your day to day or your role within the organization? Did you find yourself focusing on different areas? And, how did you adapt and pivot the organization or the IT organization to help keep the business afloat?

Corey:

Yeah, for sure. We call it 19 now? Is that the running term? I like that!

Kevin:

COVID-19?

Kevin:

I thought you just said “19”. I was like we’re just calling it 19 now. You guys are from California.

Jesse:

We’re on a nickname basis. We’ve been friends for 90 days now.

Corey:

I haven’t thought about it a lot. I think that a lot of us have just been kind of following instinct. I wouldn’t say reactive, I don’t feel we’ve just been reactive. I think we’ve been doing some really interesting things, but I haven’t really thought about making it an intentional pivot. It’s just been one that kinda intuitively, I and others have made. I’m fortunate that we have a pretty significant commitment within our IT team to just really solid technology support across the board. For the corporate side of the equation, especially for the restaurant side of the equation. I think that’s an area that some organizations tend to kind of try to cut corners. Frankly, that makes zero sense to me. We’ve been very focused on that for about four years. As this hit, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time making sure that the foundation either was stable or remains stable, every day. That’s super important because directionally it’s about right. Call it a three X increase in the instance of digital sales, overnight. Well maybe over three nights to get to that number.

Kevin:

I think you guys saw Dave was quoted saying digital sales were up 50% in April compared to March and 99% in the same period from last year.

Corey:

When you’ve got an increase like that, the connectivity to the restaurant. Then that whole ecosystem, for the life cycle of a digital order, becomes three times more important. Not having to worry about that ecosystem, at all, has been just such a blessing. But we, as a group, we are paying a lot more attention to it.

Corey:

We were basically able to run the plays that we’ve run before, but we’re paying a lot of attention to that. We paid attention to it before. You think about these digital sales a year ago, it’s just a shame to lose one because of something not functioning in ecosystem. Because you had it, Right? It was a shame to lose one before now. Now it it’s all of the sales. Right. I think my focus has been convenience for a long time for our guests, but really like how we go about doing that has also evolved a little bit. We really tended to think about things, polish ideas execute against them very carefully. And I mean, I’m not saying anything that any of my peers wouldn’t say it. I’m not saying anything that you two don’t know either, but we’re just moving a lot faster right now. So ensuring that the right guardrails are there so that while we move at this speed, we don’t we don’t break anything and it’s always progress, especially progress for our guests, takes some attention.

Jesse:

Fortunately for both of us had made some significant investments in digital for online ordering and loyalty, in the last year leading to COVID. Can you give us some examples of how those investments have paid off? You mentioned stability and just reliability, but have you been able to make any sort of pivots? Has it been more flexible? Have you been able to see any increase in metrics related to each order, conversions and AOV, those sorts of things?

Corey:

Some of the order dynamics that you talk about have certainly changed. Some of them are just shifts. They could be improvements, but they are certainly shifts. They could be improvements. I mean, seeing larger checks, right? We’re all seeing that it doesn’t necessarily mean that sales are up unless you have larger checks and you have more of them. But certainly that’s a different ordering dynamic. What has been beneficial with our digital ordering properties is the flexibility in changing them and evolving them to this situation. We were able to activate curbside in a matter of days, which other organizations were able to do too. Some for whom, perhaps it was more curbside has been more native, and casual dining, for example, they already had it in some form.

For us, when you look at activating something like that, it was a user experience change, a technology change and very huge, it’s an operations change. Having the infrastructure, having control over the user experience, having a flat, flexible technical footprint and having an operating model that has flexibility, which is I think taken for granted sometimes in our organization. We have a really good operations team. We have a really good interface with our operations services team. That’s part of our central support office. Watching that group execute that pivot so quickly, just incredible, incredible. I mean, there was a Saturday morning phone call with hundreds of operators and on Monday morning we were taking orders out to cars at over 300 restaurants, from only having done it at 30 a few days before that.

Kevin:

That’s pretty amazing.

Corey:

And guests just being blown away by it.

Jesse:

Do you think curbside is here to stay for Noodles and if it is, are there going to be steps you’re taking to better operationalize it or optimize the user experience or the food quality.

Corey:

We’ve talked about that a lot, we do think it’s here to stay. I think I can say this really genuinely, I can for myself and I’m high level of confidence that I can say it for other leaders in the organization too. It’s not necessarily because we’re viewing it as a sales building lever. It’s just a good thing to do for people, right? It makes people feel good to have the option. So we do think it’s here to stay. Maybe not in all of our restaurants, but in many of them. And frankly, just because it’s a way that we can say that we appreciate people. It’s just really simple.

Kevin:

I did curbside pickup at a Best Buy the other day to pick something up. It was a little bit more of a manual process, so it wasn’t a digital interface I could check in and say, I’m here and bring it out to me. I had two kids in the car and not having to get out, especially right now – with all just health and safety concerns. Being able to stay in the car, have them bring it to my window and drive away was just a huge convenience factor. Giving people the freedom of choice, whether they want to pick up in store when the world kind of comes back to normal, but, delivery, curbside pickup, all of these options are going to be critical. They’re not nice to have those anymore.

