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A proven leader in the state of Arkansas, Jim Keet attributes his success to working with and learning from his family and friends. After his move to Little Rock in 1975, Keet played a crucial role in the establishment of the Wendy’s fast-food franchise in the state the same year. Keet has helped start numerous businesses in the hotel, restaurant, apartment, and real estate development industries, helping create more than 5,000 jobs. Now, Keet serves as a restaurant owner of many Arkansas favorites in addition to his work at Keet O’Gary Construction and Keet Management Co. Through it all, Keet loves what he does because he has his sons working alongside him as partners.
Jake Keet was born and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas. He graduated from Florida State University. In 2008, Jake brought Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe to Arkansas with his brother, Tommy Keet, and father, Jim Keet. Over the past ten years they have opened seven locations in Arkansas along with three in Oklahoma. In the meantime, they opened a construction management company with Luke O’Gary, called KO Construction (Keet O’Gary Construction.) Jake is blessed to be married to Stephanie Keet since 2009 and has two wonderful sons, Holden and Dashiell.
The Keets opened Petit and Keet, an award winning polished casual restaurant, in 2017 with long time restauranteur Louis Petit. It was recognized by Wine Enthusiast Magazine as one of the best 100 restaurants in the country. More recently, they opened Cypress Social which has been recognized as Arkansas’ best destination restaurant in various publications.
Up In Your Business is a Radio Show by FlagandBanner.com
[00:00:09] GM: Welcome to up in your business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider's view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk taking. And now it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:29] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. My guest today is restaurateur, Mr. Jim Keet, and his son, Jake Keet. As a young man, Jim showed promise by becoming the president of his business school’s student body, and by receiving the M Award as one of 10 outstanding graduating seniors from SMU, that’s Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas.
After college, the ambitious Keet pursued and became one of the youngest innkeepers in the Holiday Inn franchise. But Jim's big break came when, in 1975, he joined Gerald Hamra. And together they introduced Wendy's restaurants to Arkansas.
Over the next 11 years, Wendy's would grow to 27 stores with 1200 employees. After the Wendy's franchise success, Keet took his expertise and continued in the growth and sale of many hotel restaurant chains, including Maxie’s of America, a Florida chain that sold Rally’s, GuestHouse International that sold to Suburban Lodges of America. And while president, negotiated the sale of Barnhill’s Buffet.
Today, Keet’s restaurants include Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafes with his son Jake and – What’s your other son’s name?
[00:01:47] JIM: Tommy.
[00:01:47] KM: And Tommy. Petit & Keet with Louis Petit. And Blueprint in Birmingham, Alabama, with Dean Rob. And if that's not enough, Keet had a stint in politics in 1988. He was elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives. And shortly after that, elected to the Arkansas State Senate. It is my pleasure to welcome to the table, the hard-working, ambitious visionary, restauranteur and entrepreneur, Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake Keet. Let's give them a round of applause.
[00:02:20] JIM: Thanks, Kerry. We're happy to be here.
[00:02:21] KM: I’m so blessed.
[00:02:22] JAKE: Yeah, it's our pleasure.
[00:02:23] KM: I'm so glad y’all joining me. When I was learning about your career, it was kind of a walk down memory lane for me. I'm going to kind of remind you this. See if you remember. But I worked at Sirloins Inn.
[00:02:36] JIM: Well, you haven't changed at all.
[00:02:39] KM: You flatter me. I always kind of looked up to you guys, because Wendy's corporate – For our listeners, Wendy's Corporate office was right next door to Sirloins Inn in North Little Rock, Arkansas. I was just starting Arkansas Flag & Banner. And for anybody that doesn't know my story, I worked a part time job for nine years to get that business off the ground. And it included a lot of restaurant waitressing business, which I just happen to love y’all’s industry. The restaurant business service industry is really fun.
But Wendy's corporate office was next door and you guys would come over for happy hour and I would wait on y'all. And the excitement and the energy around you guys, and the note taking on napkins. I mean, it was like watching Federal Express be born. It was a really big deal. Talk about those times.
[00:03:24] JIM: Well, Jerry Hamra, my partner, and I took a big leap of faith, because at the time, there are only about 150 Wendy's in the country. None in the South. Actually, there are two in Memphis, which is how I came into contact with it. But Jerry and I met each other we got along so well. Immediately, we signed a deal, but it was really based on a handshake. And so we did our first restaurant on 4600 Camp Robinson Road in North Little Rock. And shortly built two additional stores. I opened all of those myself as the General Manager and still supervise the others.
And so eventually, we just continue to grow in Arkansas and Texas. Had 25 Wendy's, and two sisters, Chicken and Biscuits. And had pulled over 1200 employees. And we won what is called the Founder's Award, which is given to the best franchise group worldwide. And at the time, there were about 2500 when we won it. So that was quite an honor to be recognized as the best of the best worldwide.
[00:04:40] KM: I guess so. So I love a handshake deal. Those are the best kind of deals. That's when two good people come together. Where do you think your ambition came from? Because you've been ambitious all your life?
[00:04:54] JIM: Gosh, that's a great question. I think I respected my mom and dad so much. You're always very encouraging, whether it was in my athletics, president of the student body, whatever it might be. I kind of always aspired to push myself a bit. And so I just kind of kept that same thing. I'm a little bit older now, a little bit wiser, I hope, and I still work hard every day. Try to set a good example. And really excited more than anything else in my entire career, I've done 155 restaurants. And the most gratifying thing in my entire business career is being able to work with Jake, and Tommy, and Stephanie, Suzanna. My wife helps on some of the real estate related issues and contractual issues as an attorney. And so it's truly a family enterprise. So that means more to me than anything else that I've been able to do in my life.
