Bartender Becomes CEO after Long Road to the Top
Business can sometimes be about ego. If someone is told no, it can be easy to hold a grudge and move on to other opportunities.
Tijuana Flats CEO, Brian Wright, is not that kind of leader.
In 2016 Brian was among a group of candidates very interested in becoming the new leader for Tijuana Flats, a popular Tex-Mex, fast-casual restaurant chain based in Florida with 125 locations across the state and in North Carolina, Indiana, and Virginia.
“I always had my eye on the brand because it had so many things that are important in the industry to be successful,” said Wright.
He liked the brand’s style and hospitality. He loved the food, and he saw the potential. But, unfortunately for Wright, the brand liked someone else better.
“Someone beat me out,” Wright said with a chuckle.
Wright took another CEO job and waited. He continued to admire Tijuana Flats from afar, knowing he wanted to get a second chance if the opportunity ever came up. Three years later, the job opened again, and this time it was his.
“Even though the opportunity slipped by me once, I really wanted to make sure I came back around to get in position the second time,” he said.
From Bartender to CEO
Brian Wright didn’t grow up dreaming of being a CEO. He was in college when he took a random bartending job at Bennigan’s.
“It was the early days of Benningan’s, when it had only been around for about five years,” he said.
He quickly fell in love with the pace and the atmosphere. He worked his way through every job he could, from washing dishes to cooking food.
He eventually impressed enough people to be sent to management training. The random job became a passion and a career, and he’s been working his way through the industry ever since.
He’s now been in the business for more than 35 years and has held several different executive roles, including serving as CEO of Bertucci’s Italian Restaurant, COO of Au Bon Pain, and President of Chevy’s Restaurants.
“I’ve always loved being a leader, and the restaurant business and my skillset really seemed to match well,” Wright said.
A Hands-On Approach
Wright has been in executive roles for almost two decades now, but he likes to know what is going on inside the restaurants. He truly cares about the customers and employees and wants to make sure both groups always have a great experience when they come to a Tijuana Flats.
“I really pride myself on rolling up my sleeves and staying involved,” he said. “I am by no means suggesting other CEOs don’t do that, but I think it can be easy for executives to find themselves getting further and further away from the business itself simply because of the demands of the job.”
It’s the personal interaction he really loves and wants to make sure he carves out time for.
“I spend a lot of time in the actual restaurants talking to people,” Wright said. “I want to know what is working and what isn’t working, and the only way you can really know that is when you talk to the customers and employees as well.”
Making Big Changes
Wright is now in his second year running Tijuana Flats, and he’s really taking the brand to a new level, including a return to the franchising model for the first time in 13 years.
The company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, feels the time is right to try to expand rapidly to take advantage of the popularity of Tex-Mex food.
“I think this is an underserved brand,” said Wright. “I would often have extended family visit me in Florida, and they would all ask me to bring a Flats to their area. Now we will have that chance.”
The changes aren’t stopping with franchising. Tijuana Flats is also looking for unique locations to get the brand in front of potential customers. They recently signed deals with the University of Florida and Florida State University for prime spots in the concession areas at the football, basketball, and baseball stadiums.
Wright also has his eye on the state’s many major airports.
“I think we should be part of the gateway to the city and state,” Wright said. “Having a presence at the Orlando or Tampa airport could be a great opportunity.”
Missing an opportunity for a job once can make a person even more eager to prove he is the correct choice, and that’s Wright’s mission right now. He truly believes in the company he is running and wants to see it succeed.
“I think there is an excellent opportunity for growth here,” Wright said. “I think Tijuana Flats has in the past, and will continue to provide in the future, an environment where customers fall in love with our brand.”