Joining us today is Jolisa Johnson, the VP of Marketing and Communications at Black Bear Diner, a fast-growing full-service franchise concept with multiple locations in 14 states. A seasoned veteran and a master of her craft, Jolisa has more than 25 years of industry experience in advertising and marketing.
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Black Bear Diner And The Full-Service Franchise Concept With Jolisa Johnson
We welcome Jolisa Johnson onto the show. Jolisa is the VP of Marketing Communications at Black Bear Diner, a full-service franchise concept that has incredibly strong community ties. Let’s get into it.
Jolisa, welcome to the show.
Thank you. I’m super excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
I’m so excited to have you on the show and couldn’t be more excited to talk about the incredible things, specifically all the success you’ve had at the Black Bear Diner. I want to go back in time to start with childhood Jolisa. What was middle school Jolisa like?
The middle school Jolisa was tenacious and very outgoing. I am super fortunate to have had a wonderful childhood. I’m the youngest of six children. When you’re the youngest of six and got boys in the family, you got to be tough. My brother Quentin taught me to be resilient with his teasing nonstop continually my whole life. It was a fun time and lots of family events and sporting events for us.
All of my brothers and sisters were involved in sports. As a family, that’s something that we did together. We believe wholeheartedly that it helps build character. You learn teamwork. You learn how to get along with folks that you may not have otherwise, whether that’s your peers or an authoritarian figure. You learn a lot in those situations, and that was valuable for me. I had a great childhood in Oregon.
What was your favorite sport to play? What was your favorite sport to watch?
My favorite sport to play was basketball by far. I played volleyball, basketball, and softball, primarily. I had a track coach who tried to get me to do a shot put and javelin. Certainly, sprinting was not my thing. That felt the okay side, but it’s funny when you’re successful at one sport, then everyone’s looking at you and thinking, “How does that translate?” It doesn’t always translate, but that’s part of the learning process for everyone.
I enjoy playing basketball. It’s always a team sport where everyone’s working together. It’s not always the person who has the ball. It’s the entire team. I remember we used to get rewarded for assists in basketball. Our coach was like, “It’s not about the shooter. It’s about the part to set them up,” which would explain Draymond Green is my favorite player. He’s pretty tenacious. He is the engine that drives the Golden State Warriors, which I’m a huge fan of and a follower as certainly as we reach the next level of playoffs.
I find it so fascinating that you’re one of six. How would you say both the combination of being the youngest of six kids and/or playing so many sports growing up? How did that impact what you wanted to do in your career?
I started out thinking about my career. I’m the VP of Marketing and Communications at Black Bear Diner, which is a concept that has 145 diners in 14 States. We are on a growth trajectory. We are growing into new states and new communities. When I was growing up, I was a voracious reader, especially of news. I was very interested in current events and news. I thought I was going to be an opinionated writer because I have a lot of opinions. Even as a child, I had lots of opinions.
I always thought that, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I’m in a tune-up, went through school and got a degree in Journalism, then had a family myself. That changed my priorities. Going out and being a beat reporter and trying to put in the time that gets you to the next level of media editorial wasn’t in the cards for me. That’s not what was going to happen at that time in my life. I took on a role as a marketing person in our community. I found a niche.
I found something that I was that I felt like I was good at that my peers thought I was good at. That was very rewarding for me, personally but then also professionally. It started this avenue that I was on, and here I am. I don’t know that when I was younger that this was what I thought I was going to do, but it certainly fits. It’s no surprise to anyone that it is what I’m doing also.
There are so many corollaries to what you envisioned doing to why you’re so successful in this role at Black Bear Diner.
I alluded that you have to learn how to get along, deal with different personalities, and organize. In a lot of situations that I was in, I was the team captain. I was the leader of the group. You have to learn how to bring people together, mitigate any issues that might be happening, accentuate strengths, and bring those people along in those situations. In a marketing team where you certainly have a lot of different personalities that are involved, not only in your own team, in the company with different departments but then also with the people that you work externally with.
