Kelli Valade is a Dallas-based CEO within the restaurant industry. She talks to 35 Thousand about how her world has changed in lockdown, from the management of her team to virtual Happy Hours and the coming together of her neighbourhood.
Q: Tell us about your work…
A: “I’m currently the CEO and President of Black Box Intelligence. We are the leading provider of data, analytics and insights for the restaurant industry. Our portfolio of products are used by restaurant operating companies to drive superior performance. Prior to joining Black Box Intelligence in 2019, I spent 22 years at Brinker International. My last position was COO and President of Chili’s Grill and Bar. I am passionate about restaurants and I am passionate about helping those that work in, and support restaurants.”
Q: What’s your context outside of work?
A: “I grew up in Upstate NY, though I have lived in Dallas Texas for the last 27 years.
I am a mother to two awesome children, Morgan, a 19-year old freshman at OU #boomersooner and Christian, a high school junior. My husband Don has been my partner in life for over 26 years; we have been married for over 21. We have an awesome Golden Doodle named Lucy, who is particularly curious about post COVID-19 life, wondering why we are all home so much, and in general is just loving the extra attention. My hobbies are working out, especially attending hot yoga classes, cooking Italian food, and binge-watching fixer upper shows on HGTV. I believe that I have a knack for design, though I have no formal training, but I have flipped a couple of houses. When we travel, and we do a lot (or at least we used to), we divide our time between new places and countries we have never been to before, and our second home in Boston’s North End.”
Q: What is your normal day-to-day life like?
A: “My normal day-to-day was leading and managing our Dallas-based company. My focus has been on taking a founder and family-owned company to the next level to realize our full potential in the marketplace. I spend my time driving innovation, leveraging strategic partnerships with our restaurant clients, speaking at industry events, and helping others understand industry trends, insights and best practices.
My new normal is doing some of the same, but my time is now being spent thinking about what our business will look like post COVID-19. Because the restaurant industry has been hit hard, so have we. I used to travel about 25-30% of the time, speak at a dozen or so industry events a year, and teach/coach on leadership topics. That has all changed and it looks like I will have the summer off, like many others. My day is now spent thinking about how government funding can help my company and the restaurant industry. I had to lay off a third of our team, only after exhausting all other measures to keep us financially viable and sustainable. It was heart-breaking, but it was a decision that had to be made.
We’ve also used this time to offer our assistance to the industry at large, and we have been very busy trying to answer questions and help our customers who are in desperate situations. We are now running our data and reports for free, and letting customers defer their payments to us, in hopes that they remember us when this is all over. It’s a risk, and I can only hope I am making the right decisions for our future. Aside from my team, the recovery of the restaurant industry is my first priority. It’s an industry I have always loved, and I have never appreciated it more.”
Q: How has it impacted you personally and professionally?
A: “Personally, and as a mom, I am a natural worrier when it comes to my family. I have become pretty fanatical about handwashing, and cleaning products. I have also tried to follow ‘Shelter in Place’ 100% because that is the way I believe we will stay safe, and because I believe it is our responsibility in doing the right thing. I have been at odds with family and friends at times, and that has been difficult. I am also a rule follower, and these are the rules, so I will follow them and hope it creates order in a time of chaos. That said, this is one of the scariest things I have ever experienced, and I hate it. I hate it so much, and I want someone to tell me with certainty that everything is going to be ok. I’d also prefer it if that same person can tell me exactly WHEN we will be okay. Until then, I am not ok, and every day there is a black cloud that I see above us all.
Professionally, I bounce back and forth. I think I know what my company needs from me, and I have a job to do, and that brings me energy. It doesn’t bring me satisfaction, but there is energy for it and urgency. I also believe the most important thing I can do right now is provide a steady and compassionate hand. Leading with purpose has never been more important, and that same purpose is being tested and questioned every day, but it is the only way. I’ve tried to stay calm, even when I don’t feel calm. My leadership team has been there for me, and done an amazing job of being courageous and taking care of their teams. I am grateful and learning from them every day.
