Seeking Emerging Brands and Top Talent

January 2, 2023

Welcome to Dana Delivers by Aprio podcasts, the podcast that helps restaurant owners and operators learn from industry experts about trends and opportunities. On every episode, Dana Zukofsky, the leader of Aprio’s restaurant advisory team, explores a topic impacting our industry in a candid conversation. And now, let’s hear what Dana is serving up on this episode.

Well, on today’s episode of Dana Delivers, we have Helen Lao, one of my favorite people to talk to, from ClearPath Solutions. Thanks, Helen, for joining. This is a much overdue conversation.

Much. It’s always great to see you, Dana.

Thank you. So Helen, for the few people out there who might not know about you or ClearPath, why don’t you tell us a little bit about you, your background, how it all got started, and then we’ll jump into what’s happening in the restaurant space.

Sounds great. ClearPath solutions, we’re coming on year 12, Dana. Been matching leaders to teams, working with emerging growth brands across the industry, across the US, and feel really fortunate when I take a look at our team. And many of them have been with me for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 years. And so, shout out to my team, they’re wonderful. And we are continuing to be matchmakers in the industry, and matching up executives, not just with teams, but we’re finding, there’s a lot of mergers happening and opportunities out there. So we’re constantly keeping our ear to the ground, not just for new brands and trends, but also kind of understanding what executive stories are, in terms of what’s changed in their life or what they’re open to. So it’s been a great year for us. And we’re looking forward to an incredible year in ‘23.

Right. No, and I think that’s always been one of the best parts about working with you, is that you really do not just get a resume, that you stop and you listen to what people need. And I usually start the podcast with the first time I met someone. And I know we’ve spoken before about it, but the first time we met was in Vegas at an RFDC a million years back, through Zach Weprin and the guys from Fusion. And even with them when you first met them, I mean, when I first met them, they were young, they were a young brand. They were young guys, and they’re growing so much. So I know you’re not only working with the big guys, like you said, you are into emerging brands. Tell me some of the things that you’re seeing in that space that are just so exciting to you as it comes to those younger emerging brands that you’ve been hearing about? 

Yeah, I think, certainly, everyone’s faced with the same headwinds, right? Whether you’re a small company, big company, in terms of staffing being the biggest one, food costs, and the supply chain, construction. I mean, those are all common threads. But, I mean, the industry is amazing. This is what I love the most, is how resilient the industry is. Everyone remains optimistic, I mean, cautiously optimistic. But I think, as an industry, we’ve been faced with the biggest challenges out there and overcome those. So I think what we’re hearing from brands, whether it’s young or older brands is we’ll make it through this as well. And growth, we have seen growth maybe taper off a little bit as it relates to target. A lot of our brands are saying, ‘Hey, we were originally going to open, maybe 10-12 units, it has now been more like six.’

Slowing down a little bit.

Yeah, slowing down a little bit. But that’s where the cautious optimism comes in. 

Yes, exactly. And I think a lot of people listening probably got to know you a little bit better over the COVID period, when you did the Step Up to the Table and Helen on the Move, and all that amazing social media and outreach that you did. During that time, you also started doing some other brand extensions. Or I guess not brand, but service extensions to the company, like getting more involved in some of the franchise space. Could you talk a little bit about what you’re doing with those companies and who some of them are?

Yeah, that sounds great. Dana, we actually had started a completely different division at one point. And what we realized is it just needed to be rolled up underneath our existing team and brand. So we actually are still working. We’re not really taking on clients, I would say, but what we found was that ClearPath was really in the center of executive talent, leadership, capital, and then also great brands. And so when you think about great brands, I think, for me, I was like, gosh, we could actually pull all three of those together. Whether somebody needed the operator, that’s obviously what we do. But we’re in the middle of this information. So how can we pull this all together? And so while we don’t have the ClearPath franchise match division anymore, we did take on some incredible clients that we’re extremely proud of, that we still go out and tell the story about, hoping that sophisticated franchisees will actually look to bolt onto their portfolio. So I think about Mighty Quinn’s in New York, I think about Dog Haus out in Pasadena and certainly, Bobby’s Burgers by Bobby Flay.

