Interview with Sam Caucci—Creator of 1Huddle

Recently, Mathew Focht, CEO of EMERGING, spoke with Sam Caucci, the founder & CEO of 1Huddle. What brought these two passionate entrepreneurs together is EMERGING Fund, a team of leading restaurant and restaurant technology founders and CEOs that partner with leading entrepreneurs to accelerate market strategies. 

What we didn’t expect was an inspirational story filled with bits of wisdom. But such is the nature of Sam Caucci. Let’s see what he had to say.


Mathew Focht: Sam, it’s great to have you here and learn more about your story and your awesome product, 1Huddle. It’s been great kicking off the partnership in recent months through the EMERGING Fund. In that short time, I’ve seen you take the market by storm. It’s already proven out with the responses from existing users and the people who are excited about jumping in on it. Thanks for the opportunity to work with you and accelerate this awesome product that you’ve built.

Sam Caucci: Thanks, Mat. I’m equally excited.

Mathew Focht: So, let’s talk about 1Huddle.

Sam Caucci:  Sure. In our current environment, there are a lot of challenges in the workforce. Employees are disconnected, disengaged, and oftentimes disoriented at work. Getting employees fired up and continuously excited to go to work is getting harder.   

Today, there are five different generations at work for the first time ever. Now, when everybody gets tired of complaining about Millennials, they can complain about Gen Zs. And I think with all of that, we realized that there’s got to be a better way to get employees up to speed and continuously developed in today’s workforce. 

Unfortunately, little has changed. About 91% of brands do employee training and development the old-fashioned way. They print the manuals, hole-punch them, and hope people read them. They create videos that they hope people watch and, even when they do, may not recall.

1Huddle to the Rescue

Sam Caucci: 1Huddle changes that. It takes everything an employee needs to know and turns it into a highly effective quick-burst mobile skill game. With this approach, your employees can learn anything, whether a new server trying to learn the menu or a bartender trying to stay up to speed with a new beverage program. Now, any employee can perform their best at work. We work with hundreds of brands across the globe, and we’re very excited about the work we’re doing in hospitality and with restaurants specifically.

Mathew Focht: So, what was the catalyst that prompted you to create 1Huddle?

Sam Caucci: There were really two catalysts. First, I spent a decade in the sports performance world training high-level professional athletes. I was on the Biz Dev side but worked very closely with athletes preparing for the NFL draft, major league baseball spring training prep, and the Olympics. I worked in environments where we had to quickly skill up new coaches, front desk staff, sales reps, and marketing folks. And it was, in my opinion, getting harder and harder to respond to changes in the business, whether a new coach moving up or an employee voluntarily or involuntarily leaving the business.

We printed the manuals, sat people in a room for onboarding, and flew in Dale Carnegie or Zig Ziglar—name your flavor of sales trainer. And that experience was what got me out of the gate, wondering, how do we make training stickier and faster? 

The second catalyst was my upbringing. I grew up with two blue-collar parents. My father was in construction, and my mother worked for 54 years as a legal secretary. She grew up at a time when you didn’t send girls to college, and I grew up sitting across from her, watching her run a law office every day with a dozen attorneys. And even though she was probably smarter and more excited, energetic, and knowledgeable than many of the new younger employees coming in, she never had the same opportunities because she didn’t have access to education, learning and development, or credentials.

Because of those two catalysts, 1Huddle was born. On the one hand, it’s helping businesses develop high-performance learning environments with strong workhorses at the center of what they do. On the other hand, it’s providing employees with opportunities to rise in the workforce. Maybe someone that works in the BOH is your next best bartender, or a bartender turns out to be a great general manager because you gave them access to more opportunities. 

Front Burner Society & 1Huddle

Mathew Focht: That’s powerful. I can see your conviction coming through. Can you share a success story from an operator’s standpoint?

Sam Caucci: Sure. I can give you one that’s hot off the press. I was just in Dallas with our friends at F.B. Society, and they were going through the process of a grand opening for a new location for Mexican Sugar. They’ve worked with us for several years across all their concepts for onboarding, food safety, and menu training. But in this specific example, I think everyone can really resonate with the changing nature of opening a restaurant—the things that move and ebb and flow until the minute the doors open. For the last 30 days, Mexican Sugar has been using 1Huddle to roll out all their FOH and BOH training and development.

That includes getting general managers skilled up in the POS and scheduling software, menu training for servers, the beverage program for bartenders, and the protocols for the BOH.

Using 1Huddle, they create games instantly. That’s one of our biggest benefits. A game can be built in minutes on our game-building tool, reducing the friction that exists with managers who don’t have time to build a three-hour learning course or a traditional training module. With George Donahue and the team at Mexican Sugar, we’re able to build games daily to get their new employees up to speed. And the outcome at their early grand opening was a team that was on fire—excited and energetic.

