That belief has been the basis of change for EatZi’s, which, between 2002 and 2006, experienced a drop in sales, service, and quality. But the years during which EatZi’s lost focus on the importance of the relationship between employees and customers weren’t the years Romano, who is also the company’s owner, was in charge. 

EatZi’s began as a joint venture project between Romano, 80%, and Brinker International, 20%. In 2002, he sold the company to a Boston-based investment group, maintaining only 15% ownership and a seat on the board. From that point until he stepped back into a majority ownership position in 2006, he watched from the sidelines as the culture and quality he had worked so hard to develop at this Dallas-based company started to go south. When the Boston-based company decided to start selling off the stores in the EatZi’s concept, Romano decided to buy it back.

“They were going to cut it up into pieces, so I bought the Dallas market,” he said. “Then they closed all of them down because they couldn’t sell them, so I bought the rest of it—the name and the concept. I ended up with the Dallas store with no debt and the concept.”

Back to basics

Romano said he decided to buy back EatZi’s, despite the struggles it was having, because it was still a great concept; it was     simply not being operated properly. The biggest problem he saw was that as the company expanded, the previous owners began putting in systems. 

“All of a sudden, my people and employees were operating a system rather than operating a concept or a restaurant,” he said. “They put the systems between the employees and the customer, and the employees got to be too concerned about the systems rather than the customers.”

With the exception of the updated register systems and the accounting and back office software, the first thing Romano did was remove the systems in place and go back to basics. He also put the power back into the hands of his employees and managers. Rather than giving the ordering power to an electronic system, the pen and paper method of ordering products was brought back to life.

The importance of this change, said Romano, is in how it moves the store away from a shelf culture, in which you put a product on the shelf and it sells itself, to one in which employees can discuss the finer details with their customers because they’ve been involved in the entire process.

The success of his strategy shows in the numbers. When Romano bought back EatZi’s, it was doing between $125,000 and $130,000 in sales each week. Today, the company does an average of $245,000 a week but has done more than $275,000 a week. And although the resurgence of a back-to-basics culture is a big part of the transition, Romano also believes it’s because he and his employees never doubt the intelligence of the consuming public. 

“You don’t have to tell them anything; you just have to do it,” said Romano. “They love EatZi’s. It’s a part of their lives. When they saw it going downhill, I was discouraged too. I     was getting complaints, but there was nothing I could do. Now it’s turned around.”

Better than anyone else

The scope of products and services offered at EatZi’s includes a chef’s case with specialty main courses and side dishes, meals for the taking, sandwiches and salads, a grille, an artisan bakery, a pastry shop, an espresso bar, and a wide variety of cheeses and wines. 

To maintain a high level of quality and service with such a wide variety of products, EatZi’s employees and managers are broken up into squads, one for each section. The leader of each squad, which can have anywhere up to 12 employees, is a manager, assistant manager, or manager-in-training. 

In addition to a chart at the back of the store detailing how each station should be handled, each EatZi’s employee is required to go through extensive training that culminates in a written test. Once the test for the department is passed, that employee is certified. For each certification, the employee gets a $.50 per hour bump. 

If employees want to be certified in all eight stations, they have the potential to get $4 more an hour. Romano said this system gives the company the flexibility to put anyone anyplace it wants to put them, saves on labor costs, and inspires employees to do well. “We can switch people around, and we know who is certified and not, so the store is run efficiently and effectively.”

Perhaps the biggest cultural enhancement to EatZi’s is what Romano calls the 10 Commandments, also known as EatZi’s Bill of Rights. The document was developed collaboratively and was spawned from one simple question: what are the 10 most important things about EatZi’s that if you changed any of them, the concept would not be the same?

The executive team, employees, and even customers responded with the following list: take care of the guest and provide great service at all times; serve only great tasting, chef-crafted food; always treat guests and each other with respect; maintain a “like new” facility; offer high quality products at a reasonable price; teach, train, and maintain a knowledgeable staff; provide a safe environment for all, guests as well as employees; always act professional; be the employer of choice; and, most importantly, have fun. 

“After we got this all done, we said, ‘Now we have it; we understand what it is to do better than anyone else,’” said Romano. “Now we know what’s important to the concept: focus on the customer.”