Yeah. And having worked with Lawrence and Bobby, you know how much I love them and support the growth of that brand. And it really is funny, right? When we think about executive matchmaking, the traditional thought about it is finding a CEO or finding a CFO. But really, it’s so much deeper, right? Yes, there is the person who might only do a CFO search, or might do a retain search versus a success fee search. But there really is room for everyone in the market, right? Like, everyone has their differentials.

It’s so true, there’s room actually. I always tell candidates this when we’re talking to them. If you are actively looking, you should let every executive search firm know, because the truth is, we’re never going to win all the searches, corn fairies, not winning them all. I mean, it’s just there’s room for all the players. And so, I’m really proud to obviously represent this industry. And last week, something interesting – I shared this with my team – I was talking to a CEO of a brand. And he was saying the difference with ClearPath. And he was kind of talking about us compared to the really big folks and some of the really small folks. The value you bring is really your interpretation of their experience. Sometimes what we hear is just what you find on the LinkedIn profile, or what’s on paper already. And so getting your context around the person beyond the paper is so valuable. And that’s the difference between a recruitment firm and an executive search firm. And I thought that completely resonated with me. I never really thought about it like that. But we always present the person beyond the experience.

Right, and that’s why I say all the time how good of a listener you are, and I try to push you into matchmaking for the personal side, too. Nobody listens and knows more people than you do. But no, the perception is someone’s reality, right? So if you listen, and you’re able to tell the story, you’re able to communicate much more than someone just going on LinkedIn and saying, I’m looking for a fill in the blank.

Yeah, and everybody can read that, right? So it’s really, it’s not our secret sauce. It’s actually what everybody should be doing is we’re reaching out to hundreds of leaders. We talk to hundreds of leaders a week. And oftentimes it’s actually just checking in with them, and understanding maybe what’s changed. They’ve become an empty nester, they are now relocatable, where maybe they weren’t. Because we called them a year and a half ago, right? So, timing is everything.

Absolutely. And I think that that’s super important, that constant touch point. I mean, I know, at least for me, I have a list of about 15 people that I try to talk to at least once a month. Sometimes it ends up being more, sometimes, like us, we try our best and it goes two months. But there are certain people that even just from having that half hour conversation, something sparks to get you to think about something else. And it really is just listening and figuring out what the best fit for different people are.

Yeah, absolutely. It’s huge. And I’m so happy that you found your spot at Aprio. I mean, our wonderful, wonderful friend. Really, really happy for you.

Thank you. Yeah, it’s been great here. And again, I think that’s a big change here, for me, similar to what we were just saying is, I’m working with a really amazing team. And one of the differentials that we have is we’re able to bring in, because we’re a smaller firm, we have a little bit more ability to be nimble. And when I go to a proposal meeting or talk to a prospect or even a center of influence, we’re having those calls with someone from my audit team, someone from my tax team, myself on advisory. We’re not really a siloed group. We’re a cohesive team. And I think that’s what’s been really fun about being at Aprio. And some of the new clients we’re working with are able to bring that full scope of services to somebody as opposed to just an audit or a traditional one service firm. But again, I think that’s kind of like what you guys were doing with the franchise stuff, right? As you saw the ability that you’re talking to private equity groups, and you’re talking with money and you’re talking to existing franchisees who are looking to grow their brands and great people. How no one thought to do this sooner, I guess is just even the more fascinating part.

Yeah, it’s a lot of work. There’s no question about it, Dana, but I still believe in it 100%. I am so convinced that there’s still this gap there, and we’re looking to fill that and hopefully be able to deliver some really great franchisees for our partners.

So anyone who’s listening who’s interested call Helen. What else? What are we seeing? We’re optimistic, cautiously, like we said. We know that there’s no one better at being scrappy than people in the restaurant and franchise space. Any trends in food, fun? Anything else that we’re thinking about that you’re seeing?

I’d say pickleball. Have you played pickleball?

