Aug. 2, 2018

#10: Leadership Advice From Andreas Karlsson, CEO of Sticks'n'Sushi

Andreas Karlsson, the CEO of Sticks'n'Sushi joins us to discuss how Sticks'n'Sushi is making their mark in London's restaurant scene and beyond. Bringing some really insightful perspectives and practical pieces of advice, Andreas shows just how much he believes that mastering internal execution is the number one ingredient to success in the hospitality industry.

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Michael Tingsager:  0:54  

Hello Andreas and welcome to the Hospitality Maverick podcast thank you very much for inviting us to your restaurant here Sticks'n'Sushi restaurant in Victoria Nova. I am really happy to be here to have a conversation with you about your journey, Sticks'n'Sushi and what's going on in the industry right now. 


Andreas Karlsson:  1:13  

Yeah, thank you. Welcome and thanks for inviting me.


Michael Tingsager:  1:16  

As always, it's always interesting starting with the people on the podcast hearing a bit about where they're coming from, how the Swedish Viking like you end up in London and hospitality, and now with the Danish concept Sticks'n'Sushi?


Andreas Karlsson:  1:29  

Well, my dream as a young boy from the north of Sweden, where I'm from, always had the dream about working abroad. That was what I had in mind from the year when I was 1415 years old. My first step into the real world was to move from my hometown down to Stockholm, where I lived for about three and a half years. And I always had this dream in my mind that I was going to work abroad. And funnily enough, it was a colleague of mine who said they were looking, for restaurant staff in London, and I spoke to my boss and she said great idea. I'll give you three months off, so you can go and test it out if you get the job. I got the job, but I never returned. And that is 24 years ago. So over half my life. I've been living here in the UK now. So that's the short answer to the question. But that desire of working outside of the border of Sweden was on my mind from an early age.


Michael Tingsager:  2:26  

And you had a bit of a journey in hospitality you not only have been Sticks'n'Sushi before but you were with another well-known brand here in the industry. 


Andreas Karlsson:  2:34  

Yeah, that's correct. My first job when I came to London was a hotel, hotel restaurant, and funnily enough, I became a very loyal customer of Wagamama at the first restaurant in Stretton St. Bloomsbury, and I was a big fan. I got hold of the news that they were going to open up a second restaurant. So I sent my CV and I was lucky enough to have an interview with Alan Yao and his sister, Tina, about taking a role in that new restaurant in Soho. So back in 1995, I joined the opening of the second restaurant for Wagamama. And I stayed very loyal to them for over 15 years, almost 16 years. And I must say, I went on the best journey and went to the best school in hospitality that I could ever imagine. So that was an amazing, amazing time.


Michael Tingsager:  3:27  

So where did you start in hospitality were you in the kitchen or on your service team? How was your start my meals, most people start you know, eat away the cleaning, they lose. And then they work themselves up either to the kitchen or to the service team.


Andreas Karlsson:  3:40  

Again, I need to go back to my teenage years, when I got in contact with hospitality, working for this Italian guy who owned a little Italian restaurant in my hometown. And again, I was therefore for a work experience for a week I did quite well he asked me to come and wash plates for two and a half hours every lunchtime at my school holiday as a 14-year-old, which I did. And that developed an end to learning the basic kitchen scales and making the pizza and eventually serving guests as a waiter. And as an 18-year-old. I held the keys to the restaurant and opened it up on my own on a Saturday morning. So that's how I got the bug in hospitality and I was quite good at it. And I kind of stuck to that industry. And it's truly an enjoyable industry to be in.


Michael Tingsager:  4:31  

Taking the journey from the north of Sweden to London. Starting in restaurants and then joining probably one of the most successful rollouts of casual dining concepts we've seen for years. And then moving to Sticks'n'Sushi a danish concept. What was it that made you excited to make that transition? Because I guess at that point, that was a much smaller business to join than what you came from.


Andreas Karlsson:  4:57  

That's correct. Again, the journey with Wagamama was exceptional. I was lucky enough to work in international development for the past kind of eight years, the last eight years I was focused on that. So I was traveling a lot opening restaurants under license with Wagamama around the world, that travel is also tiring and has a backside to it so eventually that that novelty wears off. And when you're in this industry,  the unique thing that hospitality is that your network and you meet people, and you share experiences, and you help colleagues in the industry. And we came in contact while I came in contact with Sticks'n'Sushi through the industry and got to know the founders of the business. 