[00:06:01] KM: You have two sons that we see on TV all the time. You have daughters?
[00:06:06] JIM: Well, I have two daughters as well, but they're not involved with me. Stephanie is Jake's beautiful wife. Susanna is Tommy's beautiful wife. And have four amazing grandkids. One daughter, who is a lawyer. The other one is an aspiring actress who, today, is in the desert in California filming her first film that she wrote, produced and directed.
[00:06:35] KM: I bet you're the producer.
[00:06:37] JIM: Executive producer.
[00:06:42] KM: She's lucky to have such support from such a great family. Hotel business is tough. You jumped right into it right out of college. Why?
[00:06:52] JIM: Well, it's kind of kind of funny. I worked my way through school through SMU. I think I'm one of 15 people in the entire history of the school that actually worked their way through there because it’s a little bit expensive.
[00:07:04] KM: So. Yeah, for people that don't know about SMU, it's called Southern Millionaires University.
[00:07:09] JIM: Yeah.
[00:07:10] KM: Even though it’s Methodist.
[00:07:09] JIM: There are a lot of very wealthy people there. But I worked my way through it at Steak ‘n Ale and in hotels. And so when I got finished, my degree was in finance and a minor in real estate finance. So I thought I was going to go into investment banking, or maybe following my dad's footsteps and be a lawyer. But I just needed to take a year off and get some money in my pocket. So I went ahead and accepted this offer to go into the hotel business. And I liked it, even though I was working 95 hours a week.
[00:07:43] KM: Yeah, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
[00:07:45] JIM: Yeah. In 1972, I took one day off. And on that day, I mowed the yard at the hotel
[00:07:55] KM: Oh! For crying out loud. Were you married?
[00:08:00] JIM: I was married. My sweet wife, we just had our 50th wedding anniversary.
[00:08:05] KM: How does she stay married to somebody who's in the restaurant hotel business? She's a saint.
[00:08:11] JIM: Oh, she is a saint. Everybody knows her says that. What they don't know is what I know is that she really isn't. She's really very, very mean-spirited. Not a nice person at all. I’m just kidding. She is fantastic. And she's a great wife and a great grandmother. And so I'm truly blessed, because my whole career, I've had restaurants and other states and have traveled extensively. And she's always been very supportive, as my sons and daughters. They've always –
[00:08:43] KM: Talk about dad traveling all the time, Jake.
[00:08:46] JAKE: Well, I was sort of lucky, because he had sort of knocked out. A lot of the travel had been knocked out by the time that I was around, because Tommy's nine years older. Chase is seven years older. So we were sort of the second set.
[00:09:02] KM: So life after Wendy's. What made you and Gerald decide to sell?
[00:09:06] JIM: Well, I sold my interest to Jerry and actually helped start an investment banking group, a mortgage banking group, and a consulting company. And in the midst of that I was asked to be involved with Maxie’s of America, which is this new double drive-thru chain out of Florida. And after two board meetings, they asked me to be the chairman and run the company. So I did that and. Then we sold two Rally’s. And just kind of kept on going.
[00:09:38] KM: How could you sell Wendy’s when it was your baby and you were so successful? I don't think I could sell Arkansas Flag & Banner. It's like my firstborn. How could you do that?
[00:09:49] JIM: Well, it's just taking on different challenges.
[00:09:51] KM: You got bored?
[00:09:53] JIM: No, I didn't get bored at all.
[00:09:55] KM: Money was too good.
[00:09:56] JIM: The money was great.
[00:09:57] KM: You're like, “I could get out and start and do something else.”
[00:10:00] JIM: Well, I aspired to do even more. I hope I'm a pretty good boss. And Jerry was a great partner. But I just wanted to take on new challenges. And so we worked out an arrangement whereby I left. And it was it was a good departure for me financially. And took on these other challenges. And then got interested in politics.
[00:10:27] KM: So did he stay with Wendy's forever? Or did he sell it?
[00:10:31] JIM: He sold it eight years later back to corporate. And then corporate sold it to a group out of Memphis, the Dobbs House folks.
[00:10:42] KM: So tell us about Gerald Hamra. Seems just a great guy.
[00:10:45] JIM: He was a great guy. We got along famously. I was like his son.
[00:10:52] KM: I was going to say he was older. Wasn’t he?
[00:10:51] JIM: In fact, he called me son. Yeah, he was significantly older. He was 30 years older than I. I guess, 35, something like that. But just really good guy. He had overcome something that was very difficult. He overcame polio. And so he had a significant limp and all that. But you would never know it. He always had a smile on his face. He was always promoting the business. He was just a really nice guy. Very philanthropic. That's kind of where I got my philanthropy passion, I guess you would say, being – I’ve been on, I guess, 21 different boards or commissions in my life. And so he kind of inspired that.
[00:11:33] KM: How did you meet him?
[00:11:35] JIM: I was working for Holiday Inns. And they had kind of drafted me. At the ripe old age of 26, I was responsible for all operational input into renovations and new construction worldwide. And so I realized that while I aspired to be the president of Holiday Inns by the time I was 30.
[00:12:00] KM: Oh my God! No big deal.
[00:12:03] JIM: Well, that was the goal at the time. And then I realized that I really had more of an entrepreneurial spirit than a big corporate spirit. So I started looking around for different opportunities. And at the time, as I said, there weren't that many Wendy's around. But in Memphis, they were just knocking it out of the park. And so I literally went there to lunch one day, and I went, “This is amazing.” So I started doing these little calculations of what their average service times were, what the average check was, and said, “This is a real winner.”
