Mathew Focht interviews Alan Cichon, the US President of State of Play Hospitality, and Co-founder of Flight Club and HiJingo about his journey and the future of the restaurant industry.
Mathew Focht 0:00
So Alan, thanks for joining. Thanks for your time here. To start, would you describe, State of Play today?
Alan Cichon 0:07
Yeah, State of Play has come as an evolution. You know, about a year ago, we decided that [the name] Social Entertainment Ventures wasn’t very descriptive of what we did. It sounded more like an investment arm than a hospitality company. So a few of us on the executive team myself, Toby, our marketing team went through a fairly extensive process to try to find something that is more descriptive of what we do. A lot of what we do revolves around play, the concepts are extremely innovative. They’re groundbreaking, they all involve some tech. And ultimately, at the heart of what, we do involves play. And so State of Play Hospitality came out of that. If you wanted to find what that is, it’s a collection of really groundbreaking concepts, some of them broke the first ground altogether like Bounce in the UK. They are all under a collection that really drives to give a curated experience around food, beverage, hospitality, and ultimately connecting people in play. In the simplest form, it is really an amazing way for people to bond without technology. I think, Mat, you’ve been in our units enough to know that when I say people aren’t on their cell phones, in our places, and they’re truly connecting in a way that in today’s society is pretty rare. It has a much deeper meaning for us. And so State of Play for us combines all those things together, and really drives a unique experience for our guests. And not only our guests but our management team, and our employees. It’s kind of a tie that binds, and so we’re really excited about it. It’s been very well received, and the rebrand has been fantastic for us.
Mathew Focht 2:06
Awesome. It’s amazing what State of play has accomplished in this short period of time. It’s incredible.
Alan Cichon 2:14
If you think about it, you have Bounce, Acebounce, working with Flight Club to get them launched initially in the UK. We also have Puttshack and HiJingo. They’re all coming out of the one company and one founder Adam Breeden. It’s, it’s pretty amazing that in a very, very short period of time, by relative standards, that there’s been so much output of phenomenal concepts that are really kind of groundbreaking in the space.
Mathew Focht 2:45
Yeah, incredible. I can’t imagine any other group with this level of innovation at this execution level. It is bizarre really. So what are the plans for Flight Club in particular, for the next two or three years?
Alan Cichon 3:05
Obviously, as you’re well aware, we have some really good things going on coming out of COVID. We anticipate opening our Houston location before the end of the year, in Regents Square, we are really excited about that development. The initial press and feedback from the press launch have been fantastic. We think it’s a phenomenal location kind of future state location for the Houston market. And we think we’re going to be a great anchor for that development. We have West Midtown in Atlanta going late Q1 of next year. And then we open what we’re considering a potential flagship location for us in Las Vegas, which will be our biggest location ever at 16,000 square feet in the Shops of the Plot. So it’s going to be a wonderful concept. We think that’s going to go early Q2 next year, then we are looking to take a little bit of a pause over the summer, and then filling in with two additional locations to be named later in the second part of next year. And then ultimately, we believe a fair pace for our growth, to make sure that the brand integrity stays in place is about four to five units a year, spread out equally so we can really maintain the brand. The Flight Club brand is so fantastic we really want to make sure that we’re being careful to curate that in each market and that we’re not over developing ourselves. I think if you look at some of our competitors that have maybe gone sideways in the past, one of their problems was trying to grow too big too fast and losing the integral parts of what got them there in the first place. And we’re really mindful of making sure that that Flight Club is being well represented in each market that we do. We had our Boston launch accomplish that and we’re just replicating that playbook over and over the next few years.
Mathew Focht 5:07
Well said it’s obvious you have magic. You want to keep that magic. You’re doing such an amazing job with your operations background. To take a step back, why are you in this business?
Alan Cichon 5:28
I’m in the process of doing a lot of hiring right now for our new unit. So everyone asks me that question. I guess, ultimately, for me, if you want to talk from a purely technical background, I’ve worked in just about every segment of the hospitality world, everything from QSR, to full service, fine dining, to contract foodservice and everything in between. For a long time, I saw this convergence of people wanting experiences, and those experiences people now call entertainment. I don’t know that it’s necessarily entertainment, I like state of play. But this kind of combination of food, beverage, and a high-quality offering provides amazing experiences for people. And I’ve always been in the food business since I was 14 years old. So I’m not going to tell you how many years it is right now. But it’s a lot, I got my degree in this, this has always been a passion for me, I love the satisfaction of being able to provide service, hospitality, and an amazing product to people that they really relate to and feel good about. And we are their escape, we are their entertainment. And so be able to curate concepts around that; that’s really what provides me the most satisfaction. I think a high second to that is I love building teams. And obviously, this was a unique opportunity to build something from absolute zero, I was employee number one, back then five-plus years ago. So to see what we’ve accomplished in this relatively short period of time, and also being able to really survive COVID in a strong way has been extremely satisfactory to me. To see my people grow, and see how people have related to what we’ve done, has been an amazing satisfaction point for me in my career.
