Year of graduation: 1996
As the president of consulting company Crush Strategy, Sisson gets to help other restaurant owners build their businesses, working with them on everything from franchising, to marketing and menu development.
Joel Sisson is a people person. The kind of person that goes inside the bank rather than using the machine outside, just so he can chat with the teller.
“I’m a hospitality guy – I love dealing with people,” he says. “I’ve always been the person who likes to gather people and work together.”
Today, Sisson’s genial personality is serving him well as the President of Crush Strategy – a full-service hospitality consulting company that offers expertise for clients in the restaurant and hotel industry about everything from franchising, to marketing and menu development. Hospitality was a natural fit for Sisson, whose father works in the restaurant industry. Sisson grew up watching his dad and working in a restaurant as a co-op student in high school, putting in 30 hours a week even when he was 14.
“I loved everything about the industry, even then,” says Sisson. “At the time, I hoped I’d be able to get into the restaurant industry and eventually run a brand or chain.”
Sisson reached that goal fairly quickly, working first as Senior Manager for a full-service restaurant operator, and then as the COO for Shoeless Joe’s Restaurants. Then, seeing a need he could fill in the industry, Sisson and his business partner joined together eight years ago to use their 50 years of combined experience to form Crush.
Here, Sisson shares what inspired him to start his own company and the challenges of working within Canada’s competitive food service industry:
I read that Crush Strategy was formed out of your desire to do more within the industry and that there were underserved areas in the market. Can you expand upon that?
I’ve always been a fan of getting a second opinion, or a second set of eyes, because not everyone can know everything. I was the COO at Shoeless Joes for a number of years. We’d find a consultant to come in and talk about marketing, and they’d be great, but that’s all they could do – their ability to relate it to anything else in the business was fairly limited. Then, we’d get someone in to look at our operations – but they’d be stuck in a silo because all they understood was operations. They didn’t understand how it related to all segments of the business.
My business partner and I recognized that there are specific companies working in specific areas, but there’s no one that can solve multiple problems with just one call. That’s why we decided to open Crush.
How were the first few years?
We found that after the first couple of years in business, chains began to know us through referrals. And then we realized that the U.S. market had a lot of opportunities because they’re open to consultants. They love people to come in and rip apart their businesses, whereas in Canada, they’re a bit more protective. They think we’re going to take their jobs away, but what we’re really looking to do is make their jobs more efficient and make the business more successful.
How did you overcome knowing that Canadian businesses were more resistant to your services?
One of the benefits for us is we’ve never advertised. All the business we’ve gotten has been through referrals. Usually when we go to meet someone based on referral, we try to make sure it’s a very senior person within the company. Generally, we’re fairly lucky at getting the right people as an audience. Usually the referral is from someone who has done work with the company before, so it keeps the circle a bit tighter.
Has the mandate or mission of the company changed at all since you first formed in 2011?
We started the company with two principles: We don’t work with people we don’t respect, and we don’t work with any brands we feel we can’t provide help to. We generally turn down between 70 to 80% of the business brought our way for one of those two reasons. It’s usually to protect our reputation, but we also work very hard, and one of the benefits of starting our own company is we have a bit more flexibility, both in the clients we choose and the time we spend running the business. No matter how lucrative something is, it’s not worth the headache of not enjoying life or our families.
How has the company evolved?
One of the big things that’s happened in the last few years is that a lot of our clients want to keep our relationships confidential. Sometimes we work for our clients for three months, sometimes three years, and sometimes even longer. About four years ago, companies starting saying they want to work with us, but want to work with us confidentially so competitors don’t hire us to do the same thing. It’s almost like they want to keep us a secret, which is flattering. What we don’t do, and what I’m not a huge fan of, is putting logos up on our site and showing the 150 logos of companies we’ve worked with. I like that a lot of our business has come through word-of-mouth.
You’ve always tried to give back to the industry through mentorship and teaching. Why is that important to you?
I always feel like you should be doing your part. I do teach a few college courses in hospitality. My thought is that younger people should hear about what the industry is really like at this present time – not what it was like a few years ago, or even last month. What are the trends they need to know about today?
The restaurant industry is difficult. It’s not the best hours, especially when you start out. It’s a lot of face-to-face with people, which isn’t common nowadays. So, you have to let people know exactly what the industry looks like, but also inspire them and let them know how great it is. If it’s a passion or could be a passion, how much joy can they get out of it?
What do you enjoy about your role?
We get to work with so many brands. There are lots of challenges. We currently have five different clients we’re doing menu development for, and they’re all different. So that’s just a really fun activity. Besides menu development, we also have a bunch of projects on the go for other clients. So, it’s almost like there’s something new every day – there are weekly challenges that are a bit different and require you to think completely differently. You might be dealing with a fine dining restaurant one day, and a quick service chain the next. You have to be able to swivel quickly, but that keeps it fresh.