Leadership + People: Episode 19 - Dave Rutter - Part 1 of 2

In this episode CEO and President of Costa Vida, Dave Rutter shares what makes Costa Vida special. Rutter tells of his two mentors who, although very different, taught him the importance of working hard to do the job right, and focusing on those things of greater importance; people.

Show Notes

  • The difference that makes Costa Vida stand out from other restaurants is in quality food that makes you feel good [00:49]
  • Learning the importance of near perfection from his father in law [04:28]
  • A mentor whose business was second to his desire to serve the community [07:50]
  • How to inspire young men and women who do not view the job as a career [12:30]
  • Ways to stay in touch with your stores and employees and to beware of boardroom decisions [17:17]
  • Taking the time to meet with leaders from different industries leads to greater idea sharing, less wasted time and more business connections [21:01]

Show Audio

Show References

  • None of Note

This episode of Leadership and People was originally released on: January 30, 2018

Show Transcript

[BEGINS] 00:00

Welcome to Leadership and People. This is a series that pulls back the curtain on leadership by interviewing CEOs, Senior Executives and Entrepreneurs who had large exits. We ask these experts about how they built trusted networks to rapidly grow their companies.  And what advice they wish they knew if they could do it all again.

HOST – JESS LARSEN: Today on the show we’ve got Dave Rutter, president and CEO at Costa Vida.

GUEST – DAVE RUTTER: “Put ourselves at a table with five or six people who have the same type of experiences with you but in entirely different markets, and entirely different industries. And now you hear people who are overcoming challenges and issues that they’re dealing with but in an entirely different market.”

00:47 JL: Dave, thanks for making time.

DAVE RUTTER: Thank you Jess. Good to be with you today.

00:49 JL: So, congratulations by the way. On Monday opening the 88th location of your Costa Vida restaurant chain here. For people who aren’t – who haven’t been to Costa Vida can you talk to them about Costa Vida?

Not Another Fast Food Chain

DAVE RUTTER: Yeah. I can take our entire show talking about Costa Vida. We- I was out there for the opening actually. It’s in Apple Valley Minnesota. Beautiful, beautiful little city there. City that there really there is not a Costa Vida within hundreds of miles of this particular store. When we opened the store on Monday morning at 10:30 in the morning, there were about a 100 people or so in line. I had the great job of standing right there and welcoming everyone of them as they come up to the menu board. And just kind of telling them a little bit- giving them a peek behind the curtain, to use those words, into who Costa Vida is and what we do. Costa vida, we prepare everything from scratch. And from my earliest roots in the restaurant business that’s what I was taught and as we came into Costa Vida that’s exactly what they were doing at Costa Vida when we became franchisees many years ago. We take it all. I mean all the way from the beginning. Your going to- we cook our own meats on a daily basis. We make our own salsas. We make our own sauces. When you come up to the line your going to see those signature tortillas just coming off the grill. Just actually pressed out and cooked, and made there fresh for you. As you look down our line, there’s only two items on that entire line that even have gluten in them. And that’s our wheat tortilla and our flour tortilla. Everything else is gluten free. But the flavors will change your life. I mean, our food is tremendous. We will put our food up against anybody. I’ll never say we take the easy road. Because we don’t, I mean, we go to efforts that most aren’t willing to with their food. But it’s a difference you can taste. And It’s a difference you can feel after you eat our food. You feel good. You feel rejuvenated. You feel ready to go attack the rest of your day. And so Costa Vida is a fun business. It’s a great business to be involved in. And I truthfully feel really blessed to be doing what I do. I feel like it’s just a blast everyday.

03:24 JL: You know thinking about the space. Why do you think that we had the, you know, the Taco Bells for so long before something like this came along and really has you know, dominated so much?

DAVE RUTTER: Well I think people become- people have become increasingly more aware, number one, of what they eat. I notice it myself. You know as I get a little bit older I eat differently. Food affects me more in the way that I feel. I don’t eat some of the foods that I used to be able to eat and feel ok. I just don’t do that anymore. People are- people are more discriminating I think, with what they are willing to put into their bodies. And so there is still a certain market out there, I think for the fast food. But for people who are willing to, you know, step up a little bit and get much more of an experience, I think, you know, Costa Vida makes a whole lot of sense.

04:28 JL: Sure. And I want to talk more about you know how do you grow an organization like this to get 88 locations. Before we do that though, you know, the theme of the show talking about leadership and people. Before we were going, we were talking about how your father in law was really a mentor to you and was somebody you learned some leadership skills, is that right?

