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On October 23 we had our 12th annual Getting the Deal Done Breakfast Conference at the Bellevue Club. As always, our sponsors and expert panelists (beside myself) were PRK Law (Greg Russell), Hutchinson Walter (Marc Hutchinson), Columbia Bank (Bill Barclay, and Chinook Capital Advisors (John O’Dore). Of course, we couldn’t have done it without our ~175 attendees (I don’t have the exact count yet, but Jessica told me she counted three empty chairs).

As I welcomed everybody, I quipped that regular attendees might think we’re a food industry conference given over the last half dozen years we’ve had Renee Behnke (Sur la Table), Joe Whinney (Theo’s Chocolate), Robbie Bach (owner of Manini’s Pasta), and Joe Fugere (Tutta Bella). I explained it made sense to have all of these food industry people because the food industry is a tough and competitive business so it takes really good business people to succeed in it. 

Which brought us to the introduction of Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s, who spoke on “Lessons our flounder taught us that allowed us to thrive for 82 years.” In recapping Bob’s talk, which received nothing but rave reviews, I won’t steal his talking points but will summarize for you. Bob concentrated on what I’ll call the big three non-financial factors all businesses deal with:

  • Employees
  • Customers
  • Vendors

Employees are on the top of Bob’s list, as they should be. His opening remarks on employees were centered on finding and keeping good people. One of his lessons was, hire for enthusiasm, train for skills. And, keep employees happy. They keep them happy by constantly recognizing their people and making it fun. 

The results include, while industry turnover is 250-400% Ivar’s turnover is 18% for management and 100% for staff. Given it costs over $2,000 to train a new staff member this is huge (with over 50 locations). This leads to better customer service, lower L&I claims, reduced food waste, and higher pay. In addition, it allows the company to give every employee medical, dental, counseling, a 401(k) and meals.

Customers are second on Bob’s list and directly tied to the employees via the customers service provided. Ivar’s does a great job of knowing their customers, and I mean really knowing their customers. Again, Bob shared some statistics (he’s big on measuring being a former CFO). Three of the most interesting categories of metrics, for Ivar’s seafood bar business division, are:

Ivar’s customers visit 3-4 times as often as the national average for a fast serve facility and will travel five times as far (on average).

Their customers average age and income is 50% more than the national average customer while the average purchase is almost triple the average.

The average customer satisfaction score is 50% higher than average, over 90%.

Vendors are also important to Ivar’s and Bob told a story about taking care of a preferred vendor during a time of crisis. They kept paying them even when not getting deliveries. He also told of a partnership with a Native American tribe that gets them high-quality Yukon River salmon. This is why they refer to their vendors as partners.

He closed his talk by discussing how they always think long-term, not quarterly profits. This shows in all of their metrics. And, he emphasized they always want to have fun (which is what I tell business buyers needs to be on the top of their list of reasons why to own your own business). 


I don’t know about other cities so maybe this isn’t unique, but the Seattle area has quite a few, well known restaurants putting people first. Not only Ivar’s but Tutta Bella, Dick’s Drive-In, and Mod Pizza. They offer (one or more of) second chances, benefits, tuition programs, career advancement, and more. And it pays off.

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