So I went to the guys that owned the franchise and I said, “I want to be your partner.” And they kind of laughed. And they looked at my resume and [inaudible 00:12:44]. So we'd like to have you come to work for us. But we don't have any ownership interest. And I said, “Well, thank you very much.” And so two weeks later, I hear from Jerry Hamra, who knew them, and we literally struck the deal to build the Wendy's in Arkansas. He actually had one under construction. But we struck the deal in a conversation between Memphis and Little Rock, Arkansas, a handshake.
[00:13:10] KM: What was he doing before that? Was he in the restaurant business before?
[00:13:13] JIM: No, he was in the clothing business in a little town, Hayti, Missouri. And had never been in the food business.
[00:13:19] KM: And you're from Missouri, aren't you?
[00:13:21] JIM: Springfield? Yeah.
[00:13:22] KM: So y'all have that in common?
[00:13:23] JIM: Yeah. I was more, I guess, service-oriented in the hospitality industry. And he was service-oriented in the clothing industry. So kind of had the same mentality.
[00:13:36] KM: Working with the public.
[00:13:37] JIM: Working with the public, loving your guests, loving your customers. Taking care of them. Going out of your way to please them.
[00:13:43] KM: Boy, that's a great moto. You put that up on the wall to Taziki’s. Okay, last question before we go to break. Do you eat Wendy's?
[00:13:51] JIM: Occasionally.
[00:13:53] JAKE: Spicy chicken sandwich.
[00:13:53] KM: That means no. He doesn't eat there anymore. I you ate enough to last your life.
[00:14:00] JIM: No, no. I still eat there. It's a little bit difficult because we were the best in the world. And so I have really high expectations and standards. So I don't eat there often, but –
[00:14:17] KM: Their service has gone to crap.
[00:14:18] JIM: Well, I wouldn't go that far. Let me put it this way. When you have 15 restaurants, you have other places that you'd rather eat. How's that?
[00:14:26] JAKE: Well, I was going to say, if you do like Wendy's. Small Town’s – Small Town’s is where I hit up Wendy’s. I think they do a really good job out in Brinkley. I think they do a good job. If you're driving out towards Memphis, Small Town Wendy's, most of the time I get a really good meal.
[00:14:43] KM: What do you think's the future of fast food?
[00:14:46] JAKE: Well, we're about to open Waldos Chicken and Beer here in Little Rock.
[00:14:51] KM: Is it fast food?
[00:14:54] JAKE: It is. Fast casual, but it's going to be bone and chicken rotisserie or fried. I think the difference is always going to be customer-oriented. If you're serving your guests with great attitudes, people take notice.
[00:15:09] KM: But everybody's worried about their health now and the food additives that are in fast food. It’s making America fat. There's no denial about that.
[00:15:16] JAKE: Absolutely. I think if you can offer a balance of items, some people are looking for keto.
[00:15:26] KM: What’s that mean?
[00:15:27] JAKE: Ketosis diets, where you're actually wanting high-fat, low-carb. Or some people are looking for gluten-free options to cut out gluten.
[00:15:38] GM: Everybody's always going to eat chicken.
[00:15:39] JAKE: That's right. Hey, and chicken, it's lean protein. I think it's here to say safely.
[00:15:45] KM: Yeah, we hope so.
[00:15:48] JIM: We've been saying for years, we got to start selling fricking chicken. I cleaned that up.
[00:15:53] KM: Fricking chicken.
[00:15:54] JAKE: Selling fricking chicken.
[00:15:55] KM: That should be the name of your store.
[00:15:58] JIM: Well, we thought about it. But anyway, we had one with a partner who is also our partner in Taziki’s in Oklahoma. So we have one in Tulsa, this kicking tail. [inaudible 00:16:12].
[00:16:14] KM: Cleaned it up. You sure did.
[00:16:15] JAKE: That a boy, dad.
[00:16:17] JIM: Yeah. We are really excited about opening this one in North Little Rock, we hope in March. We're under construction now. And we think it's going to be a great location for it. It’s kind of a marquee type location.
[00:16:30] KM: Where did you say it was? North Little Rock?
[00:16:31] JIM: Yes, it's right where the old Karinas was. We tore that building down by McCain Mall. And they're building a brand-new prototype that my oldest son, Tommy, I'm really regret that he couldn't be here today. He just got held up in Northwest Arkansas on a construction project up there on a renovation we're doing to our kind of our number one Taziki’s, volume-wise is, in Northwest Arkansas. [inaudible 00:16:56]. Just off of college. Yup.
[00:17:04] KM: I would have thought Little Rock was more population. Alright, we're going to talk about your construction business. I figured it was vertical integration for your businesses. And I wondered how you learned about it. But now I know you learned about it through Holiday Inn, because you had to oversee some construction projects there. But it's a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with restauranteur, Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Mr. Jake Keet, from Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Petit & Keet restaurants in Little Rock, Arkansas, plus 19 more that we're going to hear about. More to come after the break.
[00:17:39] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Over 40 years ago with only $400, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag and Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed along with Kerry's experience and leadership knowledge. In 1995, she embraced the Internet and rebranded her company as simply flagandbanner.com. In 2004, she became an early blogger. Since then, she has founded the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland Ballroom. Began publishing her magazine, Brave. And in 2016, branched out into this very radio show, YouTube channel and podcast. In 2020, Kerry McCoy Enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American-made plaques, signage and memorials for over 20 years. If you'd like to sponsor this show, or get involved with any of Kerry McCoy's enterprises, send an email to me, Gray, at email@example.com. Telling American-made stories, selling American-made flags, the flagandbanner.com. Back to you, Kerry.