I don’t. And we’ve now noticed that I think we’re the last two left. So we’re going to find a pickleball court in Orange County, and we’re going to learn. We think that this is, obviously, it’s growing, but you think it’s brandable? Has anyone branded it yet?

I mean, I think I’ve heard of several actually, that are branded, but I think there’s a lot. I’m hearing a lot of athletes are actually investing in teams. But I’ve never seen a craze start as quickly as this. I mean, literally every person I know plays pickleball. 

Old, young, in between.

It’s true. 

Every socioeconomic, it has resonated through everywhere. It’s fascinating.

Yeah. And so we’re seeing a lot of brands kind of pulling it together with food and beverage and making that a component versus just a court. But I’ve actually heard of six different pickleball concepts that are still in development.

That’s fantastic. Any other trends or hot topics or anything else you’ve been seeing? We know a lot of automation, a lot of technology.

There’s a lot of technology. I mean, it’s moving so fast, Dana. Just in terms of how they’re utilizing, I mean, obviously, we’ve been talking about DSPs, and all of that, but I’m just talking collectively. In technology, people are talking about AI. I mean, there’s so many different service models out there. I mean, sometimes I feel like I’m constantly trying to keep up with it. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of investments that maybe the restaurant industry hasn’t made in the past. And it’s moving even faster now.

It’s like everyone’s trying to play catch up. But we caught up and now somehow we’re ahead.

Yeah. Because it’s so antiquated, right? In terms of restaurants for a long time. They didn’t make the investment. But we’re seeing a lot of brands making a significant investment in technology, and what’s to come.

And then you said, again, we know that on the front of house staff, we know it’s hard. But we’re going to find people and we’re going to figure it out. Are there jobs you’re seeing more on the executive search side becoming more available? Or that you’re seeing more talent now in the talent pool, whether it be because of mergers or just different stuff? Are you seeing new job opportunities? Where are you seeing the most opportunity right now for an employee or an employer?

So it’s interesting, I think that there is some really great talent out there for operations. And I say that only because there’s so many more operators, right? When I think about the executive at the executive level, finance has a very specific skill set. Operations, you’re kind of pulling from a very, very large pool. We are seeing great talent out there across the board. But I would tell you, there’s a number of operational roles. We’re seeing a ton of shared service platforms come where fans are merging together. I mean, I think about Hopdoddy and Grub. I mean, we could probably name – there’s many out there. And so what that leads to is a combination of two teams, and creating a platform of some kind, where all the back office and HR and different roles kind of get consolidated.

Right. So then it puts some really amazing, amazing talent out back in the marketplace, which is good for those brands that are growing and young.

Exactly. And there’s so many emerging brands too, right? So I think it’s matching up the talent with the right opportunities.

Well, no one does it better than you. So thank you. And Helen, I love speaking to you. Any final thoughts or anything else before we sign out?

Just appreciate all the – I was thinking about it over Thanksgiving – that I am so grateful for the connections, the relationships, the friendships that have been built like ours. And relationships are at the core of what we do. So whether it’s accounting services, recruiting services, but we’re really grateful for that. 

Yeah, well, Helen, thank you as always, and I look forward to speaking to you soon. 

Okay. Thanks, Dana.

Thank you to all of our listeners to the Dana Delivers by Aprio podcast. If you liked today’s podcast, please hit the subscribe button. Dana Delivers is brought to you by Aprio, a premier accounting and business advisory firm with offices across the US and clients around the globe.

About Helen Lao:

Helen Lao is founder and CEO of ClearPath Solutions, an executive search firm focused on matching founders and entrepreneurs of emerging brands with top leaders in the industry.

Passionate about the restaurant industry, especially during the height of the pandemic, she started initiatives like Step Up to the Table, which encouraged people to dine at their favorite restaurants, and Helen on the Move, where she documented herself on social media supporting local restaurants herself.

Lao received her Bachelor of Business Administration from Bryant University.

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About the Author

Dana Zukofsky

Dana Zukofsky is the Restaurant, Franchise & Hospitality Practice Leader at Aprio, providing advisory, accounting and consulting services to help foster profitability and growth.