Different businesses experience different breakpoints as they grow.
You have a lot of vendor partners. In our organization, we rely heavily on our vendor partners because we’re lean and mean internally. That means that we need a lot of help on the outside. Those partnerships are always valued and developed so that they can be as successful as possible so that we can be successful as possible.
As you mentioned, there are now 145 Black Bear Diners growing quickly. When you joined years ago, how many locations were there?
There are 72. Here’s a little fun fact too. We essentially doubled our size, but my department stayed the same size.
That was my next question.
As we talk about lean and mean, the team that I work with, I’ve worked with them now. My designer and a senior manager I’ve worked with her for eight years, and my other two team members have been with me for 6 and 5 years, respectively. We’ve learned efficiencies. One of the things that we had to do was learn efficiencies and how we get more efficient at what we’re doing so that we can continue to do more because no one’s asking us to do less. They’re asking us to do more. When you put in systems, and we call it tribal knowledge, knowing who’s who and where to go for what answers is invaluable most definitely.
You are double the size and same headcount in the marketing department or your team specifically. Different businesses experience different breakpoints as they grow and need to retool for their next phase of growth. For Black Bear Diner, what were those breakpoints that, even though the team size hasn’t necessarily changed, what are you focused on had to evolve in order to set yourself up for that next phase of growth?
That’s an interesting question because one of the things that we’re focused on is how we retain the core of who we are and how we started. We talk about evolution and growth. Growth has that evolution, and that was all planned. When we took on an equity partner in 2016, we had very deliberate steps to help facilitate this growth. Those are still in place and still evolving. We continue to move east.
We’re going to continue to get bigger. What is the succession plan to move forward? Always in that conversation is how we kept a hold of the core values that we had when we were only 20 diners or only 72, for that matter. Even at 72, it’s a much smaller organization, and communication is much different because it can be. These are very deliberate conversations that we have as a senior team all the time.
It’s important to us that we retain a small community diner-type feel at every one of our diners. Although we say we want to be big as far as size, we don’t want anyone to think we’re big. We want everyone to think we’re just your local diner in your local community because people are astounded all the time when I say, “I have 145 diners.” They’re like, “What?” I have people go, “I’ve been to every one.” I’m like, “Fantastic. How many is that?” They’ll tell me like, “It’s 23 or something,” and I’ll be like, “You got more ways to go.”
They think we’re smaller, maybe regional, if I’m talking to somebody in California because we are more of a regional brand. That’s where we started, so that’s where a lot of our diners are. How we keep that small-town feel is real. We’re much focused on local store marketing because of that because we want to have a community feel as opposed to having a national advertising campaign, which we do have some national ads running for general awareness.
The bulk of what we do is focused on developing programs that can then be easily executed by our local diner. From our standpoint, we put together the programs and all the pieces to the puzzle then go, “Here’s your program. Your GM can now execute this very easily because we’ve done all the hard work on our side.” That’s how we’re approaching growth in that respect.
I want to re-emphasize what you said because it’s so incredible and a testament to the incredible work that you and your team are doing. You run a company with 145 different locations, and there are people that are astounded that their local diner is one of a handful of Black Bear Diner locations. That is incredible that you’re able to maintain that local community feels while being a big company.
It used to be that like when I would travel for business and have my logo shirts on. I would get on the plane or be at the airport and someone would go, “I love Black Bear Diner.” I would say, “That’s great. Which one do you go to?” They would be very confused. They’re like, “I go to the Black Bear Diner,” because they think there’s only one. When I explained, “We have lots of locations,” they were astounded. For me, that means mission success. That means we did what we set out to do. We have established the feeling that we want to establish in that person where that is their community diner, there is one, and nothing’s more important than that one.