[00:18:40] KM: Thank you, Gray. You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with restauranteur Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake Keet from Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Petit & Keet restaurants in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were also – Jim was also the founder of – With Gerald Hamra, for Wendy's in Arkansas. How do you find out about all these business opportunities like Maxie’s of America, and GuestHouse International, and Barnhills buffet, because you did all of that before the Internet?
[00:19:11] JIM: Honestly, I was recruited in each of those cases.
[00:19:15] KM: So word of mouth in the industry.
[00:19:16] JIM: Well, people that pay attention industry and they see the team that wins the best franchisee worldwide for a growing company that has 2500 units, then they start seeking you out. I'm surrounded by attorneys. My wife is an attorney. My oldest son, Tommy, who’s our partner, is an attorney. My oldest daughter is attorneys. And my wife's father was an attorney. So bottom line is I have not won an argument in decades. But I am so proud my oldest daughter has a beautiful family. She's an amazing mom and married to a great guy. Beautiful kids. Jake is the best father I know of. It’s the way that he loves and takes care of his family.
[00:20:07] KM: Makes you feel bad about yourself. Doesn’t it? A little bit?
[00:20:09] JIM: Doesn’t it? Honest to God, there's little guilt there.
[00:20:12] KM: I know, right? No one told me that parenting was such a guilt trip.
[00:20:12] JIM: I know. Well, I mean, I compare all the amazing things that he and my daughter have come up with to do with their children and things like that. And it kind of makes me feel a little bit guilty. No doubt, he’s growing up. I just put his ass to work at 13. Instead of getting fun stuff with him, I put him to work.
[00:20:35] KM: You have to give yourself a break, though. While he was young, you were building an empire that he's enjoying now.
[00:20:39] JAKE: Hey, and you got to keep in mind, like I said, he was actually always around. I mean, like I know that Tommy and Chase had probably the brunt of when he was working the most of his life. But by the time I came around, it's not like he missed anything that I can recall. And I've always been an independent guy anyways. So I like my own things, my own time, all that stuff. So we spent a ton of time together. Exceptional father.
[00:21:09] KM: Well, oh, that's nice. That's what he said about his dad. So you're passing it down. You said the same thing about your father, Jim. So I think it's interesting that you talked about all the lawyers in your family, because I had that on my list of questions. How do you do all the stuff you're doing, buying companies you're buying? Melding companies together without a law degree? And I was going to ask you if you wished you had gotten a law degree. But I guess you don't, because you married a lawyer.
[00:21:36] JIM: I have been around the legal profession my entire life. And when you do as many transactions as I've done over the years, you have to be kind of insightful. You may not have specific knowledge of a specific section of the law, but you've been exposed to so much of it, you kind of have intuitive legal instincts, if you will. Don't step into that rabbit trap.
And my wife has been very helpful. And my oldest daughter, and Tommy, I mean, all of them. And so if I start to make a misstep, then typically they're there to prevent me from doing that. Not always. There're still those occasional missteps. But they've always been fantastic.
[00:22:24] KM: But you can bring home the document and say, “Hey, y'all read this, because I don't want to.”
[00:22:27] JIM: Always do.
[00:22:28] KM: I hate reading that stuff.
[00:22:30] JIM: Yeah. Well, Tommy, Tommy is really very talented. And again, I'm sorry, he couldn't be here today as well. But he's super talented.
[00:22:37] JAKE: Has a great legal mind. Like really sharp legal mind.
[00:22:41] JIM: Yeah, great legal mind as well as a good entrepreneurial mind, as well as Jake. And so we're kind of the ultimate risk takers. If you look at this tough time that everybody in the hospitality has gone through in the last year and a half, we took a very different approach. And if I take any credit for anything, I guess, it's being hard headed. And during this last year and a half and kind of saying, “Guys, while everybody else is kind of whining, and complaining, and firing their staffs, and doing all that kind of stuff, and closing the restaurants, we just said, “You know, we're going to be responsible. We want to take care of our guests and protect them, as well as our stats and all that. But we're going to shoot new commercials in every brand. We're going to increase, not decrease, our advertising budget. We're going to do bonuses for our staff. We had to lay off for a brief time in the Petit & Keet especially.
[00:23:50] JAKE: [inaudible 00:23:50].
[00:23:50] JIM: Yeah. So we had to do that briefly, but basically said, “You know what? We're going to take great care of our staffs. We're going to give them bonuses. We're going to give them raises where appropriate. We're going to keep them on at our expense. And we're going to steal other restauranteur’s guests, and we're going to keep –”
[00:24:11] KM: That is so entrepreneurial. One of the advice that I give to people when they're struggling, first thing they want to do is they want to cut advertising and cut payroll, and you did the exact opposite. And that is exactly what you're supposed to do. When sales are down you don't go, “Oh, I think I'll quit advertising.” You say, “I think I'll increase– ” And that's a risk you take that pays off. Plus, you were in a buyer's market. All these restaurants were probably up for sale.
[00:24:35] JAKE: Well, that's the interesting thing. We follow real estate pretty closely. Like we keep a close eye looking for good opportunities. What we were surprised by was with the amount of grants that went out and things like that last year. A lot places actually held on a lot better than we had anticipated. There weren't as many real estate opportunities as you thought. But this year has been different than that. We've been able to locate a few properties, purchase those outright so that we can continue to build. But like I said, last year was not the year that we saw a lot of real estate jump up. I thought it would, but it did not.