There’s a confidence that comes from knowing what to do and how to do it the right way. We have a number of stories in a lot of different environments, but I think that when you’ve got to do it right the first time, and you only get one shot to do it, you have to make sure that the entire team is on the same page and ready to roll. Mexican Sugar used our product to make sure that happened.

The Difference Between Learning Management Systems and 1Huddle

Mathew Focht: So, this industry is continuously evolving and always changing. It’s the one thing that’s constant. When I hear education, I think of a Learning Management System (LMS). But when you mention that word to servers, for instance, they often look very uninterested. How do you respond to that, and what is different about 1Huddle and the typical products on the market?

Sam Caucci: We work with numerous industries, including Fossil and Nike on the retail side, and we recently signed contracts with the U.S. Air Force working with fighter pilots. We also work with Novartis and their pharmaceutical reps. So, we’re in a lot of verticals, not just hospitality, and this challenge is seen everywhere.

And I think it comes from the fact that we’re still very much in the first quarter of the football game when it comes to coaching and development software. The learning management system and the tools that are available have only been out for about 10 to 15 years. They came into the workforce because those platforms ran out of colleges to sell to and, like any software, turned to the workforce. So, when I talk to companies, I always ask what software they’re using. Most grew into our environment and were essentially built for a world where the job doesn’t change very fast.

You get hired, and you get trained. Even the word trained is past tense. Once you check the box, you’re done. But I think, as operators, we all know that the game never ends. If you really want to build a high-performing brand, you have to be able to continuously develop your people. Particularly considering the speed at which our business is changing. Which means our software has to keep up. 

And we’re doing this in the restaurant space with so many different products around the guest experience. Now, we have to ask ourselves, are we doing it with our workforce in every way possible? So, 1Huddle is not just a learning and training tool; we are a continuous development platform so that you can onboard, upskill, and keep your team fired up over the long haul.

The concept of a game is a good example because when you’re done with level one, you move to level two. As you continue to develop and evolve, things change, they may get harder, and different challenges emerge. So, it’s great that organizations have a learning management system in place. But what next? How do you take that to the next level? Because the next level to me is being able to keep your people in lockstep with the speed at which everything around your restaurant is moving. And you know, the LMS was never built for that. It was built for you to go to college, spend four years there, and take a course for 12 weeks. It was never intended for the workforce environment; it was adopted by it.

Mathew Focht: So, what are the foundational drivers that are different than a traditional LMS? There are a lot of platforms growing because of the need in the industry. So restaurants wonder, if we have an existing LMS platform, do we really want to scrap it?

Sam Caucci: So again, we operate from a position of, if you learn something and you can’t transfer it to the field every day, I would challenge whether you actually learned it in the first place. So, there’s a difference between shallow learning and substantial and significant learning. There are three ingredients in our dish, I guess you could say, the three critical ingredients that have to be present to create a high performer in your business.

The Three Strategies for Creating a High Performer 

First, it’s got to be challenging. The learning process has to be hard. I just got out of a meeting with generals at the U.S. Air Force who like our product because you learn through failure. The struggle is a fundamental requirement of the most effective learning environments in the world, whether you’re learning to be a heart surgeon or a fighter pilot, or a first responder. 

The only place where there’s the absence of struggle is in an LMS where you just have to survive the video and click through enough times to unlock a certificate. So, the first fundamental for us is it’s got to be hard, whatever product you use, even if you don’t use a tech. Struggle-based learning is the fundamental foundation of 1Huddle. There’s a tremendous amount of scientific evidence that proves because we made learning easy, it isn’t sticky. And so, it’s got to be challenging.

Second, it’s got to be continuous. It can’t be a one-and-done. Continuous development is a core principle to creating a high-performing workforce. If your software doesn’t allow you to, and if you don’t have a 52-week development plan for your workforce, I would argue you’re not serious about developing workers. 

If you’re going to run a marathon or climb a mountain, you probably sign up with someone that would build out a specific program that lasts for months. If you want to get to the top of the mountain, you need a plan. It’s got to be scripted. It’s got to be continuous. Your software also needs to be a continuous development tool.

Third, it’s got to be competitive. The things that excite and energize us are the things that get us going every day. One of the first studies I read before starting to build 1Huddle was that the average Millennial will have spent over 10,000 hours on a game platform before 21. Today, Millennials and Gen Z make up 55% of the U.S. workforce, and this workforce is fundamentally wired to compete.