Mathew Focht 7:29
Yeah, I can see that. Teams are really such a big part of the business. I can’t even imagine today with all the labor forces working against you how challenging that is to find a team.
Alan Cichon 7:50
I’ll just touch on this briefly. We’ve always been, I think, at the upper end of hospitality; we offer full benefits for our employees, hourly employees included. We’ve also been on the higher end of the pay scale, most of our people are well above livable wages, they make really good money. We’ve always been a very pro-employee-driven business with what I would say is a high emotional intelligence about what it takes to motivate people. And so you know, hey, are we struggling here and there to grab people? Yes, but we were also going into this already aware that people are being forced to go now. So we had a good reputation, we’ve been able to even retain and bring back a bunch of really great people. I just spoke to two of my servers yesterday that has been with us since Acebounce opened in 2016. They came back to us after COVID. So that makes me feel good. Obviously, we’re doing something right if someone stayed for five years and then comes back to us even after the COVID situation and is wants to be part of what we’re doing.
Mathew Focht 9:15
Yeah, that’s a great point. I feel like the environment is so positive. Even the way you have your host share how to play the game. It’s experiential all the way through and you found people with talent. Very high levels of talent that love entertaining.
Alan Cichon 9:46
It’s a unique concept and a unique execution strategy.
Mathew Focht 9:53
It really is. Is there a piece of advice that you’ve been given over the years that stands out?
Alan Cichon 10:07
I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with some amazing entrepreneurs over the years. I guess if I’m going to give two pieces of advice, both of them come out of my time with Lettuce Entertain You. I was really beyond fortunate for a good chunk of my time with Lettuce to work with some of the original founders of the business on a weekly basis. One of the things that Rich Melman taught me a long time ago, as we looked at everything that we did, he would say is Alan, if this was your and my business, meaning the two of us to own this, and we had to make a living off of this, to feed our families, pay our rent, pay all our bills, what decisions would you make? And so I’ve tried to keep that philosophy going through, and I try to bring it down to my people as well if this was their business, what decisions would they make, and you know, nine times out of 10, if you put that filter on things, it really allows you to make the right decisions, not only for the business but for your people. And also for long-term success. I think sometimes people get too wrapped up in what the short term is going to look like, rather than, hey, if I own this business, I obviously want it to thrive for a very long time. And so you put a little bit of a different perspective on things, and I’ve tried to do that everywhere I’ve gone. We used to get into the minutiae of how much a shelf will generate in a market for us. And when you look at the business that way, it really allows you to make really good decisions, So that was one.
And then on the emotional intelligence side, my partner, Chris Rivero at Lettuce Entertain You one time said to me – you know, Alan, you know you’re right, but your car crash right. And I use that with a lot of people and what it means by car crash right is, yes what I am saying is actually right, but I have $10,000 damage to my car. Even though I didn’t get the ticket, I still have $10,000 worth of damage to my car. And I try to create that for people across the board, meaning, hey, you could be right, but that doesn’t mean that you have to inflict a lot of collateral damage along the way. And there’s a way that you can be right without being insulting without taking people down. And getting people onto your side without having to be forceful about it. And so from an emotional intelligence perspective on leadership, I’ve always carried that along. And I always use that with my people.
Mathew Focht 12:43
I love both of those. Just to think like an owner. I love that mentality, I’m gonna use that for sure. Are there any books that you recommend? Do you have time to read?
Alan Cichon 13:22
I do. You know it’s interesting, we just put a new management training program in for all of our US teams. I revisited as part of that training program some books that I thought would go well, to create some commonality and some language that we can talk to each other so everyone understands. And we just got done as a leadership team reading all four books that we put into our management training program. And one of those books is a little dated, but it’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And we have utilized that and it’s amazing. It has changed people’s perceptions of trust and conflict resolution and being accountable. And it’s a great book and an easy read. Now all of our management trainees have read it, our entire leadership team has read it. And so we now have this commonality in what we’re doing.
I do also love reading about entrepreneurs like the [Steve] Jobs biography was a long but amazing book to see the journey that he went through and some of the hardships that he had to overcome. I know everyone thinks of him in the post years, but there were the middle years there too. And some of the biggest lessons we learn come from being knocked down and how we get back up and move forward.