[00:25:20] KM: Well, real estate is good. But the restaurant business is terrible.
[00:25:23] JIM: Yeah. What's interesting about it is, first of all, I think we have an outstanding governor.
[00:25:29] JAKE: Me too.
[00:25:28] KM: He's good. He’s doing a great job.
[00:25:30] JIM: Who did, I think, a fantastic job [inaudible 00:25:33]. And he’s come under some criticism. And everybody has their own opinion about things politically. But I thought he did a great job. So if you compare the attrition rate and the mortality rate of restaurants in Arkansas versus a lot of other states, it's a fraction of how many. There are some states that 30% of all the restaurants are closed forever.
[00:25:59] KM: Yeah, I believe that our problem up here is staff. I have no restauranteurs who are saying, “I'm going to have to close my Little Rock location because I can't staff it.” And I've been to a restaurant that said close today due to staffing.
[00:26:12] JAKE: It's a difficult time. But I will say this, one of the key takeaways from this last year was the restauranteurs I know that really stepped up to the plate and took care of their people during that time still have those staffs. If you go to any of our stores, more than likely the person that's working with you and checking on you, everything like that, has probably been with us. I think the average tenure of our staff in the stores right now is probably around six years.
[00:26:46] KM: That's pretty good for the restaurant business.
[00:26:47] JIM: We have the senior staff. Well, especially for the senior staffs, even more than that.
[00:26:53] JAKE: Right. I'm saying aggregate-wise, it's probably close to that.
[00:26:56] JIM: We're very blessed.
[00:26:57] KM: You really are. This is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with restaurantuer Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake, from Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Petit & Keet Restaurants. And what's the [inaudible 00:27:10] called now?
[00:27:12] JIM: Cyrus Social?
[00:27:13] KM: When we come back, we'll talk about Representative Keet’s time in office on the Republican ticket about Keet and O’Gary Construction Business. Is it vertical integration business plan? It sounds like it is. And last, get his take on the future of restaurant business, which I think we've been hearing a lot about already. Y'all are optimistic. More to come after the break.
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[00:28:29] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. And I'm speaking today with restauranteur Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake, from Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe and Petit & Keet Restaurants in Little Rock, Arkansas and through Cypress Social in Maumelle, Arkansas. Before the break, we talked about starting Wendy's, because Jim started Wendy's when he was just a lad out of college, I guess, with Gerald Hamra. Rest in peace. And then we talked about his family. And his proudest days is working with his sons and daughters. And he's got a daughter making – You’re also now a producer of film because you have a daughter making a movie. What's it going to be called? Do y’all know?
[00:29:11] JAKE: Gosh, I read the script last night. Oh, yeah. It's called Scream Therapy. That's right.
[00:29:16] KM: And it's a comedy.
[00:29:17] JAKE: Very funny. Yeah. I blew through it. I read on the old Kindle.
[00:29:22] KM: Oh, good. I can't wait to watch it. So now we're going to talk about you dabbled in politics for a while. And I just have to say, you're crazy. Why would anybody that's done all you've done and been successful, decide that they want to go into politics, and all that scrutiny that comes with politics? I don't even know if there's anybody – Well, this was in the 80s and 90s. But today, I don't know if there's anybody clean enough to go into public. Why did you decide to do that back then?
[00:29:52] JIM: Well, when I grew up, my dad, as I said earlier, is my hero. Had given his life the public like servants in so many ways. And so that was probably the genesis of it. I had always tried to do things for the community, charitably and things like that. But I just thought there was a need for some different perspectives and politics in Arkansas.
[00:30:20] KM: Did you have one thing in mind you wanted to change?
[00:30:22] JIM: Well, there are some things that I were interested in that were very diverse. There were different aspects that I thought Arkansas was lacking in that I wanted to get involved with. As an example, I wrote all the literacy related laws. They created the literacy commission and all that.
[00:30:40] KM: You did?
[00:30:40] JIM: Mm-hmm.
[00:30:42] KM: I'm exhausted just talking to you. Okay, go ahead. How many pages is that?
[00:30:48] JIM: Oh, my gosh. I don't know. I can't remember.
[00:30:51] KM: Did your wife help you?
[00:30:53] JIM: No. No. I just worked with staff. I worked closely with Governor Clinton at the time. And so I was appointed. I was the only person in the legislature appointed to the first literacy commission. And so kind of on the opposite side of that. I also authored the strongest two strikes and you're out bill in the nation.
[00:31:20] KM: For what?
[00:31:21] JIM: For violent felonies. So that if you've committed two violent felonies, you're in the can forever. And that was for like aggravated rape, murder, really serious felonies. After two of those, you’r e not getting out.
[00:31:41] KM: That would stand to reason. Well, I can't argue with either one of those. We want people to read and we want to keep really bad people locked up, if you've got – It’s not like you did it accidentally twice.
[00:31:51] JIM: But I got to do some pretty interesting things. Like, I cast the deciding vote on the landmark desegregation settlement case from Taipei. I was in Taipei on a legislative mission at the time when a special session was called on this. And so it basically said a lot of the long standing things issues relating to segregation in the state of Arkansas. So it was a pretty cool deal.
[00:32:22] KM: What do you think about gerrymandering?
[00:32:28] JIM: I think it depends on who has benefits.
[00:32:31] KM: That's exactly right.
[00:32:33] JIM: I think that everything in politics should be transparent. You ought to be able to take a look at it analytically and see if it's fair to everybody. And if it is, it's good. And if it isn't, is bad. So I think gerrymandering typically is one-sided and only helps one party. And so I think it sucks.
