Lauren McHugh Robinson – 2022 CEO of the Year Winner
After celebrating 50 years in business in 2020, Huey’s, the ultra-popular restaurant group, has woven itself into the fabric of the Memphis landscape, and for locals it’s as natural as big cultural staples like Elvis. and the BBQ.
And if you ask, everyone has their favorite Huey burger. Even President and CEO Lauren McHugh Robinson. “I have to say my favorite dish is the Smokey Melt Burger,” she laughs. But that easy familiarity is a key part of the restaurant’s appeal to diners and workers alike. Robinson, for his part, knows Huey better than anyone, having learned the ropes in both the kitchen and serving before rising to managerial positions.
And one philosophy she learned from her experience is that at Huey, everyone is family. That kind of thinking, Robinson says, has helped make Huey such a big part of the town’s identity.
“I think anyone, of any age or demographic, feels comfortable at Hueys,” Robinson says. “We have something for everyone, no matter what kind of food they like or where they come from. It goes back to our culture, and something that my dad [Huey’s co-founder Thomas Boggs] always said: give back to the community. Don’t take customers for granted, and if you really care about the community you’re in, then the community will want to return the favor and be in your restaurants.
The Huey community is quite large now, comprising nine current locations in Memphis and Mississippi. And while running a restaurant is hard enough at the best of times, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a whole new set of challenges. But even when the chips had fallen, Robinson did not forget the family, the employees, for whom she was responsible.
“We had to make financial decisions early on, when we realized this would be the way of life for the foreseeable future,” says Robinson. “We started thinking about what the layoffs might look like, and it literally gave me stomachaches.”
The restaurant had been fiscally conservative under Robinson’s management, and savings had been set aside for a new Olive Branch location. Instead, Huey’s put it on hold and management decided the money would be used to continue paying employees.
“People depend on us for these jobs and they have families,” says Robinson. “So we decided to get out of it. Fortunately, our takeout business did very well and we were able to break even by doing this. To date, Huey’s has not made any layoffs since the pandemic began. That’s frankly a staggering statistic, especially in an industry that has seen so many businesses simply disappear.
“We stay informed and on top of everything that’s going on, and I know the team can deal with whatever comes our way.” –Lauren McHugh Robinson
Robinson’s commitment to creating a family culture isn’t just lip service. A quick scan of Huey’s website reveals articles and newsletters featuring employees marking ten, 20, or sometimes even 30 years with the company. It doesn’t happen by itself and it’s something worth celebrating in an industry with high turnover. “They are the backbone of everything we do,” says Robinson. “We always want to celebrate their terms with us, and my sister [marketing coordinator Samantha Dean] always tries to make everyone feel special on a birthday.
The continued prosperity of the institution owes to quick thinking by Huey’s leadership. While many places have been slow to embrace change, Robinson moved quickly to ensure she and her employees were as prepared as possible for the roller coaster ride of a few years. A group of seven people, which she calls her Covid team, continued to hold long sessions at night and on weekends to monitor the latest developments in the pandemic. For Robinson, making quick and informed decisions was a better option than remaining reactive.
“At first we looked at how to streamline things like takeout,” she says. “We looked at places like Chick-fil-A and other companies that had effective strategies. We knew if we acted quickly, we would be able to handle this better.
All the planning paid off, with the restaurant actually seeing improved sales even under pre-pandemic conditions. Robinson says their numbers, in a remarkable turnaround, are up around 19% from 2019. That’s mostly thanks to all the work done to create a better shipping and delivery experience. “These numbers take into account that we haven’t opened all of our tables in our restaurants,” she says. “We are delighted to see that our takeaway business is much stronger than it was pre-Covid, and continues to be. Before it was around 15%, but now it’s is closer to 30.
Adaptability has kept the Huey’s family strong, with the restaurants overseeing nearly 300 full-time employees, and just over 500 in total. Robinson still plans to open an Olive Branch location, but that has been tentatively pushed back to October of this year. Many challenges are likely ahead of us, but Robinson is optimistic. “It’s so fluid right now,” she says, “but we stay informed and on top of everything that’s going on, and I know the team can deal with whatever comes our way.”