You mentioned that a big role that your team plays in order to enable that local feel is finding the right partners and vendors to ultimately find turnkey ways to set all of your local operators up for success as.
That’s the goal.
How do you do that? It sounds hard.
With a lot of thought, we punch holes in everything. In a prior life, I worked at an advertising agency. That was a service model. We service our clients. I certainly bring that to this environment where my franchisees and my diners are my clients. It very much is, “How can we be of service to you? You’re my customer. You’re my guest.” Part of that is making life easy for them because they have hard jobs. They have to run a diner and make people happy every day. That’s with the public, and that’s not an easy job.
We want them focused on taking care of our guests each and every day in their diners. If we want something to be successful, we have to make it as easy as possible. We spend a lot of time looking at it from the server standpoint, from the GM standpoint, and also from the guest’s standpoint. We also look at it very much from an operational standpoint of how we make it easy for them and turnkey to execute. It’s a lot of time of, “If we did it this way, what would that be? Where are the holes we could poke into? Where are the pitfalls? Where are the pros? Where are the cons?” We are setting up everything we need to make that happen.
We have an internal communication portal that all of our team members can sign up for news in our diners that houses all of our information. Our training and operations run that platform. We contribute to it on a regular basis. We can always point the diners to it as an additional point of reference and information of, “Here’s what we’re doing.” They can always go back, get all the documentation, build links, and have the support materials they need from that platform as well.
How streamlined are the marketing efforts of all the 145 different restaurant locations? Is everyone trying to do the same thing? Are there some differences?
We certainly have system-wide promotions and initiatives that are executed. Those are things like our limited-time food offerings. Those are things that they all do. We’re on the tail end of our Go Big, which is a giant porterhouse steak and big food idea. We’re going to take a few weeks off, then we’re going to roll into our summer, bearing a promotion where we’re featuring fresh berries on different items.
Everyone does those. That makes it much simpler for us than to be able to communicate via social media, eClub, things that are more general, and mass media because we can talk about those things on a larger scale and not have to segment off messaging. There are things that diners do on a local level too. There might be things that are important to a diner in Porterville, California, that is important to them in their community that maybe don’t resonate in Katy, Texas. We’ll work one-on-one with a location if they have something that they want to do, to go, “How do we support that? How do we help you be successful?”
Generally, we have something already in our pocket because we’ve done a few things, so we know a few things. That’s the slogan goes. We proved that one. We probably have something already in our back pocket that we go, “This will work for this situation.” We can pull it out, dust something off, and update it slightly so that it will work for them.
That’s much more localized, and we want to encourage that because we talked a whole lot about how we want diners to feel like they have this ability to do things locally too. The home office isn’t dictating everything you do like, “You need to do this,” because if it doesn’t resonate with them and with their guests, they’re not going to execute it anyway. There’s going to be no passion for it. There’s going to be no belief in it. There’s going to be no effort to execute on it anyway.
To that point, part of making consumers feel that their local diner is the only diner is also making the operators at the local diner feel that their diner is the only most important diner.
If we go back to my comment about coming from a service background and a client background, my team is very much invested, and this is why we’re a great team, in that same passion and thought process. We are here to serve our diners and make them successful. How do we do that? There’s never pushed back up. As a matter of fact, we argue sometimes. We say yes too much. It’s a bit like, “We’ve got all this on our plate.” There has to be a hierarchy of importance because there’s not enough time in the day. You got to find out what the most important things are and execute them.
If a diner is underperforming, which I’m sure happens rarely but occasionally, what’s the most common reason that a diner is underperforming from other diners?
Our business model is very much a manager-driven model. If we have a strong GM in our diners on all levels, that diner will be more successful. You have to be involved and passionate about running that diner. We’ve invested heavily into our GMs over the pandemic. We invested heavily into them to keep them on board, knowing that it takes time. We have an internal saying that says, “It takes time to be a Bear.” It takes time to learn our enormous menu, which is vast. It takes time to learn the service model that we’re talking about and write that we want you to bring to your guests and your teams. It takes time to develop that in a person.