And we stayed in contact and they were knocking on my door a few times about their dream and vision of opening Sticks'n'Sushi in London. And eventually, one of the founders and the CEO came grinding me down and I agreed to jump ship again, really going back to the roots where you're even closer to the guest to the consumer of your product was attractive. And again, I was a big fan of Sticks'n'Sushi myself as I was visiting Copenhagen frequently. So I could see that the product would stand up in the market of London. 


And that's why I said I take a calculated risk now of jumping ship. And as Kim put it to me, I can promise you one thing amongst others, but one of the things I can promise you is that we're going to have lots of fun together. And it's no doubt that this industry is lots of fun. And our journey so far has been most enjoyable.


Michael Tingsager:  6:44  

Yeah, coming back to Sticks'n'Sushi now, rollout in London, you have several locations, you are in Oxford, Cambridge, and you have two more on the go. And also you're going to Berlin. So now what is the next step for Sticks'n'Sushi? Is there anything you know, outside London, is worth pursuing? Or are we talking about other countries besides Germany and so on? Or is it a capital concept?


Andreas Karlsson:  7:11  

Well, first of all, I correct you there, Michael. We don't like the word rollout, we are opening one restaurant at a time, we focus very much on doing every restaurant as good as we can, if you take it and take that approach to your growth, whichever pace you choose to go your growth, I think you'll have a greater success of having a really solid and sustainable business. So for us, we had a strategy about the UK market and where we would consider going and so on. And we have concentrated on London and the Southeast, we have more opportunities to go further north than to other cities around the UK. But I think for now as the market looks like now with what's around the corner with changes in the way of Britain is a UK is connected to the EU or not we will stick to where we are which stick to London, we are very much a city concept. And having a cluster approach is a good way for us to control what we do quality service and engagement with all of the team members that we have. 


So that's where we are with the UK in London certainly can hold a few more restaurants. And we have two more on the go. We opened in Kings Road here in September. And with some luck, we will open up the second one this year in SoHo in big streets by the end of this year or early next. So that's the plan. And then in terms of our approach to where else to go, we will certainly continue the plan and the journey in Germany with more restaurants there. So we try to do it well and do it one at a time. But it's certainly a city concept more than anything else. And it's fairly complex when it comes to execution. And the skill set of what we do especially back of house needs to be top-notch. And staffing is always more challenging when you go out to the smaller towns and cities outside of the hubs of or main cities like Copenhagen and London and Berlin.


Michael Tingsager:  9:14  

So what is the secret ingredient now you're saying you're opening one restaurant at a time you're taking you to know, a standard operator's approach to getting that restaurant working well? What is your secret to the success you have because you're perceived as a chain, but I've been in a number of your location they all feel different? That's something that the layout is different than the experience but what is the secret internal secret.


Andreas Karlsson:  9:37  

I guess I guess if you truly make your leaders who are responsible for each location the ambassadors of that location, and you give them the ownership of that specific restaurant that pays off in the long run because they will certainly nurture the team that works for them. But they've also nurtured the regular guests that you have and if you have that formula, right, you have greater success, of succeeding. And one of the things that you also need to have is to have patience. And in this industry, not every restaurant you open starts with a big bang, and the guests are flogging in and start queuing outside your door. That's not the case. So when you have a slower start, you need to have the patience to invest in achieving the quality that you're known for, and not trying to cut corners for the short-term gain. So that also means that the owners need to have the money to invest in that execution when the start is not as good as you hoped for. So I think that is a good way of explaining how, how you can make it a success. So focus more on the restaurant and the leaders there than focusing on your overhead. And the people around you who are not contributing to the guest experience.


Michael Tingsager:  9:41  

You've talked about giving the leader almost autonomy to run the business. And you talked about patience as well. I guess that's also a journey when you get to know, managers because you cannot always foster everything internally, I guess you also sometimes have to get people from the outside and learn from the Sticks'n'Sushi culture, can you give a bit of your thinking and approach to how you deal with that?


