Growing into a Good Leader

Meet Chris Johnson: general manager, decision-maker, jack of all trades (and cups).

7 days ago   •   4 min read

By Amy Balmuth

Fourth of July weekend in South Carolina is boom time for selling flags, renting boats, and, of course, dining out. Against the backdrop of packed beaches and the crackle of fireworks, Coastal Carolina University senior Chris Johnson was working part-time as a server at a busy Myrtle Beach restaurant on the fourth of July weekend in 2014. But when the general manager and assistant manager both quit mid-shift, Johnson stepped out of his role as server and into the role of leader, taking the managerial helm. Johnson rallied the staff to pull off such a successful dinner shift that two days later, the Director of Operations asked him to consider taking the general manager position permanently, which he gladly accepted.

During that hectic weekend of on-the-fly, on-the-job restaurant management trial by fire, Johnson caught a glimpse of the ways that good leadership can profoundly impact not only the staff experience but the guest experience as well. It was an “aha” moment in which he realized that the college job could become a fulfilling career. “I worked at pizza places,” says Johnson. “Every job I had was around restaurants. But until that moment, I didn’t really realize the restaurant industry allows you to make a serious impact on people’s lives. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Soon after his promotion, Johnson moved to Charleston with that same restaurant group, honing his hospitality leadership skills. While on a trip to nearby Folly Beach with his fiancé, Johnson stumbled into Jack of Cups Saloon, a globally-inspired comfort food eatery located on the main drag, and quickly became a regular. When chef and owner Lesley Carroll confided in Johnson that she was trying to grow their hospitality business during the uniquely inhospitable time of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson rose once again to the challenge, taking on a leadership role as the General Manager at Jack of Cups.

Chris Johnson, from Jack of Cups Saloon

Small but mighty tasks: marketing.

Johnson started by taking on the tasks that were important but which few people had time to prioritize. He reenergized the Jack of Cups’ Instagram account, growing it from 3,000 to 7,000 followers organically.

Tech to free up time.

To accommodate customer growth, Johnson turned his attention to finding the right tech.

From his experiences on all levels of the restaurant organizational chart, Johnson knew exactly how utilizing the right tech could free up valuable staff time, help drive profits, and alleviate stress. With this in mind, he transitioned Jack of Cups from a legacy point-of-sale system (POS) to a cloud-based POS. Johnson chose SpotOn primarily for its scalability. “I  know we can grow with SpotOn, and SpotOn can grow with us,” says Johnson. “SpotOn’s constantly making new acquisitions and developing software that I keep in the back of my mind for when we grow to a second location.”

Reflect and course-correct based on reporting insights.

When it comes to restaurant tech, according to Johnson, there is the really small stuff and the big stuff, both of which are essential to a smooth operation. Faster ordering times and table turns have been crucial to Jack of Cups’ bottom line. Johnson gets daily reports on labor cost, product cost, and sales that help ensure Jack of Cups can sustain additional tables. Despite additional spend on labor cost, faster table turns, and fewer kitchen misfires keep Jack of Cups trending in the right direction. But good business is more than just green plus signs and positive numbers. “With SpotOn Reporting, you can make really sound decisions that are great financially, good for your staff, and challenge your staff based on data.”

Cheddar chili crunch naan

Leading with empathy and leveraging loyalty.

Any General Manager knows, a strong team is the backbone of any fantastic restaurant. But at Jack of Cups, the staff is not just the how but also the why. Johnson looks to owner Lesley Carroll’s kind leadership and tireless work ethic as the gold standard, an essential ingredient for his personal growth as well as that of the restaurant. “All our leaders are very empathetic,” says Johnson. “We want to grow so we can pay people a fair and living wage. We want to treat our staff in a way that helps us retain them.” The strategy seems to be working. In the seven years Jack of Cups has been in operation, there has been little turnover.

While the day-to-day at Jack of Cups might seem all sunshine and noodle bowls, being located in a vacation destination presents undeniable challenges in the offseason. From November to February, when it can be downright ghostly, Johnson is focusing on implementing online ordering to attract and retain more locals. To incentivize frequent visits and reward the most loyal customers to drive sales in the off-season, Johnson is introducing a loyalty program. “Coupling an online ordering platform with loyalty helps get people in more and more and rewards the locals who are already repeat customers,” says Johnson.

How does one measure restaurant success? It could be in tacos sold, or birthdays celebrated, or stars earned. It’s subject to change over a restaurant’s life span. It’s elusive. For Johnson, he’s found the two essential ingredients of any successful restaurant: kindness and knowledge. That, and a warm bowl of curry.

Curry trio

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