No one has a playbook, and no one has the answers, but I am grateful for the friends and leaders in my life that are giving me strength. I’ve also learned to do wellness checks with people on the team – I learned that from one of my leaders, and it has been helpful. Finally, like everyone else that is now working from home, we are finding ways to stay connected beyond the typical conference call. We’re doing Zoom meetings and finding ways to “see each other”. We’ve even done Zoom Happy Hours as a team. Connection is so important right now, and seeing people faces on a screen makes you feel at least a little connected. I also started doing virtual Happy Hours with peers in the industry and friends – it has helped to know I am not alone. “
Q: What are you finding challenging?
A: “The uncertainty; the fear for my own safety and the fear that people that I love could be hurt.”
Q: Where are you finding hope and optimism?
A: “In addition to the above, I am finding hope and optimism in talking to others. In some cases, I am reaching out to those that may have stronger faith than me. Leaning on folks that process things completely differently than me, has been helpful.”
Q: What do you miss about life before COVID-19 that you never thought you would?
A: “I DO NOT miss my long commute to my office every day, but I miss the time to think and listen to music, and think about the day ahead. I miss NOT worrying to this degree.”
Q: How are you getting through?
A: “I have tried to stick to my routines as much as possible. I still get up early, even though I have saved 2 hours a day in commuting. I get up now at 6 am and work out, which is a whole hour later than I used to get up, so I appreciate that. My daily workouts and yoga are critical for me. It’s also been critical I get “dressed” for work each day; though I am certainly not getting dressed in the same way – yoga pants are the daily uniform for me right now, and make-up is definitely NOT happening, unless I am on a Zoom call.”
Q: There is a new part of my routine that has emerged since all of this started….
A: “Once I am done working out, I sit on my front porch and try to just breathe for a minute. The mornings are quiet, and the weather’s been beautiful…It’s a chance to try and still my mind and thoughts. Every day, however, feels exactly the same. The same potential is there for it to be a great day, but the potential isn’t really there…not now anyway. And I find it ironic – in the quiet of the morning, you can’t feel the fear, and the chaos and the deaths. The sun keeps shining, and there’s another day upon us, another day full of potential. Yet how can that be?”
Q: What is your mindset about how to use your time at home? (Hustle harder with newfound time, be still and soak up the gift of time, dive into unexplored creative pursuits?)
A: “What a great question. I have many days tried to think about what I should be learning from this time, or what other things I should accomplish with this extra time. Hug my kids more? Definitely. Clean my closet out and donate my clothes? Done. Read that book that’s on my nightstand? Not yet. Beyond that, I’m also kind of exhausted most days and I feel like I am doing ok, just sticking to those few things. That’s a big enough list for any of us right now.
We have, though, started doing puzzles and formalizing movie and game nights as a family, and I am proud of how my family has come together to connect and just talk. My kids have inspired me more than anyone else. They are young adults with their own opinions, and they too are having to adjust, yet they have been concerned for me and tried to be extra helpful right now; I have truly never been more proud of them.
Additionally, I have made closer connections with those in my neighbourhood. We have shopped for each other, had social hour sitting in our driveways and watched people up and down our streets come out to say hello and be seen. I believe profoundly right now, that “being seen” is one of the most powerful things you can do for someone else right now.”
Q: Personally how are you managing your mind and well being for your family?
A: “Walks, and workouts. Everyone in my family is working out more, and walking together when we can. “
Q: Despite all the negatives and the brutality of the virus are there positives you feel are coming out of this – a silver lining perhaps?
A: “The silver lining is the time with my family, and not taking things for granted. I believe we will forever be changed for going through this, and I believe that in some crazy way, that is the lesson that we are supposed to take away. “Be different for getting through this, slow down after this and make the most of everything you have. You have it good”.