Andreas Karlsson:  11:22  

Well, you always want to reward people who've been loyal to you and work for you, and you grow them within your business into leaders. So if it's in the kitchen or on the restaurant floor, you want to have that natural flow of talent coming through. But as you said, it's very important that you also invite new talent and people with the same values to join your business. And when you have external leaders coming on board, again, patience is important. What I mean by that is that you need to give them the time not to learn how to carry a tray of food or to prep, whatever you prep in the kitchen, it's about giving them the time to settle into the culture and the values of the business. So that hiring early leaders when you need the leader is crucial. So again, it's going to cost you physical, more salary to get them to where you are investing that salary in ensuring and safeguarding that when you give them the responsibility, they will, they will take it and they will execute it in the best possible way. So don't rush that I think then you water up the quality that you stand for.


Michael Tingsager:  12:34  

Do you have like a specific roadmap on how you're doing this, when you get them on the journey earliest, there are specific things you take them through to you know, understand and lift the culture and also have the skills they need to have to, to run a restaurant, on their own when they're set loose.


Andreas Karlsson:  12:51  

Yeah, well, first of all, as I said before, it's we give them the time to strip off all of the responsibilities that they will have later on, and they have time to learn from the bottom up. Because if they know how we go about things, they can also later on, actually train from the bottom-up when they come on board. So the crucial thing here is that they are trained all the way through. And by doing that you give them you give them more power later on because they know how things are done. And that helps a great great deal.


Michael Tingsager:  13:30  

Talking about opening restaurants getting the management, right. I've been visiting and being a happy customer and I love your product. And I can remember for the first time I've tried your product and then some scaling Copenhagen and tried in London as well. What is the secret behind I know I expected something that your culture to do because of replicating culture and we talked about it on other occasions? It's one of the most difficult things in hospitality is the secret glue, how is Sticks'n'Sushi approaching this house? Are the people factor the human factor how are you how are you doing that as you have more and more restaurants?


Andreas Karlsson:  14:05  

Well, the greater and the bigger you grow a business the harder it is to protect it there is no doubt about it. But the unique thing with with with Sticks'n'Sushi is that when you have the founding family members still active in the business after 24 years, so in 25 years, that contributes a huge amount towards this and they have always focused on holding on to the family values the way they have created this business. And you need to salute that and you need to protect that. And that is what we are we are focusing on every day. But as you grow and you have not only 100 staff members, you have over 1000 people working in a group. You don't know everyone but you need to have the mean ambassadors so the message cascades down throughout the organization so it's not a walk in the park and it's like a Restaurant operation, you need to be focusing on it every single day. And there is no difference here in terms of maintaining the values and the culture that you have in a business.


Michael Tingsager:  15:10  

I guess also if you're focusing on getting a restaurant to work well, that helps you on that journey. Because if the operation works it is my experience that if people have a good experience they keep on coming to work, I like to come to work, things are working, my managers are talking to me respectfully, that makes that journey easier, I guess.


Andreas Karlsson:  15:26  

Yeah, we like to talk to each other and not about each other. And when you start talking about each other, that most of the time creates gossip is not good in any organization, that's cancer for any organization. So by communicating well, and being firm and direct and fair, I think you win that you win in a long time by conducting your work like that. And there is no secret recipe more than that, you just need to keep reminding yourself that this is a very, very important part of what you do daily.


Michael Tingsager:  16:05  

We talked about transforming a cultural level. What about you know, the food and an experience in itself? Have you had to tweak the things to make it work in the UK and the London market as you've grown here, or have you taken the Danish model. And under same here.


Andreas Karlsson:  16:21 

If you doubt that your product and your model need adjusting and tweaking and changing before you go internationally, then you should reconsider. To go internationally, you need to be dead certain that what you have is good enough, if what you have is not good enough, stay at home, quite frankly. So when we opened our first restaurant in Wimbledon here in 2012, we didn't change the formula at all, we focused on executing Sticks'n'Sushi, as well as we possibly could, and listening very loud to our guests and hearing what they were saying. And in the beginning, they have no reference to anything else because no one did what we were doing. So it was a lot of lots of guests who compared us to other operators and then judged as compared to other operators where we were too expensive, or we were too cheap, or, and so on. But it didn't take more than a couple of months. And then these comments went away. And they respected us for what we stood for. So now don't we didn't change much. We stuck to the recipe as we knew.