Mentoring in the Restaurant Business

DAVE RUTTER: Yeah that’s correct. When I was 21 years old I went to work for a restaurant in Orem Utah, called Prestwich Farms. And actually went to work for the man who would become my father in law. I didn’t know him at the time but… This guy was the type of guy, very A type personality. And when he walked into the restaurant people kind of started to shake in their boots a little bit. I mean I literally saw times when you know I’d be in the back kitchen and the prep cook would be back there cutting vegetables or doing whatever he was doing. And my father in law would grab his 55 gallon bucket and dump it out on the ground.  And grab that prep cook by the back of his neck and shove his head down there next to the garbage. Because he was, or next to the what he was cutting out of the vegetables. And upset because he was cutting too much of the stem of the broccoli into the soup and it wasn’t going to taste right. Or he was just- It was all about doing it perfectly. I mean when you are going to take the time to prepare food, that you do it perfectly. And he had such a passion for food and doing it right. He used to talk a lot about. ‘You love food so much that you take your shirt off and rub it all over your body’. You know and He absolutely loved food and figuratively speaking would rub it all over his body. I mean it just oozed out of his pores. And I mean I grew up like a lot of kids growing up. I mean we didn’t eat out a whole lot. We ate at home mostly. And my mom was a good cook. But probably overcooked vegetables like a lot of people did back in those days. You know food was just food. And to see somebody who was so passionate, and just so driven to serve the perfect meal and to take care of a guest in a perfect way. It really kind of sparked a fire inside of me that I wanted to, I wanted to be that same way myself. And so I really appreciated, even though they weren’t always fun encounters you know, with my father in law. As he came in to my restaurants as I became a general manager, for them, and ultimately a district manager for them, where I had multiple responsibilities. I did work very hard to run those stores properly. But you know, food business is always a business where you can find things wrong. And he would, you know. He would find those things. And those were sometimes hard conversations. And I learned a lot through that. I learned ways that I wanted to be as I managed and lead people. And also some ways that I didn’t want to be. But I definitely gleaned from him a lot of wisdom. A lot of ways to think and ways to lead and manage that I still use today. Many many years later.

07:50 JL: Well I just want to know how much working at Costa Vida is like boot camp now?

A Mentor Focused on Community and Service

DAVE RUTTER: [laughs] Well let me give you the other side to this story. So another mentor of mine. And he passed away when I was very young, but his imprint is still very much on me in developing who I was. My father in law, by contrast to the next person that I’ll talk to you about, my father in law was executive vice president of KFC at a very young age. I mean when he was 30 years old, this is back in the 60s, he became a multimillionaire as he sold his KFC restaurants that were in Las Vegas and down in the Southern California. He sold them back to KFC Corporate and went to work for them. And so was independently wealthy. Financially would never have to work again, you know, in his mid 30s. And really had developed quite an empire. This next person that I’ll talk you about happens to be my grandpa. And by contrast his place of business was a small little grocery store in Malad Idaho. I think that entire thing couldn’t have been more than you know, 1000 or 1200 square feet. Completely different than our mega grocery stores that we have today. It was called the Millstream Grocery. And my grandpa, his philosophy was different, from the standpoint of he wasn’t so concerned about how many groceries he sold or how he was comping in sales this year over last year. Truthfully probably didn’t even have any idea. What he was concerned about were the people in that town. And it is said, and I remember this, as a little boy going into that grocery store that his office door was always open. And that he- that people would come and see him on a daily basis. And I remember some of this. I remember walking by that office and seeing in there talking to what I thought was just some customer and I had no idea what he was talking to them about. But people would come to see him day after day. And he would spend time with them and he would council them and then finally as they worked through whatever problem they were dealing with at the time, then those visits would end. You know, but his, his ministry was, if you want to use that word, was working with the people in that town and really caring for them. And the groceries were an incidental part, were kind of a necessary evil to allow him to have a platform really to be able to help and coach and guide people. So I really. You know, those are two pretty opposite ends of the spectrum guys. But both of them really helped me in developing. And my dad, you know, this is my dad’s dad that I was speaking of. My dads very much that same type of a person. So I was kind of raised with that deep love and care for others And – but then had this other effect from my father in law of what it really takes to own and operate and build and grow a business in the competitive environment and landscape that we find ourselves in today.