[00:32:54] KM: When are you going to run for office again?
[00:32:58] JIM: I am what they call a recovering politician. So that means never. I think my wife of 50 years would probably say, “Okay, that's it. I'm leaving.”
[00:33:09] KM: You finally did it.
[00:33:10] JIM: And my kids would disown me.
[00:33:13] KM: Really. Nobody's clean enough to run anymore.
[00:33:16] JAKE: Strange times. For sure.
[00:33:18] JIM: [inaudible 00:33:18] anecdote that I will tell you. Bob Johnson, who became a senator, later state senator, a great guy, was Ray Thornton's right-hand person. And we got to be pretty good friends when I was – I was in the Senate. And then he later was in the Senate. But any rate, he said, “I just want to tell you that we spent $85,000.” This is 1990 dollars. He said, “We spent $85,000 trying to find dirt on you. We went to Springfield, Missouri, went to Dallas, Texas, we went to Lexington, Kentucky, Lincoln, Nebraska. We went all these different places trying to find something on you. And we couldn't find a damn thing.” And I said, “You know what? You need to fire that opposition research firm because there's probably plenty out there. They just didn't know where to look.”
[00:34:10] KM: You have as many employees as you've had. You can at least find one who lie about it.
[00:34:14] JIM: Yeah. Well, I've had over 5000, I guess.
[00:34:18] KM: I'm willing to lie today. It seems like people to get their name in the paper will just lie about anything to get the publicity. There's a lot of publicity hounds out there.
[00:34:26] JIM: That's true.
[00:34:27] KM: So you started in the construction business, Keet O’Gary Construction. Who's O’Gary? Another Irishman?
[00:34:34] JIM: Luke O’Gary originally was building some of our restaurants and came to us and said, “You know, I'd really like to go out on my own. Are you guys interested?” So Tommy, and Jake, and I got together with him and said, “Let's explore that.” So initially, we're just building our own restaurants. But now that company has grown and his dad has joined us who has done over almost $3 billion worth of projects nationally and internationally.
Lucas spent well over $300 million worth of projects. And so we initially did it for our own purposes, our own restaurants and other ventures and things like that.
[00:35:18] KM: So it was a small construction company. But now it's a big one.
[00:35:22] JIM: Yes. Well, we've grown to the point that, as an example, we just finished the addition to the elementary school in Cabot High School. We built the gymnasium in Magnolia High School. I said, elementary school. I should have said Cabot Elementary School. At any rate, we built the gymnasium for Magnolia High School. It’s a total of seven and a half million-dollar project. But ours was four and a half million. Not far from here, The Spaces. It's kind of a high-end storage facility that is top of the line. We built that as well. As a lot of restaurants, both ground up and renovation.
[00:36:02] KM: You probably own storage place [inaudible 00:36:04].
[00:36:04] JIM: No, we don’t.
[00:36:05] KM: You sold it?
[00:36:05] JIM: A guy named Dan [inaudible 00:36:07] and his wife, and they're great people doing a great –
[00:36:10] JAKE: Couldn’t be nicer.
[00:36:11] JIM: But we're doing all the Circle K renovations and new constructions in the state of Arkansas.
[00:36:16] KM: So does a construction company have to have lawyers on staff to keep up with all the permits in the city regulations for everywhere you go?
[00:36:25] JIM: No, there are a lot of things that you do that are pretty much just fill in the blanks with all – It's difficult. But we have professionals on board, estimators and our partners that are very adept at doing it. So we don't really have to engage lawyers very often.
[00:36:45] KM: I’m surprised. I just bought a business in Florida, another flight company. And all I'm doing is renting the building and dissolving that company and absorbing. And in the moment, I'm keeping the location down there. I cannot believe how complicated it is.
[00:37:02] JIM: Where in Florida?
[00:37:02] KM: North Miami.
[00:37:04] JIM: I want to start interviewing you now. Can I ask you a few questions?
[00:37:09] KM: No.
[00:37:10] JIM: So how did you come up with that? How did you decide to go to North Miami, Florida to open that business?
[00:37:17] KM: Well, it just exactly like you. Pandemic brought on a bunch of opportunities. How many companies did we buy in the last two years? It's the third one?
[00:37:32] GM: Three.
[00:37:32] KM: Three. So we bought right off the bat. We've found a lady that wanted to retire because she her Internet presence was not as strong as she wanted to be. Covid send a lot of people into retirement. So we found two people that wanted to retire and wanting to sell their business. And then this third one wanted to retire and she had a manufacturing plant down there, because Miami has first and second generation immigrants. And so they had these skill sets that we don't have anymore. And we used to manufacture in Arkansas. But we don't have any seamstresses up here anymore, or not very many. And so we went down there and kept her location so that we could now be vertical integration. There you go. And yeah, and also supply chains are so messed up because of Covid. We thought, “Well, we'll just start making our own stuff.” So there you go. Alright, enough about me.
[00:38:27] JAKE: Well, Miami, you got to love the weather down there, the food. I love it. I try my best to speak Spanish. And going to Miami makes me so happy, because you just can't hear English when you walk down like three, say, blocks, you're not going to hear a word. It’s awesome.
[00:38:42] KM: It’s another country.
[00:38:44] JAKE: Yeah, love it. Yeah, it’s great.
[00:38:46] KM: Except for you, or like our family, the McCoys. You Keets are Irish-looking skin to people. How about that sun down there?