Corey:

Honestly, there may be people that never use it, but if know that we have it, I think it says something about how we feel about you as a guest. I know that’s what we’re trying to say to our guests, even that don’t use that method – just that we care. We are looking at what are the best next steps, what are the right ways to optimize it? There’s such a basket of possibilities and we’re trying to figure out the ones that are gonna make the greatest difference for the guests and for the operator, and make sure that we move the experience forward for both sides of the equation there. I have seen some cases where you move it forward from a guest perspective and it makes things really hard inside the restaurants, or you use something that’s operationally is just easy to nail but it just lacks the interactivity that a guest needs.

Jesse:

I experienced this the other day, I did curbside pickup at Target. They have, on paper, a really good system. Theoretically, they’ll send you an email or push notification when it’s okay to leave your house. Then you check in and let them know you’re leaving your house. I think you maybe check in when you get there, but they never texted me. I was kind of impatient and I needed it, picking up something for my wife’s fitness class she was teaching, so I had a deadline and never got it. So I showed up and just walked in expecting target to be really busy, there was nobody in there. It was a Sunday morning at 8:30 or 9 o’clock, there’s nobody in there at all. There was a ton of team members that were just milling about, as far as I could tell, just not actually doing anything. So I went up and actually picked the thing up from the island, walked it over to the counter and checked out. Then canceled the curbside order. To me, it was actually frustrating because you had plenty of staff on hand. Now, I know it was probably happening is only like two or three people responsible for collecting curbside orders and they were probably busy, but you gotta deliver on the promise to consumers. Like you mentioned, that’s probably an operational thing. Doesn’t matter the technology you make available to the customers and the convenience that you promise. If you can’t deliver on it, then, you might actually sour that perception longterm.

Corey:

Well, it’s interesting, you mentioned it that way too. One of the things that we’ve been looking at options for quite some time is around order status. Not to necessarily the Domino’s degree, different operating model, different product, but a rational level of order status. Now as we rapidly increased the number of digital orders, order status is something that, curbside aside, there’s some pretty powerful use cases for it. But I think as part of the curbside thing, it makes a lot of sense because what you’re describing Jessie is you’re telling them every last bit of your status, but they’re not telling you where they’re at.

Kevin:

So Corey Noodles is a little bit further along, I’d say actually probably much further along than, most restaurants in that kind of overall digital transformation journey. You guys underwent some massive initiatives last year that put you in, frankly a really good position to be able to be nimble and adaptive with some of the new capabilities that you were able to offer to your customers. Tell us a little bit about kind of what that experience has been like, and I’d love to hear any sort of guidance or thoughts you might have for restaurant organizations that are maybe further behind the digital maturity curve, where Noodles was at maybe a few years ago. Just kind of tell us about the experience and any pearls of wisdom you might have for listeners.

Corey:

Depending on how you look at it, it can be a really, really big topic. You can pursue kind of one piece of the pie or there’s a whole ecosystem that you can try to build out. I think it’s important for organizations to kind of understand what the whole ecosystem, when it comes to digital and guest engagement, looks like. Not so that they can go after it, but so that they can figure out what the right fit for them is when it comes to the approach. And also the goal – is the goal a 360 view of the guest, if so, why? It can’t just be intellectually interesting. But then, just picking how to proceed through the journey. I think for us, one of the most valuable things in the present state is the flexibility that we have with our digital properties. A few years ago, we weren’t ready for that. We didn’t have enough experience with the needs of our guests and the functioning of our menu. There’s just all the factors unique to our brand. I think to own the platform with the degree of flexibility that we have today. I mean, frankly, it could have been messy because there would have been too many dials to turn, decisions to make. Thankfully, we’ve been on this journey. I’ll be off about this, somebody listening to this from Noodles catch me with a different date, but we’ve had an iOS app for something like 11 years. Noodles is one of the first organizations that I knew, especially at the size that was before I worked for the organization. So we’ve had we’ve had a presence for a long time. And we’ve had the luxury of being able to kind of proceed in a very measured way along the journey.

And I think now in the present state, we know enough about our guests and our menu. I mean, we still have a lot to learn, we still have a lot to learn. We have a lot of ground we can still cover when it comes to really fine tuning that presence and evolving that presence. While the flexibility that it as allowed us as probably the most significant accomplishment from what we started about a year ago. The other part of it is not to be underestimated, having an infrastructure that we were able to scale again, over three nights to three times the volume. That’s huge because if the guest demand had just scaled up a 3X and had all broken that could have been the end of it.