Michael Tingsager:  17:31  

We talked a bit about leadership before it takes me to another thing you're good at or definitely what you're pressing employees and future employees are looking at they're looking at Glassdoor. And you have quite amazing reviews compared to many employers, it's very tough to get a strong review as you get what is the secret recipe when we come to them. We talked about your management and how we deal with the frontline employees with our we know the crucial part of hospitality, they're the ones creating the experience for the guests there, they want to make sure that sales are developing in the right way, what is that you're doing there to get that so right because they are raving about how to work there in Sticks'n'Sushi.


Andreas Karlsson:  18:11  

I think it comes back to quality in what you do in every aspect it's the product you produce and put on the plate in front of your guests or is the way you communicate with your staff, the engagement you let your staff have with the guest if you focus on that quality, you will get your team to be proud of being associated to your brand. So when you can be proud and they truly say I worked there and there, if it Sticks'n'Sushi or someone else when you have that engagement then they can be proud of the product. I think that is the key to it. Because you cannot you cannot manufacture and artificially create that connection with your staff member unless they have that connection with your product. So maintaining that quality in everything you do, I think that creates the success of how the businesses proceed from the outside in. So stick to your quality and then your staff can be proud of what you do. I think I think it's that simple.


Michael Tingsager:  19:15  

It's well known that you don't leave a company you leave your nearest boss or manager. So what do you do that is because I know that's one of the most important things you do if you train your managers and being good and the people factor on the soft values. Some people call them I call them quite hardcore factors to make things work. So what is that? You are learning from your managers you think that's different from what others are doing.


Andreas Karlsson:  19:40  

I think it's the basic fact that you say good morning and hi. And you said you say goodbye and bye when you leave your workplace. If it's your office, or if it's your restaurant, you treat your colleagues in the same way as you greet your guests and say goodbye to your guests. So there is no difference there. So leaders, their guests, are further away from paying guests. But their guest is the people who work for them and executes the experience for the paying guests. So I think it's not more difficult than that, that if the boss above you and the leader above you behaves and sets the tone of the business and the family in Sticks'n'Sushi certainly maintained and set that tone, again, that filters through the organization. So that's how I see it.


Michael Tingsager:  20:31  

So what you're saying is reflecting what the founders are doing is reflecting down an organization and the managers are mirroring themselves in that way of communicating and acting.


Andreas Karlsson:  20:43  

I hope I'm right with that I admire several restaurant groups. And I know, the founders and the people at the top, and I see a direct link to the behavior and the values a leader and founder of a business have and how that feels when you are there as a guest. So I'm a true believer in that.


Michael Tingsager:  21:05  

So a bit of a curveball here, what are the concepts are very interesting, what are the concept or leaders of hospitality business could also be leaders outside of that do you think to inspire you and your way of doing things in Sticks'n'Sushi.


Andreas Karlsson:  21:18  

Well, I'm a big fan of Dishoom. I think it's a great product. And I think that the way and the conduct of Kavi one of the founders, the way he is the positive nature he has, and the way he looks at his team reflect the experience you have when you go and visit a Dishoom. So that's just one of the examples of it one place where I see a direct connection with the top and what's going on the restaurant floor, a growing business like ours, and like Dishoom it's harder and harder to hold on to that. So I would like to pick Kavi's brain more about what he does. But that is an example of an organization I highly admire.


Michael Tingsager:  22:05  

Great. So coming back to the industry, we are in some people call them very challenging time other people say interesting time somebody talks about the perfect storm, of course, you know, shoulders of the workforce, Brexit, etc, etc. And the economy may be going a bit slow. What is your view on that? And how long is Sticks'n'Sushi navigating in all these different outside things you in principle can't do anything about you're just part of?