Something that had a big effect on me a long time ago is reading the Good to Great books that were done by the MBA program out at Stanford. That book helped me understand how to build for longevity rather than build for the short term. Because I think sometimes we get very short-term focused, and I like to try to step back as part of my weekly routine and think about where we’re going to be in three years. And what’s it going to take to get there, rather than being so focused on what we’re working on today.
Mathew Focht 15:39
Wow. Well, that’s a heck of a collection. So the first one, the Five Dysfunctions of a Team is new to me. I am definitely going to pick that one up.
Alan Cichon 15:51
Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s an anecdotal story put together, but it’s really about how to build good teams and what it takes to have good teams. When teams function well together, they trust each other. There are different personality profiles that just no matter how talented they are, don’t fit into the culture or the organization. And unfortunately, that means that if they can’t fit into the team, the collateral damage those people can do is more than what their talent is worth, I guess that is a takeaway from the book.
Mathew Focht 16:33
Yeah, that is powerful. It can be a tough decision to make in those environments. Lettuce Entertain You is a big brand that you have respected over the years. Are there some standout restaurant brands and operation companies that particularly admire?
Alan Cichon 16:53
Obviously, Lettuce Entertain You was a big part of my life, I spent almost nine years with them. I give them single-handed credit for not necessarily turning my career around, but putting my career on a different path that focuses more on emotional intelligence than necessarily the X’s and O’s as we call it. Union Square Hospitality in New York is another really dynamic group. In the entertainment space, Top Golf has accomplished a lot. It is worthwhile following their path and their footsteps. Even in Chicago, I think the Dynamic Restaurant Group does some amazing things. Boca does some amazing things. We have Hogsalt, we have so many great groups in Chicago that are innovative, but if you want to look over the long term, I’m sure you’re aware Lettuce Entertain You just celebrated its 50th anniversary. That they have been around 50 years and all the concepts that have been born out of that group it’s pretty hard not to put them at the top of the list.
Mathew Focht 18:09
For sure. It’s spectacular. In closing, what do you see as future trends in the industry? What are consumers wanting today? What do you see happening if you look into my crystal ball?
Alan Cichon 18:37
I think I answer that question a little bit differently now than I did 18 months ago. Obviously, COVID was extremely disruptive to the entire hospitality industry. Although people are saying that it’ll be a slow comeback, what we’re seeing in our KPIs and our analytics is more positive. I think it’s gonna take a little bit of time but once people return back to the offices and the CBDs (Central Business District), I won’t say it’s going to be automatically business back to normal. But I think it’s going to be a little bit different, but almost in a better way. People are going to need more time to bond and to be together and enjoying places outside of the office, especially with people working more remote. I think we’re uniquely placed with that. I think you’re going to continue to see more competitors in our space.
I don’t want to call it the demise, but I expect we will see a refocusing of the middle market, full-service dining. There will continue to be consolidations, bankruptcies I think that’s going to be a long road. Obviously, there are some front runners out there, Darden is doing an amazing job and kind of keeping their space going. Competitors are in a much worse off spot. They have an amazing leadership team, there are some people that I also have worked with way back when in my career on the chain side. So I think, holistically, it’s gonna come back. I think the CBDs are going to be slower to come back in the suburbs. The Midwest, Northeast, and West Coast are also going to be slow to come back. We already know that that the Southeast in the Southern United States has been open much longer, I think we’re just following the same trends, but behind by six months from where they’re at. So I anticipate starting to be back to normal towards the end of the year. And for business to be fairly robust moving forward from there. God forbid something else of major consequence happening.
Mathew Focht 20:59
Right, so do you see a recovery where you’re back to 100% by next year?
Alan Cichon 21:10
Absolutely, yeah. We’re already seeing the seismic shift in inquiries and group sizes just in the past three weeks since restrictions have been eased. We’ve seen two and threefold increases in inquiries and group sizes and things that were part of our business pre-pandemic have come back relatively quickly. We had a ton of momentum going into the COVID period, and as you’re aware, we were planning to open three places in 2020. The way I describe it to everyone, we’ve just pushed everything back 18 months and my thought process is that we will very much get back to normal shortly.
Mathew Focht 21:58
Well, that’s all that I had for you, Alan. I am so thankful for our relationship, you’ve really opened the door up for me to social entertainment.
Alan Cichon 22:12
it’s been an amazing partnership Mat. It’s not one-sided. You guys have been with us pretty much from the onset. And so it’s been a great relationship. You have an amazing team over there, Robert and Megan do a phenomenal job for us day in and day out. They have been phenomenal representatives of the brand, and I do appreciate the partnership.
Mathew Focht 22:33
Thank you. Thanks so much, Alan.