11:16 JL: That’s interesting. You know my, my mom’s dad was completely my hero in life and also owned a grocery store in a little farm town in Canada. And completely my hero on how to treat people. That’s kind of fun that’s a similar story for you there.

DAVE RUTTER: Very similar story. Going back, that was kind of a long answer to a short question that you asked- Is working at Costa Vida like working at a boot camp. I sure hope not.

11:47 JL: [laugh]

DAVE RUTTER: We do strive very hard to have great standards. And to serve a quality product. And to make sure our guests have a great experience. And so we do strive to do that, but have a lot of fun while we’re doing it. I mean we work very hard to have a culture that inspires people to become their best selves, and to be creative and optimistic about where things can go and are going.

12:18 JL: Sure. You know, there’s a lot of people who’ve been in the food business and have not had, you know, the positive experience you had specifically in the restaurant side of those things, right?


12:30 JL: And there’s a lot of folks that think they’ve got the idea for the next best chain. And .. You know, it’s not too many years later and nobody’s heard of them anymore. When you think about the level of success that you guys have had, and like you said, getting to 88 locations,  what’s something you don’t think you could have learned any other way than actually doing this?

How to Inspire and Guide Young Employees

DAVE RUTTER: Well I think its a, it’s a, it’s a real discipline because what you say is true. I can’t tell you how many times, and any of us who are in the food business will experience this, that somebody will come and say, “Wow I’ve got a great couple of recipes here, you know, I want to start a restaurant”. And honestly as sad as it sounds, I’ll do my best to talk them out of it. Because I don’t have many friends who’ve starred restaurants and been successful with them. I think you learn, I mean, the restaurant business is such an interesting business because you need to be able to, you really need to be able to- It’s such a fast paced moving environment. There’s so many moving pieces to it. With all of the different food you have in there, it’s not like you close up the door like your locking up an office at night. I mean, that food needs to be cared for properly, and and taken care of properly, created properly in the first place. And then you have the people aspect of this. Because in our, in our world most of our employees are high school and college aged young men and young women. And so you have a lot of people that you work with that their first priority in life maybe isn’t necessarily their job. You have to learn how to inspire and guide and coach and direct these tremendous young men and young women. I mean I think you know some people will say we’ve got a game changer for a restaurant  because we have great food. It’s kind of price of entry in the restaurant business that you’ve got great food. You have to have great food. Because you can’t even get out of the starting gates without great food. Well we’ll put out ours up against anybody. It’s absolutely tremendous. But the differentiator for me become your people. And how you inspire and guide and coach and help them. We know that for a lot of the people that are in our employ and that we have the blessing of being able to work with. This may not be a career for them. I mean, this may not be something that they are going to do forever. But we have the opportunity to kind of to help make an imprint on their lives that will hopefully help make them, in the long run better, you know. That they’ll be better sons and daughters. And one day better fathers and mothers and better brothers and sisters, you know, in their environment because some of what they learned in a stressful environment. When you’re in a situation where you’re kind of being pushed because we’ve got a line of people to the door. And we’ve got a situation happening or a problem happening, and I need to be able to adjust real time, you know, in the middle of that situation and maybe do something differently. And at the same time not get upset or frustrated with a guest who, who you know, might be pushing for a particular thing to happen that I don’t feel like can happen at that exact moment. It teaches you a lot of self control. It teaches you a lot of discipline and how we can stay focused on the bigger picture. And so I don’t know for me that I would have learned that in just another environment. I love the fast paced environment of the restaurant business. I thrive on the energy of those meal periods. You know, lunch and dinner when you’re just cranking. You’re doing everything that you can. And it’s just such an inspiring thing to see a team that is well trained working in sync and producing something that really is fantastic. It’s awesome to see something go from an idea that gets put on paper, that becomes a vibrant part of a community where, where you know, families gather for birthday parties and graduation parties and couples get together for dinners and the ladies in town meet there and business people in town meet there. It’s just cool to see a restaurant become kind of a gathering place and become part of the fabric of a community. It really- it’s exciting.

17:17 JL: Sure. And now a days when you’re not, you know, in the store, you know, helping the college kids get the food out, you know, to the people. And you’re basically, you know, overseeing this across many states. What’s your day to day life like now? You know, as you have this many franchisees, this many locations. What does that involve now?