Andreas Karlsson:  22:31  

Well, with Brexit, I think people will still eat. And since the votes of leaving, people have continued eating out. So that's a good sign. So I don't think everybody goes on a severe diet. Because of that, I think I think I think it's dangerous when you start looking at all the external factors and start finding reasons with external factors that you're not doing as well. You need to look at what to do yourself. First and foremost, yes, the rising costs that you can't do anything about the need to deal with, can you pass on the entire costs to the guests and expect them to pay for the increase of let's say business rates in central London? No, there are certain things businesses also need to absorb and be clever, more clever with dealing with. And again, if you focus on your execution and your way of running your business, first and foremost, then you can get through tough times. So that's my take on it, concentrate on your own game, first and foremost, don't blame other things for the going gets tough, and be dynamic in the way you're dealing with it. 


Michael Tingsager:  23:43  

And a lot is talking about how you've seen some of the big ones in trouble, and so on. Do you think that's a natural development of any growth in any industry, there will be a correction that needs to happen? Or where do you think that comes from all? Is it just that the first time may be on the economy sliding a bit?


Andreas Karlsson:  24:03  

I think there is one theme running through most groups who are coming into trouble. I think when you grow too fast, it's harder and harder to maintain the quality that you were known for. The guests these days. They judge you very quickly and they can also share their experience much quicker now than they did 10 years ago. I think the correction is already ongoing on that one. But when you have a measured growth and you consider where you open and you execute every opening well, I think then you still have a bright future. So I think the correction will be that the pace groups have been opening will slow down. I still see that they will continue being a growth within the industry of the ones who are doing it the right way. And depends on the complexity of your concept. But even there, the more simple concept in terms of execution, they will also consider those things. Now moving forward into the future.


Michael Tingsager:  25:17  

When I meet other people from the industry. So one of the things they talk a lot about and what they faced up here to the summer period, which is the busy periods in hospitality, one of the busiest periods like Christmas is staffing, is that something you have met as well, the number application the quality of people that it's going down, maybe driven a bit by Brexit, but also on other factors in the market?


Andreas Karlsson:  25:39  

Well, there's certainly a slowdown of European workers coming in. But again, you need to concentrate on your execution, how good are you as an employer, let's face it, you just need to be the best employer in the market, then you have a chance of attracting the best people. If you ignore that, then you get what you deserve. And for us, it's selecting well, training them well, and making them ambassadors of your, of your brand. And then they stay longer. And then there is a natural churn of staff who is moving on to other things, and so on. But that's the nature of the business. But remember, you got to make sure that everyone who leaves you is still an ambassador for you on the left, so they are still promoting and talking about you. And I'm certainly a proud ex Wagamama employee way I can look back and I can still feel that connection with that brand when I see them doing well in the industry. So hold on to your staff, even when they left you because they are true ambassadors post their employment period with you.


Michael Tingsager:  26:45  

That's a really good point. And that's also what I often have seen, like really strong operate, they're good at they will have people that sent almost people to them, even though they stopped working, I think you should go and work for so and so. So technology is another thing there's a lot of talk about and we have a lot of conversations about technology. How do you see technology's role in hospitality, a quite bold statement? Now the technology is almost the innovator and sometimes the saver, or the coming through the perfect storm we've just been discussing, what is your view on technology and how you Sticks'n'Sushi should approach it?


Andreas Karlsson:  27:19  

Well, we were very much the first movers in Denmark with online ordering, with our old platform, and we are investing now in a new digital platform, which will be our next step. So the guest journey online will be as good as the guest journey when they come to our restaurant. So that's what we are doing in terms of other things out there, when it comes to technology and payment solutions and, and experience rating of the guests who visit you, it's so much coming at you. And for us who spent a long period with our guests, still, we can gauge their hearts, how they find the experience better than when you have a very short period with your guests. So for us, we haven't jumped on to everything that's flying around, we take our time, and we are investing in your digital platform here over the next six months and then we will then readjust and see where we're sitting.


Michael Tingsager:  28:23  

What about the internal tech solution, you know, things to help workforce management and infrastructure things like scheduling systems, recruitment systems, operation system checklist inventory planner, is that something you're invested heavily into, you know, save time, in principle, getting the managers and employees focusing on what's important the experience.


Andreas Karlsson:  28:45  

We have, we have new numerous platforms that we are working with, and when you worked with some of them and some are more transparent and like to integrate with other systems, that the key thing would when you have multiple platforms for various things is that they can talk to each other. So the information is seamlessly passed on between the various platforms to avoid any missed inputs of data, because that we'll just throw information and you can't rely on what the data is telling you. So for us, we have a number we will certainly after the digital implementation, look at improving on those so they are integrated better with each other. So let's see one step at a time.