Kevin:

Yeah. So seeing quite a few that just didn’t make it through. If somebody looked at it hard, there’s probably some parallel between the brands that didn’t make it and how much they had previously invested in their technology or guest facing technology. But guest facing technology is still fairly new. It’s really only been around for say five years, five to eight years maybe with some exceptions, like some of the pizza brands or Starbucks, but for the most part, most restaurants weren’t doing online ordering. The entire restaurant and technology ecosystem has become so much more complicated. When you first started with Noodles, you were probably dealing with more back office systems. Point of sale was probably the closest that you got to consumers and now it’s all changed. So with that, the role of IT has changed, tell us a little bit about kind of how you’re thinking about your role within the organization or IT’s role within the organization.

Corey:

There’s still a classic, IT if you will, need within our organization. We certainly service that throughout our department, there just is, networks and hardware and things like that. I think that partnering with other parts of the organization, and it’s certainly it’s becoming a frequent topic or a trendy topic to talk about the relationship of it and marketing. Certainly, I have a couple of thoughts on that, but IT and operations. The way that we partner with our operations teams at a team member level and at a leadership level is just imperative to the success of the organization. It’s something that in the first restaurant company I worked for – No, you don’t need to talk to operations, you make sure the POS works and move on with things. As we think about the team members in the restaurant, and I think successful brands have team members who care about the guests, have time to really be present for the guests. If you think that is important, then I.T. and operations, having a strong partnership becomes really important because you start to be really strategic about how you can remove concern, remove friction from the team members, with respect to the technology and a lot different way than you used to. So the team members are very freed, right. Our goal is to free the team member as much as possible, to spend time with the guests. Even that’s a really huge partnership for us.

Jesse:

When you think about, if operations job is to make and handoff the food, then they’re the last mile. And they’re almost like your customer. If you’re not making them happy, if you’re not facilitating, food being made quickly or properly at the right timing, quality, and actually getting into the customer’s hands, then what good is the digital ordering platform or the loyalty platform or the point of sale or payments or any of that.

Corey:

It feels kind of overly basic to say, but I think it’s important. You can’t underestimate the importance of that relationship. I spend a lot of time with our marketing team, it’s energizing, it’s invigorating. I have a lot of really exciting, fun parts of my job. I wouldn’t say it’s the most fun part of my day. I’m lucky I have a lot of the most fun parts of my day. I think it has a lot to do with the folks that I work with. A couple of weeks ago, we were working on something and of course now it’s all virtual. I joined into a meeting and somebody said, “Oh, good. Corey’s here. Did you change to the marketing department?” We got a laugh out of it. I took that as a good sign, meaning that myself and I think a few other members of the team that I support are very present for that department. At the same token, the fact that it really isn’t much of a topic is a good thing because, departments are departments. They’re to me, a way to facilitate performance reviews. It makes it so you can have an org chart because if you just put a hundred people’s names on a piece of paper, it just looks messy. We’re actually all trying to do the same thing. We shouldn’t try and do the same thing. It shouldn’t matter if I’m a marketing team member or a marketer or a technologist or an it team member. We’re trying to prove to present remarkable experiences to our guests, period. That’s how I think the role of I.T. should be changing.

Kevin:

From our purview, you got to have a fantastic relationship with marketing and obviously ops as well. We’ve seen it working with many restaurant organizations that IT and marketing can be fairly siloed and there can be a bit of like a turf war over digital and customer experience between the two. But like you said, at the end of the day, these are functions that all have to work together to support the guests. Is there anything in particular that you guys do to create that kind of alignment and success you’ve had between your functions?

Corey:

That’s a good question. It just feels very natural in our organization – I think that comes from the guest focus. Every restaurant company does this, right? You don’t talk about them as customers, you talk about them as guests. Every restaurant company has these highly branded values. I’m familiar with it. And every one of them says, but at our company we live them, but our company we live in, we really did. I think that if you look at our investment, the size of our investment in digital it’s much more significant than a number of other brands that are our size. I see some of these investment decisions and it’s very clear that they’re made with a focus on ROI. Well, why would we add that functionality or pursue that approach? Because we can’t get a return either. If we forecast it out, we have not gone about things that way. You guys know that. And in this case, I think that that’s right, because what we’ve focused on is we want our guests to have a great experience with us. We’re about variety, we’re about choice. We want our guests to have, we value them enough to provide them with the same experience, no matter how they choose to engage with us. Who don’t want you to have to go into the restaurant to have the same experience that you , that you may want to have from a digital perspective. That’s going around your question a number of ways, but it just sounds like corporate culture and leadership, right? You have great leadership that instills the corporate culture and it’s been work and alignment around the guests experience that creates a natural , running after the same thing, and it kinda makes some of the mechanics of it less important.

Kevin:

Corey, thanks so much for joining us today. Really appreciate your time. Appreciate you sharing your wisdom, stay safe out there and look forward to having you out to San Luis Obispo for a visit sometime in the hopefully near future.

Kevin:

Yeah. That sounds great. Fellows was good to see ya.

Jesse:

All right. Thanks Corey. Signing off.