If you want something to be successful, you have to make it as easy as possible.
Everyone knows this is no secret in the industry that turnover is rampant. If you lose somebody, not only does it cost you money. It’s straight out of your money to retrain somebody and get them up to speed. You’re losing revenue in that timeframe too, because they’re not performing at the level that we need them at. During the pandemic, we kept all of our GMs on staff, even when our diners were closed. In a lot of instances, we still kept them on salary and kept them interested and active, at least with us at the home office, so that when we’re ready to turn it all back on, we already had our GMs in place, and we just needed to bring them back into full-time.
We believe 100% that a strong GM is crucial to the success of a location. That’s probably the number one factor. It does reflect in everything that you see. If you have a strong GM who’s very active in their diner, you’re going to see that also in positive reviews. You’re going to see that because they’re taking care of business. They’re taking care of employees. It’s clean, and the food’s prepared and plated correctly. The staff is happy and friendly. You’re going to see that reflected in all of those things as well.
It plays into the next question I had for you. The ultimate KPI is sales, but what are some lead indicators that are going to indicate how sales are going to perform? It sounds like reviews are one of them. What else are you looking at?
We incorporate our review scores into a GM performance review as well. His review is dependent on our guest reviews. Traffic is a huge indicator too. You can have year-over-year sales increases because you’ve taken pricing and menu and still have lower traffic. For us, in 2022, we’re focused on bolstering and recovering in-diner traffic. Prior to the pandemic, our third-party off-premise sales were about 7%. It was relatively low. We’re three-day part concepts for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We believe that we experienced in our diner with the interaction you have with our staff.
We believe that the environment that you’re in with our cabin-like feel, all these things matter to the overall experience of what you get on your plate. It’s important what’s on the plate, but it’s all experiential. Prior to the pandemic, we were about 7%. All hell broke loose, diners closed down, and dining rooms were closed. Luckily, we already had our third-party partners in place.
We pivoted very heavily to off-premise advertising communication a lot with our eClub and letting them know what was going on because these are our fans. These are the people who want to know what’s happening in Black Bear. As the pandemic closed out and our dining rooms opened back up, we retained a lot of those third-party sales but lost some of our in-dinner traffic.
Some of it is people are hesitant to come back. I mentioned we’re heading to California, the Bay Area, and LA, where a lot of our diners are. There’s some hesitancy for people to return to some of those “normal” or pre-pandemic environments. We’re very much focused on driving those in-dinner traffic numbers while still retaining third-party. That’s going to make the whole boat float higher. That is the whole.
We know that families love fundraisers at Black Bear Diner.
They do. We’re happy to do them. We have a program that we call Dine and Donate, where folks can request to dine and donate. We usually do those on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. It’s strategic because those are slower nights. We can facilitate the groups better. We ask the folks that want to do a fundraiser. They participate in letting their communities and folks know that we’re holding one.
To help them be successful, we have a whole program together that gives them a flyer and an email template to the people that are doing the fundraiser so they can send stuff out. They already got something that’s pre-made and let their community know that Black Bear is holding a fundraiser for them on this night, and we donate proceeds from that evening. We love doing those. Those are coming back around and becoming more plentiful as the years are taking on some moments here. We love to do those.
Jolisa, at LeagueSide loved working with you. Not only you and your team are a pleasure to work with but it is such a pleasure that every single family is so welcomed to Black Bear as a sponsor and so excited that you’re supporting their youth sports organization. It’s such an amazing testament to how well you have done to thoughtfully, as you grow, think about your local diners and the local communities that you serve. It’s so understandable speaking to you why you’re having the success that you’re having.