[00:38:57] JAKE: I soak it up. I don't look like it right now because it's fall. But I mean, that's like my favorite thing. I would rather be in the sun at all times.
[00:39:06] KM: it doesn't usually like us though.
[00:39:09] GM: McCoy’s [inaudible 00:39:09]. We hide. Hide in the dark. It’s lovely though.
[00:39:15] KM: But the weather is nice. But I tell you, the weather, when I've been down there in August, was nicer in Arkansas than it was down there. We had the most pleasant August and September.
[00:39:24] JAKE: We had a great August. I agree. I was really nice.
[00:39:25] KM: Yeah. And even September, because I was down there. I called down here and y'all have cooler weather and nicer weather than we were having down there. Which is odd, because Miami's usually pretty pleasant year-round. But anyway, what would you say your business philosophy is? And then we're going to go to another break.
[00:39:41] JIM: I know Jake and Tommy share this. It's really very simple, and that is to be the best in class. Whatever you're doing, don't settle for second best. Try to always aspire to be the very best at whatever you do.
[00:39:57] KM: Boy, that is sure your family. I think about all the restaurants you have. And think about how some franchises don't want to buy the property that they've got their restaurant on. And some franchises want to buy the property. We interviewed the Minuteman franchise, and West Hall who started it sold it to a company who, that gentleman, made all of the Minuteman franchisees buy their property. And so it messed up their cash flow so much that they all went to the wayside.
[00:40:32] JIM: Well, you know, there's a real simple rule. And I think this applies not only to the restaurant business, but any business that requires a retail type location. And that is, you're in the restaurant business first. You're in the real estate business second. And if those can create parallel tracks of wealth, you could buy the real estate. But if you have a better location that you can only lease in that area, you go ahead and lease. So like in our case, it was our fourth restaurant before we actually owned the dirt, the land and building equipment, all that stuff. And now I guess we have five pieces of real estate. But, ultimately, we would hope to own the vast majority. So as an example, the Waldos Chicken and Beer that we're bringing here is a ground-up prototype that Tommy Jake work with the architects –
[00:41:34] JAKE: Tommy, dad. I was riding around doing other stuff. Tommy was all over that one.
[00:41:40] KM: They're always given the credit away. That's very admirable. Okay, go ahead.
[00:41:42] JIM: It is. But please don't interrupt me. I was kidding. That’s the kind of relationship we have. We cussing each other.
[00:41:53] KM: Sound familiar, Gray?
[00:41:54] GM: Painfully.
[00:41:57] JIM: Yeah, exactly.
[00:41:57] KM: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with restauranteur Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake Keet, from Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, Petit & Keet Restaurants in Little Rock, Arkansas, Cypress Social. And the last thing we're going to talk about is the future of the restaurant business, which I think we've talked a lot about. More to come right after the break.
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[00:42:59] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking today with restauranteur and entrepreneur, Mr. Jim Keet; and his son, Jake Keet, from Taziki’s Mediterranean Café, Petit & Keet Restaurants, Cypress Social, and many, many more. He's opening up a barbecue place. He’s opening up chicken place. So let's talk about staffing, and food sources and trends, and servers versus takeout and dine-in. How do you find people? Indeed? You go on Indeed?
[00:43:30] JAKE: It’s restaurant. One of the things that we sort of used as a guiding light for it is A’s hire A’s, B's hire C’s, C's recommend to F’s is the addition that what Tommy came up with.
[00:43:42] KM: What? Say that again. I’ve never heard this.
[00:43:46] JAKE: A’s hire A’s.
[00:43:48] KM: So you’re talking about A employees.
[00:43:49] JAKE: B’s attract C’s. And then C’s recommend F’s is the addition that Tommy added, which I thought was hilarious. He's about right on that. But your best employee pool is going to be from your best employees.
[00:44:08] KM: So, referrals.
[00:44:11] JAKE: Referrals.
[00:44:10] JIM: Referrals, existing staff.
[00:44:11] JAKE: Yep. Existing staff, if you train them right, which hopefully you are, all of our best people come from our best people. We've had some luck recently. I think the restaurant industry right now, one of the things that we've noticed is all of our top line managers have stayed the exact same this entire sequence, from 2020 all the way through now. We haven't lost a single GM. But what we have noticed is a few of our AGMs, this is this year within the last couple months, we always try to hire one ahead on management to try to make sure that we don't have any stock gaps. We don't want to have anything –
[00:44:59] KM: So you like to over-hire by maybe 10% so that in case something happens you’ve got some back.
[00:45:04] JAKE: Yes, ma'am.
[00:45:04] KM: That's the second time I've heard that in two days.
[00:45:07] JAKE: And what we've noticed, though, is, I think, as a nation, we have what I would call sort of a Covid hangover. It's like it isn't anything that your business is doing. Because, like I said, you've got to still take care of the basics, which is taking care of your people. But I think there's a little bit this PTSD that everybody has from where they were working last year, when they were running around, the world's on fire, everything's terrible, all of these things. You can't help but slightly associate that time in your life to where you were working. And so I think that's where some of the attrition comes from, which is also why we've been able to pick up some really great people that have left their vocations to come to us. I think that's what we're seeing. And I’ve talked with other restaurant tours about that. They're saying the same.
[00:46:04] KM: I think it's interesting that in the last two days, at the hair salon where I was last night getting my hair done, and today, talking to your restauranters, two different industries, have told me that they over-hire by 10% so that they don't have this gap. I happen to not do that, because I'm trying to save expenses. And what is your biggest? Is payroll your biggest expense at a restaurant? I would think so. It's not going to be rent. It's not going to be food.