Harvard Business Review just had a study come out that said 9-in-10 Millennials, when asked, say they’re better than a co-worker. So, there’s this competition factor that’s already inherent in your restaurant. Now, how do we get people to want to train every day? Well, we use the power of competition, and it gets people to come back continuously. It’s why we see high levels of voluntary participation. It’s creating a world where employees want to get better.

The Insights That Enhance Training and Coaching

Mathew Focht: You’ve got great clients. You mentioned F.B. Society, Loews Hotel, and the U.S. military. But in the hospitality space specifically, many higher-end restaurants are focused on culture. They may ask, am I selling my culture to a technology platform, and am I going to miss the hands-on, one-on-one experience of educating and training my staff? Am I pushing it off to an app? How do you address that?

Sam Caucci: I think the most important part of our platform isn’t that we’re using a mobile app to communicate. It’s not that it’s games or that it’s digital. While those are all important, I think the most important part is that we’re sitting on a very important data set that we can surface for an operator. And it tells them what their people know right now, which is not even the intention of an LMS. We stay in real-time all the time.

Let’s use a game example. Let’s say there’s a little number bubble over the head of your employees from zero to 100. A 100 means they know everything, such as what’s in every cocktail and dish. As you go down, say to 75 or 50; it’s going to get a little spottier. 1Huddle is essentially like double-clicking on every worker and seeing where they stand. It might say that Mat is a 95 out of 100. And if I double click on the 95, it says of the 10 most important topics in your restaurant, Matt is an 88 on this one, a 99 on this one, a 92 on this one, and a 95 on this one.

Those insights surface to the manager, the director of training, and the operations person so they can make informed decisions about how to do the live coaching. I would argue that we don’t replace hands-on tactile live training, with the stand-up stuff. We do enhance it because walking into training and coaching with just a hunch is not the way to be running our businesses today when there’s so much data around us. 

And those numbers bubble up not just by the player, but also by your individual location. So, for instance, if your Tao Group, you could literally look at each one of your properties and say this one’s a 95, this one’s a 98, and this one’s a 65. What’s happening there?

And we can then put a plan in place with our trainers, coaches, and managers to attack knowledge gaps before they become performance gaps on your P&L. I think that is what we’re trying to solve for the operator. While at the same time creating an environment where your people are playing to get better every day and maybe playing to beat the person standing next to them as well.

Mathew Focht: Well said, Sam. So, when I look back on my career, there’s been some instrumental people along my journey that have helped me refocus and put attention and energy where I need to, which has allowed me to find fulfillment in a lot of ways. What does your mentorship look like? Are there people you’ve met along your path that have been instrumental in your choices? 

Sam Caucci: That’s a great question. You know, I’ve been lucky and privileged enough that there have been many people along the way. It started with my parents and watching the grit of what it takes and the long hours they worked to create opportunities for me. My high school football coach definitely exemplified the critical “make things hard” point I mentioned earlier. 

More recently, when I started 1Huddle, I didn’t know what a tech company really was. Then, along the fundraising journey, I was introduced to Don Katz, the CEO of Audible, the audiobook company. Don said he loved what I was doing and wanted to invest in it. Then, he asked what I thought about moving to Newark. I’d just recently moved to New Jersey after a year in the Bay Area, and I didn’t know much about Newark. Don offered me free office space, and I said I’d be there tomorrow. Part of Don’s vision was to try to use technology to affect the urban core of a city like Newark and then duplicate it.

In Newark, we went from two employees to 30. When I moved there, I started walking in Newark. I walked Broad Street; I interacted and ate in the community. Our team became volunteers at the Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter in Newark because those young people are our future workers. I sit on the Newark Workforce Development Board because a workforce is only strong if every worker can compete, whether it’s someone returning from prison or someone that’s out of work.

I can literally say, and I tell Don this all the time, we built 1Huddle by listening and walking and being in the community. It would never be what it is today if we didn’t come to Newark, and I didn’t have the opportunity to have a coach like Don. He could have put audible anywhere, but he chose this and, in doing that, created a culture and a fabric that affected the way we built 1Huddle.

It’s important what we do, but it’s more important why we do what we do every day. And I think that’s also part of what we’re trying to do with the product. There are a lot of folks out there, Mat, who don’t have coaches and mentors like we had, and they may be working in the BOH. They may even be working multiple jobs at the same time. 

Sometimes it’s hard for employers to see the skills of their workers, and they end up saying things like a worker is unskilled, which is the worst thing you could say about another human. 1Huddle could be in their pockets and provide opportunities, opening doors and helping them show the world what they know. Don helped me see Newark and the opportunities and the people. And that helped us build 1Huddle and take it to where it is today.

Mathew Focht: Amazing. Inspirational talks are in your DNA, and I love listening to you and the cause. I’m excited to be a part of this story with you.

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