Sunday, July 14, 2024

Power List interview: Biscuitville CEO Kathie Niven

Biscuitville CEO Kathie Niven joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview, a partnership for discussions with some of the state’s most influential leaders. Business North Carolina’s annual Power List publication spotlights the state’s power brokers.

    Kathie Niven joined Biscuitville in 2011 and has helped it rebrand as Fresh Southern, revamp its menu and triple annual revenue to $150 million. The Elon University grad had worked for Arby’s, Burger King and other fast food giants when she joined the regional chain, where she became CEO in 2021.

One of her early innovations was creating a “menu management assembly” process that produced the most successful promotional product-launch in company history – the spicy chicken and honey biscuit – resulting in product sales of $5.2 million annually and a 7% revenue impact. She also developed Biscuitville’s accredited college summer internship program.

Biscuitville’s roots go back to its founder, Maurice Jennings, opening two bread and milk stores in Burlington in 1966. The first Biscuitville opened in 1975 in Danville, Virginia. The chain now has 75 locations and still builds its reputation on scratch-made biscuits, Southern-style breakfasts. Stores close at 2 p.m. every day.

Niven took over as CEO from Burney Jennings, the founder’s son, who is now executive chair.

This story includes excerpts from Niven’s interview and was edited for clarity.

What makes the Biscuitville biscuit so good?

I think it’s a lot of things. I think it starts with the fact that it’s a family recipe. So when Maurice Jennings, our founder, started the company, it was a recipe that was personal for him. And then I think being family owned, how that quality comes across to the consumer is personal for the family. They take great pride in it.

The other important ingredient is that we use the same three ingredients that we always have. The first is the flour, and that’s from a company here in North Carolina. The second is we use shortening, and the third is our buttermilk. That is also from this area. So the ingredients matter a lot.

People can also watch us make them, and the integrity of how we make them the old-fashioned way.

You’re in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. Why aren’t you all over the country?
I think the family has always been committed to making sure that the culture of the company is in each one of the restaurants, and that just takes time to build. It’s about making sure that we go slowly enough to make sure that our processes are appropriate, the culture is appropriate, and meets the standards of the company.

So this is 100% family owned. It’s not a franchise or license based business?
That’s correct. Every restaurant is owned by the family and run by an operator who works directly with the family.

Tell me about your own background. What was your first job?
As soon as I graduated from college, I had spent the last four or five years really preparing for law school. So I came out of college doing an internship with the district attorney in Graham, North Carolina. On the side, a friend of mine, Nancy Allison, purchased a second Arby’s in Graham, and she asked if I’d help her on the weekends.

I didn’t know much about the industry, and she didn’t know much, which was sort of the magic. Everything was possible for us. So my father said, you know, this might be a better fit than law school.

I ended up staying for an extra year, and then before I knew it, it was seven years and we’d built those two restaurants up.

I suspect one of your biggest areas of focus is people in your business.
The recipe is the flour, but the people make it or break it. One of the most important things that the brand has focused on since 2014, when we did the full rebranding project, is how do we attract the talent that gets us where we think we can go?

We have agreed and spent years on this, and it came from the inside, not from top down. In addition to the values we looked at, we looked at who people would want to work beside.

What traits do they have?
We added something in the last five years called cultural norms, and they keep moving and morphing and those are just specific ways in which we treat each other. And so the agreement is you can come from any background, you can be anybody. As long as we can agree on these basic norms, you’re going to love it here.

Treating people with respect is a big one. One of the norms people love is the concept of communication. I can’t just yell something across the restaurant at you. Making people accountable for getting what they need by asking the right way is a surprising norm that came up from the people in the organization that has really made an impact. We have 19 of them. And so they’re similar to that sort of sentiment.

Consumers sometimes say there’s nothing fast about fast food. How do you manage that?It’s important. It’s breakfast, right? Everybody’s like, nobody leaves home an hour early for work, so we’re always dealing with consumers who are in a hurry and they have very high expectations. And being late is a problem. So that’s a condition of being in the breakfast business that we take very seriously.

We want to be convenient, and we want to get people there on time. So we invest in double drive-throughs. Every restaurant we build now will be double drive-through, which helps a lot. It’s just a big focus for us, and we spend a lot of time making sure.

How do you combine a griddle cooked egg that is cracked on a griddle and get it out the door in 90 seconds and make it the way you want it? There’s a real process and formula there that works.

Now, if you’re behind 10 cars, obviously it’s going to be a little bit different.

It just fascinates me how that system can keep up with all these demands.
It doesn’t matter how many systems or processes you have in place, those are never going to trump having a group of people who care about what’s happening. When the group cares about how fast it is, when they care about the quality, when they care about what they’re doing, it trumps the process and takes the process into a completely different level.

You started helping your friend at Arby’s on weekends and eventually became president in 2018 of Biscuitville. In 2021, you became CEO.

What is it about you that made you successful?
I think I was a sponge. First of all, I am a continual learner, and I look for that in the folks that run Biscuitville. We’re always looking for somebody who recognizes they can keep being better at what they do in their craft.

And I think the other piece is I care deeply about the products I create. This really came from my mom and dad and just the family values of leaving it better than you found it. And I think that’s really ingrained and matters because people want to see that.

What is it that makes you proud of being in business and working for a North Carolina company?
I think one of the most important things for being successful in the state, and I think it makes the state successful, is having a state that doesn’t give unfair advantages to companies, but that supports the fact that companies employ our people. They create the revenue that creates the systems that make it so enjoyable to be in North Carolina.

What’s next for Kathie Niven?
It’s interesting because we were all sharing our goals at a retreat two weeks ago, and I’ve sort of named mine CEO 3.0, which is what it is going to take in my development. What changes do I need to make to be the leader that the company needs now?

We’ve got an amazing leadership team. They could take it from here. So what value do I bring now? And I think part of that is spending more time just getting out there and building that culture, but also creating opportunities for some of the folks who work for us, who don’t have it.

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