[00:46:32] JIM: Yes. The answer is yes.
[00:46:36] KM: And yet you're going to over-hire in the area that has the biggest expense. So backwards on that, I think.
[00:46:41] JIM: Well, there's a good reason for that. You have to look at what it costs you to lose an employee. I do this little exercise that I've done when I was president Taziki’s Corporate as an example. Whiteboarded, what does it actually cost you when you lose a staff member? The number of hours you have to retrain. The uncertainty of the person that you're bringing in.
[00:47:08] KM: They’re going to last or work.
[00:47:09] JIM: Yeah, and meet your expectations. The implications on your food cost. The implication on guest friendliness. I mean, all that kind of stuff. And so we intentionally have a very full management staff more than most in the past casual business. And one of the things that I've said from day one with the guys is you can explain to me why your labor costs may be a little bit high. You cannot explain to me why we serve poor product or didn't have good hospitality. So that's kind of been our mantra from day one.
[00:47:47] KM: You’re kind of banking on turnover, basically. Because you know it's going to happen. So you're just planning for turnover.
[00:47:54] JAKE: It’s also investing in your people, though. Like you're not anticipating just that there will be some turnover in the ranks. But the truth is, people aren't infallible. There's always going to be – Especially once you get to a certain point and how many businesses you own, there's always going to be somebody that might fall off. There are people that find themselves in situations where they no longer feel the desire to keep doing the job.
[00:48:29] KM: Do you have an HR department?
[00:48:31] JAKE: Oh, yeah. His name is Tommy Keet. And I’m his second.
[00:48:36] KM: Really? Do y'all hire all your people? How many employees y'all have now?
[00:48:40] JAKE: Across the state, we've got about 300 right now.
[00:48:42] KM: And how can you do anything else besides just hire people?
[00:48:46] JIM: It's decentralized.
[00:48:49] JAKE: It's decentralized.
[00:48:51] JIM: Yeah, he's making a joke.
[00:48:50] KM: What does that mean?
[00:48:52] JIM: We rely upon every manager to incorporate the standards and expectations that we have as they hire people. So if we come into the restaurant and we see people that are not meeting our standards, and we hold our management staff accountable for that.
[00:49:11] KM: I gotcha. Do you offer health insurance?
[00:49:14] JIM: We do.
[00:49:15] KM: To everyone or just the manager?
[00:49:16] JIM: Everyone.
[00:49:18] KM: Even the low – Even the entry-level staff?
[00:49:21] JIM: They have to work over 30 hours a week.
[00:49:22] JAKE: Over 30 hours. Full-time staff.
[00:49:25] KM: And a year maybe? And work for a year or something? How many –
[00:49:29] JIM: 90 days.
[00:49:32] JAKE: Something along those lines. We follow the same guidelines as everyone else. It's full-time staff. Over 30 hours aggregate. And I think there's – Yeah, it may only be like 60 days. It’s not very long.
[00:49:47] JIM: But it applies to staff, management as well line staff.
[00:49:54] KM: Any advice anybody want to go to the restaurant business before we go?
[00:49:56] JAKE: Run. Run for your life.
[00:49:59] KM: Don't get married.
[00:49:59] JIM: Well, there's an old saying. When doctors, and lawyers, and accountants, and people that have never been in the food business, say, “Gosh! I've always wanted to be in the restaurant business.” There's an old saying that says, “If you want to be a millionaire in the restaurant business, you start out with 10 million,” and you become a millionaire.
[00:50:23] KM: Yeah, you live on cashflow, baby.
[00:50:25] JAKE: [inaudible 00:50:26].
[00:50:27] KM: Yeah. I believe that too. It is so hard to do.
[00:50:32] JAKE: Dad, I wasn’t to write that one down. That was a good one. I hadn’t heard that one.
[00:50:35] KM: I've really enjoyed talking to y'all so, so much. Listen, I have a desk set for you. But I wanted to get Missouri. But because we have supply chain problems around the world, we only have Arkansas, which will be perfect for you. But I don't have a Missouri for you. But I'm going to send you one when they come back in.
[00:50:56] JAKE: Thank you so much.
[00:50:57] JIM: Hey, listen, I'm an Arkansan now. I've been here since 1975.
[00:51:02] KM: But I wanted to get you Missouri. But I'm telling you, supply chains are so messed up everywhere. Even in the flag business, we're struggling.
[00:51:07] JAKE: Oh, this is so much fun. Thank you. I love it. It’ll be on my desk.
[00:51:08] KM: You’re welcome. Have y'all had any problems in the food industry getting food?
[00:51:11] JIM: We have. We have. Yes.
[00:51:17] KM: And we'll leave it at that.
[00:51:18] JIM: Well, the good news is – And Jake's been very much involved in this as is Tommy more than me. Our primary broadline supplier is Ben E. Keith. And we work very closely with Rusty Mathis, Tom Pangborn, Blake Adams. They all do a great job for us and just do a top rate job for us.
[00:51:40] JAKE: They have watched our backs.
[00:51:41] KM: That's great. Well, you're big vendors for them. They're going to watch out for you. And like you said, you hung tight to the whole thing. Good for you y’all.
In closing, to our listeners, I'd like to thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening, and that it, whatever it is, we'll help you up your independence, your business or your life. I'm Kerry McCoy. And I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[00:52:06] KM: You've been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. If you'd like to sponsor this show, or any show, email me, Gray, at firstname.lastname@example.org. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Stay informed of exciting upcoming guests by subscribing to our YouTube channel or podcasts wherever you'd like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American dream.