Michael Tingsager:  29:35  

Do you think notoriously the industry is slower than other industries to use innovation and tech and things like that or just thing is quite a normal thing from you know, the kind of business it is it has to be bit slower?


Andreas Karlsson:  29:49  

No, I think I think lots of happened here over the past five years, especially with the various ordering platforms for food and the solutions because, you know it is really from brick to click in our industry as well. So I don't think it's become any slower the interesting thing is it will accelerate even more as our consumer Our guests are getting younger and they living their life more through the smartphones and so on so you need to be on the money there to follow what's going on.


Michael Tingsager:  30:24  

So coming a bit about to the industry the way we have operated restaurants is almost the same way if we don't fall generation, do you think there's going to be a shift in the way it how to run a restaurant? Would it be a different way would be less independent? Would it be more independent? How is there going to be more change around how do you see the whole scene for how we operate and run restaurants?


Andreas Karlsson:  30:49  

We are kind of pack animals and we like to meet and we want to look at people when we enjoy food especially. So the traditional restaurants will always be there for sure, then the loyalty to where you go and socialize will also be online. So you will still be brand loyal when you want to have your favorite food at home. So that's where the technology kicks in. But that social aspect will still be there, you know, the various platform if it's the various consumer groups via Facebook or whatever, but consuming food together is still going to be there. And even so when you pick up your food for your consumption at home, most of the time would we see the orders are for multiple guests. Unless we have single guests eating a heck of lots of food. I don't think that's the case. But we can see that the social aspect of consuming food is still there as two or more when the food is taken from our restaurant to the home or the office.


Michael Tingsager:  31:57  

Just taking a bit step away from the industry and Sticks'n'Sushi and coming back to you, what do you do to you know to innovate yourself and you know, be part of that journey so many years and hospitality there must be some reinventing happening inside yourself as a leader you know, in responsible goes up and you know more complexity to manage what are how do you manage your yourself and the way you lead the business?


Andreas Karlsson:  32:20  

Well, first of all, if you're in this business, you spend a lot of time in the business and not in your own business. But you also spend a lot of time in other businesses. So you get inspiration, and you see things that others are doing. And that's the natural evolvement for me to listen, to read to look to experience. And that's the beauty of our industry, we have a license to dine out at other places. And it's a part of your job, but it's also an amazing hobby. And  I think when you work in hospitality, it is part hobby part work. And you wouldn't be in this industry unless you've enjoyed it. 


So I guess that is one thing. And I'm lucky enough, to have maintained a lot of colleagues and friends outside of the UK. So it's not only looking at the UK market, but it also kept in contact with friends and colleagues from other countries to know what's going on there. Because trends are coming from all sorts of places also from abroad. So it's maintaining that that keeps me fresh, and trying to be top of the curve.


Michael Tingsager:  33:39  

Great. So before we end here, we always had one question for our guests. If you could give one advice only one piece of advice for somebody starting in hospitality could be starting a restaurant or becoming a manager or just want to join talent generally, what would you advise me that one advice that they'll make a difference in their journey?


Andreas Karlsson:  33:56  

So in terms of starting your own business, one step at a time, make sure that you can create something that that you can be proud of, from a quality perspective, do that well and don't think about the size and number of units and how big you going to become just do one, whatever you do, and do it well. If you do well then you have a chance of doing a second one. So that's from an entrepreneurial perspective when it comes to people who want to get into the industry. You mentioned glass doors, but you also got to look at yourself what is it that makes you tick? If you want to get into hospitality? What is it? Is it a full-service restaurant? Is it a hotel? Is it the front of the house it's the back of the house, what is it that makes you tick? And when you then figure that one out, then you can start exploring that segment within hospitality you will have a greater chance of making the right choice when you get into hospitality by thinking like that.


Michael Tingsager:  34:55  

Thank you very much for your time and for inviting us to your beautiful restaurant here. In Victoria, and I hope to have you on the podcast again soon, to hear about how Sticks'n'Sushi and your journey develop.


Andreas Karlsson:  35:08  

Well, it's a great, great talk. Thanks, Michael. My pleasure.