We’re happy to partner with you. We’re very excited that we found LeagueSide. We’ve grown our partnership. We started with a few test markets and test stores and say, “Let’s see how this goes.” It felt like it was incredibly successful, not only in the program itself but with the community. The community embraced it. The communities we’re thankful for. For our tabling events, when we go out there, we put together a beautiful, colorful pop-up tent and some fun activities because it depends on what you do there. You could show up, then nothing’s fun and nobody cares.
We’re fun. We take our bear mascot because people love taking pictures with those bears. Those kids love those bears. My advice to anybody would be to get a kid-friendly mascot because kids love taking photos with it. It’s such an easy way to get a viral moment. Those tabling events have been invaluable. Those lead to the dine and donate events. When we’ve made those connections in the community, it goes beyond what we’re doing right there.
Let’s face it. If we go back to what we started this whole conversation with, I’m one of six, and my family was involved. It’s not just about Jolisa’s little league game. It’s about, “Her older brother has a football or team that he’s involved with, her sister is in ballet, and her other sister is in the band or whatever it might be.”
Those families go, “Did you know about Black Bear? They were super cool. This was a great event. It was so successful. They made it easy. We raised $250 or whatever it might be.” It doesn’t have to be an astronomical number because a lot of these local organizations and small school organizations are excited to have a partner with somebody who’s willing to work with them and help them advance their organization as well.
It does have a ripple effect, which is why we expanded our partnership this 2022. When we were at our franchise conference last April, we also introduced it to all of our franchisees and invited them to participate as well. We gave them the program, invited them to participate, and are still looking at that. We have different franchisees who are at different levels of understanding why this is important. A few who get it want to jump on right away. You’re never going to get 100% participation in something like this, but we’ll continue to advocate because we know how important this is.
Thank you. I’m learning about the event. It’s always enjoyable when we get to work with people that share our mission and values, raising communities and helping families in the community. That’s what we stand for at LeagueSide. It’s evident that’s what you all stand for too, so thank you. Before I let you go, Jolisa, we’ve got the lightning round. There are four questions. Say the first thing that comes to mind. First question, what’s your favorite youth sports memory?
I was making it to the finals in my high school year at State Finals in basketball.
Second, what did you want to be when you grew up as a kid?
I always thought I was going to be an opinion editor at a newspaper.
What is a brand whose marketing you admire most?
I’m partial to Jack in the Box. They’re hilarious. They’re on-brand 100% for their target market. They do a great job with their advertising.
Finally, what is a go-to cause that you like to support?
Bears Brew Back. That’s our program, which supports the families that grow our beans in Nicaragua. We raise money for them. We go into the country and help those communities with clean water, access to water in their communities, and also educational programs because the big roadblock to education in Nicaragua is simply not having a pen and a paper. We supply that, those kids get a great education, and communities get some clean water. It’s very fulfilling. I’m inviting anyone to go to our website and check it out because there’s more information there about the programs we have.
I also hear that there are some improvements that have happened to the website or are happening. Is that also true?
Yes. We were in the process of revamping. Those haven’t been launched, but they’re upcoming. We’re looking forward to that. We’re having that come to fruition too.
Jolisa, thank you so much for coming to the show.
Thanks for having me, Evan. I appreciate it and your team as well.
Thank you for reading this episode with Jolisa Johnson. As a recap, we discussed the importance of youth sports, how to build a community to support local diners, and how to build a culture of collaboration. Thank you for reading. See you next time, everyone. Play on.
About Jolisa Johnson
Jolisa Johnson is the VP of Marketing & Communications at Black Bear Diner, a full-service franchise concept with 145 locations in 14 states – and growing. This three-day part concept has a rich history of guest service that is rooted in community relationships and local store involvement. With over 25 years of industry experience in all aspects of advertising and marketing,
Jolisa is a marketing maven, whose background in agency work has led her to a successful career in restaurant marketing built upon trusted and honest relationships.
She is a strategic planner who utilizes creative concepts to achieve goals, while building synergy amongst a multitude of players including franchisees, colleagues, media partners, and her guests.