Native Grill Franchise Review: Pat Kieny of Phoenix and Maricopa, Arizona

Q&A with Native Grill owner Pat Kiery.

Pat Kieny worked as a General Manager at a Native Grill for four years before he opened the doors of his first Native franchise. It wasn’t his first stint in the restaurant business; before joining the Native system as a GM in 1997, he’d put in four years with Wendy’s and seven years with Golden Corral, including a stint as an owner. He shares his story in this Native Grill franchise review.

What makes Native Grill different from some of the other brands you’ve been a part of?
Some of the more corporate franchise brands are very rigid. You have to do things exactly this way at exactly this time, blah blah blah… But Native Grill is a small enough franchise group that franchisees have some flexibility in doing things like catering, and it allows you to really take pride of ownership.

What kind of catering do you do?
We cater parties, sometimes weddings, lots of graduations and business events. A few years ago our location in Maricopa fed the Walmart employees on Thanksgiving and the Wednesday before because they had to work that whole night. With that many people, we’ll feed them in three shifts.

Sometimes we do that in the Laveen location (Laveen is a neighborhood in Phoenix). We’ve gone to The Home Depot, at their large western United States warehouse where they repair all the equipment. They’ve got about 250 or 300 employees that we feed. We’ve done that two or three times.

How else do you get your business in front of people in the community?
We try to say yes to everything we can when the community asks for it. If the PTA president comes in or the football moms come in and they say, “Can you help me with this?” and it’s our local high school, then we do. We sponsor sports teams, we donate to the food bank, we do whatever we can. And in the end you get more than you give, because what happens is it’s not just “Native” anymore. It becomes “Pat’s place.”

You obviously came to Native Grill with a lot of experience. Do you think that’s key to being successful with Native Grill?
I think for an owner to be successful, they have to have a very strong work ethic because this is a working restaurant. You have to be in it and you have to work the day-to-day, as opposed to, say, if you bought eight Subways and they’re staffed with six, eight people each, you don’t really have to work them. You just do the book work and make sure you have a good manager, and you’re fine there. Here, there’s too much going on with a staff that big.

The second thing they need to be successful is that they’ve got to be very organized, and the third thing is they need to be able to communicate, because they’ve got to deal with customers, vendors, corporate, managers, the staff.

How large is your staff at your restaurants?
We run between 40 and 60 employees at each restaurant when we’re fully staffed. About 8-10 at each location are full-time employees. And we have one general manager and two assistants at one location, and one general and one assistant at the other one. We also have a kitchen manager.

You have low staff turnover. How have you accomplished that?
I’ve got people who have worked for me for 20 years. The key to doing this is you’ve got to prioritize the employees, the customers and the shareholders, which may be yourself or maybe you have partners. But the No. 1 focus, and it’s not even close, is the employees. It seems a little counterintuitive that the customers aren’t the most important thing — but they’re not.

If you focus on the employees, give them all the tools they need, train them right, make sure there’s enough staff and then create a great, fun work environment — by doing that, you’re teaching them to take care of those customers. Once you do that, then the customers are coming in, boom. Of course, if the customer’s happy, then you’re going to make some money.

You can be a very strict manager or fun-loving manager, but as long as you put the employees first and take care of them, you’re going to end up with a successful restaurant.

What are some of the most valuable things that the home office does to support you?
They have a good opening checklist and planning and the menus and the positions in charge and what everybody should do. They can help get you organized and keep you organized in order to have a successful opening. They’ll give you an idea of what you need staffing-wise and how many to hire overall. That’s important, especially if you’re opening a brand new place. Taking over an existing location is a different deal, but opening a new one from scratch, that’s the thing.

What’s your interaction like with other franchisees in the system?
Most of the franchise group, we’re on a text message stream. We have questions, we just throw it on there. We bounce things off each other. We do that because we like to share best practices. “Yeah, if it works for me, it works for you.” Or “You’ve done this before, I heard. Help me out,” and we do. It’s a really good community for that. Quite a few of us have been here a long time.

What does your typical day look like?
I’ll come in at eight in the morning and then sometimes I do paperwork. Sometimes I work shifts. I work a couple of shifts a week per restaurant. The eight to five or six shift. Sometimes I close. I work more when the managers go on vacation, but I answer a lot of emails. I have meetings with the managers. I sometimes handle customer issues, but not too much. Just making sure everybody’s all right, just keeping a pulse on what’s going on. I hire the managers and they hire the staff, but I definitely let them manage it. And then I manage them.

What do you find to be the most rewarding thing about owning Native Grill franchises?
When you can get the team to work together and you have success. I like it when the employees say, “Thanks for the car you bought me.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” “Well, you gave me the job and now I bought a car.” I go, “Oh, yeah, I guess I didn’t think of it that way.”

That makes me happy, when they can live and get some things because just with the two restaurants, I have a hundred people working. It’s really rewarding. It feels good. My favorite day is when I can disperse money to my partners.

I like to be able to go, “Here you go,” although other people might think that’s weird. They’re like, “No, I want to keep it all.” But whatever, I’m happy. If we make money and I want to give it to them, I’m pumped. That’s what makes me feel good.

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