Black Bear Diner’s Anita Adams assumed the role of CEO earlier in January, but the new responsibility comes as no surprise to anyone within the corporate office.
The move was a result of careful planning, and it was in the works for most of 2019. Adams has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with co-founder and former CEO Bruce Dean, who transitioned to executive chairman.
Adams is taking over a 25-year-old brand, and she wants that legacy to define and direct her tenure as CEO.
She recalls the story of Dean and co-founder Bob Manley, a school teacher and artist. The duo lived in Mt. Shasta, California, and wanted to create a gathering place for friends and family. Dean, who grew up in restaurants, handled the menu, while Manley, who owned Black Bear Gallery with his wife, Laurie, directed the branding. In the next couple of decades, Adams says, the restaurant chain grew organically.
Everything she wants to accomplish is based on what Manley and Dean started.
“We have this great culture and this great story that starts with these two gentlemen. And for us, this hospitality gene is alive and well,” Adams says. “And it’s so important that we continue to foster that and talk about our founders and through our founders’ eyes because it’s unique to us. It’s authentic and we believe it matters, to our team members in particular. That translates into the guest experience, which is something that Black Bear has always been known for, is just this very hi-touch, great experience. We want our team members to connect with our guests. We don’t script. We just want people to be themselves, and for that, we monitor how our guests perceive us, and we always score incredibly high on that front. It distinguishes us, and we have to keep the focus on that.”
Before Black Bear Diner, Adams spent almost a decade as CFO of American Blue Ribbon Holdings where she helped increase revenue from $400 million to $1.2 billion and managed five restaurant brands and a bakery. She became Black Bear’s CFO in 2017 and was promoted to president in March 2019, a role in which she oversaw strategies that drove the brand’s growth and led the company’s shared services, including operations, franchise and corporate development, and human resources. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Wyoming and an active CPA license in Colorado.
Adams is starting her new job amid aggressive growth by Black Bear. The 138-unit chain, 83 of which are franchises, opened 20 units in 2019 and has 20 more in the pipeline for 2020—10 corporate stores and 10 franchises.
Up until recently, Black Bear was predominantly a West Coast brand, and Adams says there were questions around portability and whether the chain would resonate in other markets. There was a desire among leadership to prove that its menu, all-American fare, and cabin-themed environment could spread across the country. The first step out of the West was Houston in 2018 and now there are five diners in that area. The brand has since opened in Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas and seen similar results. Black Bear is now open in more than a dozen states.
Adams attributes the success to the lively environment, particularly the large, carved totem bears and jukeboxes. She describes the restaurant as a fun, relaxed atmosphere where the company doesn’t take itself too seriously—that’s combined with a breakfast orientation full of quality proteins.
“We’re thrilled at the results,” Adams says. “We’ve opened up in markets where we had very little brand awareness, and guests were intrigued by the look and feel of the outside of our diners. … For us it’s a function of really bringing this brand east. And today we sit with 138 diners, so there’s just immense potential for Black Bear to continue to find itself east.”
Like every restaurant chain, the Black Bear CEO says shortage of labor continues to be the biggest challenge. Historically, the brand hires employees 30 days prior to an opening, but the company now finds itself being more thoughtful and creative in the way it courts workers.
The key, Adams notes, is finding people who align with Black Bear and its ideals.
“We’ve made the statement that we are really doubling down on our team members and our people,” Adams says. “And what we mean by that is we’re looking at opportunities to entice folks to come work for us. How do we ensure that first 90 days they’re with us they feel welcome? So really, emphasize our onboarding practices and really the training protocol. It’s not just training for new diners, but really the ongoing training, and so much of that is about ensuring people understand the story and why we do things the way we do.”
As far as initiatives, Adams says Black Bear will focus on technology as it relates to more efficiency in the kitchen and improving speed of service. She adds the chain isn’t interested in interacting with dine-in customers via technology, such as touch-screen tablets at tables.
“For our guests who choose us to come and spend their time and money with us, we want them to come in and just connect and have that connection with our team members,” Adams says.
The brand will also continue to use analytics to help with site selection and to understand the demographics and psychographics of its guests.
Adams is mostly focused on maintaining the culture; she doesn’t want her leadership to feel any different for customers and employees. To her, the brand has resonated with many, and her day-to-day priority consists of “fiercely protecting this brand.”
She wants to carry that tradition forward as Black Bear continues to eye growth.
“There’s immense whitespace potential here, and so we really believe there’s no reason Black Bear Diner shouldn’t be a coast-to-coast national brand,” Adams says. “We like to talk about that in the context of that would represent locations, but once again [we’re] really focused on our guests. I don’t care that our guests know that we have 138 diners today. I only want them to know the one that they go to.”