Beware of Boardroom Decisions

DAVE RUTTER: Well it’s interesting, because I still do try and do that. Because it’s very easy to lose touch. One of the, another phrase that I learned from my father in law is beware of boardroom decisions. And a boardroom decision is one that sounds fantastic around a board table; horrible in practice, you know in the absolute, in the real world, you know. Of somebody having to execute it. And so I still do try and spend, you know, I was two days out, as I mentioned in Minnesota, of that opening.  It’s very good for me because I feel like I can continue to provide and- the leadership that I need to be able to provide to our teams and to franchisees and all of that. And so when you ask day to day right now. You know, my day to day has consisted this day, today, of a meeting with a potential franchisee. On a monthly basis we have a discovering day where we’ll bring in the groups of potential franchisees. This happened to be one who was in town and just a little bit of time today and wanted to get an hour with me. Turned out that he was a sonic franchise back in Nashville, but he grew up in Springville Utah. Down the street. And happened to know and went to high school with our director of operations. And so I met with him for an hour. I also had two calls with franchisees in two different marketing in two different areas, two different states. And we discussed marketing ideas that truthfully I wouldn’t have been able to discuss with the same level of knowledge and experience had I not been in stores and been working on and seeing those things come to fruition in the same way. Had a couple meetings today with different team members, different department heads. And so, my day definitely consists of a lot of problem solving, which anybody in a leadership role is going to have to do. We thrive on things like that, you know. Some people will look at that and say, “Wow. I don’t want to do that kind of stuff.”  But the reality of it is as you continue to lead in any organization, you need to become good at solving problems and help people stay focused on the vision of who we want to be. And the path that we’re going down can be derailed in, kind of the flood of the whirlwind of things that will happen to you and running any level of business. We can get totally trapped in emails and phone calls and all those kind of things. And it becomes easy to lose focus on ultimately where is it that I want to go. For any high achiever, and any body who looks to excel, we have to be able to stay focused on our vision and the mission of who we are and what we want to be. And so, that I think from a leadership standpoint is an important, really the key thing for, you know, for any leader to stay focused on.

21:01 JL: Yeah that’s great. I know we’re kind of closing in on the end of part 1 of the episode, or episode 1 here, part 1 of the interview. Before we go though, you and I are both in the Corporate Alliance, in the CEO club, the C4 group. You’re such a busy guy why do you-… what is it about a group like that, that’s worth your time? Why are you apart of Corporate Alliances C4 group?

The Value of Meeting with Leaders in Different Markets

DAVE RUTTER: Well, I think we were probably one the earliest. We’ve been members for a long long time. And I know that sometimes- my neighbor actually is one who kind of interfaces with me and invites me to all of the things. Probably gets frustrated time to time cause I don’t always make as much time as I should. And every time I do make the time, I think; I’m going to be better about that next time because the value of what I get there. I think it’s really easy in our lives just to get soiled. And we only know what we know and only what our close circle that we work with know. When we take the opportunity to take ourselves out of that situation and Put ourselves at a table with five or six people who have the same type of experiences with you but in entirely different markets, and entirely different industries. And now you hear people who are overcoming challenges and issues that they’re dealing with but in an entirely different market. The ideas that come as a result of that. The, the brainstorming as a result of things that I have learned in some of the those sessions has honestly been really really phenomenal. Just had one the other day where five or six local business owners came in, and we had a couple different questions that we posed to them. When I first say the list of those that were coming, I thought, man are they really going to be able to give me tremendous value for the restaurant space? You know, kind of getting caught in that same trap of what I know in my own space. What we took from that was so beneficial. It took a couple hours to put the thing together. But those couple hours saved weeks and months of time and countless dollars in roads that we may have gone down, that we changed as a result of a meeting like that. So that’s why, I think it gets back to that kind of thought of; spend some time working on your business and not just all of your time working in your business. It’s really easy for us to get caught up working in our business. Those experiences and networking sessions with Corporate Alliance really give us the opportunity to work on our business and focus in an entirely different way then when we do just from an office environment everyday.

24:01 JL: Yeah. I totally agree. You know our consulting firm Myelin Advisors. I show up and I’m thinking, I don’t know if there’s anybody else here who’s doing the type of work we’re doing. And then like, you know, Jim Bennett from Now CFO will have the most perfect advice for how to handle clients and what kind of a system we should be looking at as we grow. It’s just perfect right. Well listen this has been great. Let’s cut part one of the show off here. Everybody please tune into the next episode, we’re going to keep asking Dave questions about what it’s like to be president and CEO of Costa Vida.

[ENDS] 24:37