A word with Joy Kealey of Chicago Connection
Joy Kealey owns Chicago Connection, a Boise-based pizza restaurant she purchased with her husbandTom in 1997.
Chicago Connection had been started by a family from Chicago in 1982, and several family members stayed with the company when it changed hands, easing the transition for the Kealeys, who both had extensive financial experience but were new to the restaurant trade. The two have been married almost 37 years and have three grown children.
At its peak, Chicago Connection had ten restaurants. Now it has eight in Boise, Nampa, Meridian and Eagle, and about 150 employees. With the economy recovering, the Kealeys are looking for the right opportunities to expand again.
Idaho Business Review sat down with Joy Kealey to learn more about Chicago Connection, and about running a pizza restaurant in the Treasure Valley. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Had your professional background prepared you for running restaurants?
I grew up in the Mississippi Delta and left after high school for college in Illinois. After college I worked in public accounting, and then worked for a publicly traded company where I was the CFO. My degree is in accounting, with a master’s in marketing and finance and management. My husband’s is very similar.
I didn’t have restaurant experience. But a few of the family members who sold the company stayed around, which was very helpful.
What did you do first when you bought the company?
Among the things we did was a kind of rebranding. We gave Chicago Connection more exposure, reminding people that we were here, freshening up the look. They had brown trucks with hot ovens in the back; we went to white, with a new logo. But we haven’t changed the product, over the years.
More national restaurant chains have been appearing in Boise lately. Is it hard to compete with the national chains?
Within a week of our closing one Chicago Connection, Old Chicago announced they were coming to town. To this day, there are people who show up here and their friend is at Old Chicago, or they’re at Old Chicago and their friend is here. It’s just the name Chicago; Old Chicago is out at the mall (and in downtown Boise) and it’s a completely different product.
There is a market for national chains, there’s no question about it, but I think the freshest products are made from scratch pizzas. What it really takes is a customer who can discern the differences between fresh products and things that have been made from frozen or premade products.
Has the recent wave of gluten-free eating affected Chicago Connection?
We had one of the first gluten-free pizzas in Boise. We started four or five years ago.
We expected gluten-free to be very popular among people who truly were gluten intolerant, but it’s also popular among those who think it’s a healthier way to eat. In our Nampa market, we are selling a lot of gluten-free pizzas. It’s a more expensive product.
It’s still a small proportion of the pizzas we sell, but in absolute dollars I’d say it’s an unexpected volume. We sell a lot of gluten-free pizzas, and we sell gluten-free brownies and gluten-free beer to go with it.
What were some of the lessons you learned about the restaurant business when you bought the company?
We learned quickly that it’s very detail-oriented. And you need to focus on the people, because the staff are the ones who build the relationships with the customers. The atmosphere you create in a particular restaurant is pretty critical to success.
As in any business, the details are important. Your margins are so small that you have to pay attention to your day-to-day costs, to waste, to mistakes. If you’re going to make mistakes, you have to learn from them. Since we’re not a franchise, there’s not a real cookie cutter approach. None of our restaurants are identical.
For us, day-to-day interaction with our key people is important.
I won’t call these mistakes, but experiments: We expanded outside the Treasure Valley to Twin Falls and Idaho Falls in the late 1990s. We had great managers, but those markets were very different from the Treasure Valley.
Every national chain imaginable opened up shortly after we went to Idaho Falls, and we couldn’t find managers from here who wanted to transfer to Idaho Falls to manage. It’s just got to be someone who grew up in the business.
So we just decided to contract back to being within the geographical region we could manage, and closed the restaurants. It wasn’t a mistake, it was just something we learned from and decided that we weren’t going to commit those kind of resources into far-away and distant lands.
How do you find workers?
A lot of our long-time employees are people who started here when they were young, and this is their career. They’re very good at what they do, and are committed, and hopefully they have fun at it. The last family member (of the prior owners) just left three or four years ago.
What you do is try to find people who, this is the right fit for them for a long-term position. One supervisor started in high school, and she’s probably been here over 22 years. She oversees four of the restaurants. Our other supervisor started in ’95, the same time I did, and she’s coming up on 19 years. Those are the kind of employees you want.
Finding daytime drivers is sometimes hard, because that’s a job that a lot of people use to supplement their income. You almost have to be able to offer a full-time job.
How does the Affordable Care Act affect you?
We’ve always offered benefits to our management team. What’s kind of crazy is: When did 30 hours become full time? That’s just not America’s standard for full-time employment. We’ll comply. A lot of restaurants are trying to manage the ACA by requiring that employees be scheduled less than 30 hours a week. Our position is that we’ll staff based on what it takes to run the business.
We don’t know how much it’s going to cost. It’s still open enrollment. But generally speaking, across all businesses, the public is going to have to adjust to paying slightly higher prices, because if it costs more, you have to pass it on.
What are the company’s plans for the future?
The valley is growing in different directions, and our next move would have to have the best combination of business lunches and family dinners. Meridian has been a growing center of commerce, but that doesn’t mean Boise is without opportunity, either.