MEET RUSSELL BERNER: FRANCHISEE OF 49 PERKINS RESTAURANTS
This article was originally published on
as featured in Multi-Unit Franchise Magazine, Issue 2, 2022. Written by: Kerry Pipes. This posting has been edited due to the length, but you may read the entire article by clicking the Franchising.com link above.
Russell Berner is vice president of restaurant operations and a partner with 80-unit franchisee JDK Management. He’s also a chef who graduated from The Culinary Institute of America. He says that connection to food and discipline helped prepare him for the corporate climb.
JDK Management is the largest Perkins Restaurant & Bakery franchisee in the system, with 49 locations in states that include Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey. The company also operates 31 Quaker Steak & Lube locations—and purchased the brand last year to become the franchisor.
In addition, JDK Management, through its JDK Hotels division, operates Microtel Inn & Suites by Windham, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, and Fairfield Inn & Suites in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. JDK also has a healthcare division with interests in the senior living industry.
Berner says early in his career he “had an epiphany when I realized that I had to move out of the kitchen to succeed in a corporate environment.” He became a GM and says it was a significant turning point in his career that gave him the opportunity to learn the service aspect of the business.
Later, he says, he had the opportunity to get off the cutthroat corporate ladder and go to work for a family business, JDK. “I left the big city for a more wholesome, rural community life,” he says. “I was able to use what I had learned to enhance our role in the franchise space and help JDK grow to be the largest Perkins franchisee.”
In his 24 years with JDK Management, Berner has been part of its steady growth. “We acquired 15 Perkins locations in 2000, doubling our size,” he says. “In 2019-2021 we did that again. We learned how to nurture relationships, bid on opportunities when needed, and navigate the courts. Finding deals with upside like that, you realize the importance of taking great care of your debt and capital.”
Berner says hard work and focus pay off. “At JDK, we always strive to be the best, not the biggest. We were fortunate enough to become both with our brands along the way.”
Dishwasher in high school with a private restaurant in Plantation, Florida.
Before working at JDK, I climbed the ranks in the specialty restaurant division of Ruby Tuesday. I began with them when there were 27 restaurants. They grew significantly during my time with them. When I departed, they were pushing 700 restaurants. I was there for more than 13 years. This experience and the people there mentored and influenced me within the corporate environment. Influences: Too many mentors to mention; also, navigating the troubled waters that brands go through, how to survive, succeed, and thrive in those situations.
1) Expanding the JDK portfolio to a $150 million business. When I came to JDK, they had only a handful of restaurants, now they have 80. 2) Being a chef by trade. I graduated from The Culinary Institute of America. This connection to food and discipline prepared me well for climbing the corporate ladder. 3) L&N Seafood Grill had two restaurants when I joined. I helped our team grow to 42.
Biggest current challenge:
People. It always has been and must be the highest priority. If you’re not focused on being more efficient and investing in retention, recognition, and recruitment, then you’re probably not doing the right thing. It’s a people business. Every issue we face is on steroids now. We’re them head-on, protecting continuity while reimagining the future of our brands for development. Brands that succeed will be more efficient, nimble, and relevant to consumers/guests. Our product is more than the food and service in a digital age.
Next big goal:
Efficiency for our internal and external guests using technology and brand design/reengineering. Looking at great leaders to make it happen (internally or externally).
Be prepared and make good deals.
Management method or style:
Cautiously progressive, always a balanced approach.
The industry challenge has been the same for decades—it’s people. Doing well for them and at the same time delivering results.
What are the two most important things you rely on from your franchisor?
JDK is both franchisor and franchisee, so 1) consistency with infrastructure, and 2) a forward-looking business plan.
What I need from vendors:
Now at this time, really anything you can get. But what we really depend on from vendors are value, reliability, and quality.
Have you changed your marketing strategy in response to the economy? How?
It’s truly never-ending adjustments since the economy is continually fluctuating. I’d say the answer is to be nimble and apply your resources creatively.
How is social media affecting your business?
Social media affects business just as it affects the global environment and society as a whole. We experience everything that social media offers—good, bad, and indifferent, and you always have to be aware of what’s coming next.
How did Covid-19 affect your business?
In every way possible: health, safety, people, profit, and product were all affected.
How have you responded?
In every way possible. We faced each challenge as calmly and firmly as we could to try to maintain, compromising only where no other option existed.
What changes do you think will be permanent?
I don’t believe that anything is truly permanent. But in the foreseeable future, the restaurant service model does have to adapt. Full-service restaurant brands also need to be more flexible to how the consumer expects the products to be delivered. People (internal and external guests) expect a new aspect of convenience, and the industry has to adjust accordingly.
$150 million in hospitality revenue this year (restaurants and hotels).
Continuity, re-creation, stepping forward into the future. Continue to manage business strategically and keep disciplines in place. Staffing and training for 2022. Succession plan and enhance our leadership team.
How do you measure your growth? All metrics. We look at the top line and bottom line with equal respect, and everything in between. All people, employees, guests, and facilities are considered.
Where do you want to be in 5 years? 10 years? We also want to explore new concepts. Since JDK is family-owned, we have a long-term model and horizons for our brands.
Do you have brands in different segments? Why/why not?
We have hotels as well as casual and family-style restaurants. Diversity has value, and we have a solid platform and capacity to expand in additional segments.
How is the economy in your regions affecting you, your employees, your customers?
We operate in many states, which affects us on a geographic, constant, level. Inflation is a key word today, but it won’t be forever. It will be something else tomorrow. So, we prioritize maintaining prices to provide the best possible value, as well as increasing wages and benefits for employees. The main things that affect both employees and customers must be balanced.
Are you experiencing economic growth in your markets?
Surprisingly, yes. Activity has certainly been robust, and liquidity seems to have accelerated the economic engine. It’s apparent that the strong survive and growth is beginning again.
How do changes in the economy affect the way you do business?
Being in business, the economy affects us in every way. You must be flexible, have foresight, and be adaptable.
How are you handling rising employee costs (payroll, minimum wage, healthcare, etc.)?
We have a full spectrum of employee benefits, so we must have the accountability and responsibility to have a balanced approach. We do whatever we can to remain steady in that balance.
What laws and regulations are affecting your business and how are you dealing with them?
Given our current environment and health regulations, we do everything we can to remain compliant. Covid guidelines have been a challenge, but we make sure that we’re following them as safely as possible. We’re not in a super-highly regulated industry, so we’re able to navigate those invasive policies pretty well and make sure to deal with them very consciously.
How do you reward/recognize top-performing employees?
We want to ensure that we remain stable when it comes to individual recognition. We try to provide growth as well as a supportive community environment. We like to make sure people have what they need to be motivated and feel successful.
What kind of exit strategy do you have in place?
Those evolve, but ultimately, they’re all based on creating value and building equity. As long as we’re doing that, we can adjust our strategies as needed. We’re not intent on exiting, but we do have a 5- and 10-year plan as we continue to build on the equity in and of our brands. Everything has a price if it has value.