Finding your balance in life is tougher than it seems. With many challenges today, what can you do to support your mental and physical health? In this episode, Evan Brandoff discusses this with Chief Executive Officer of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken, Tom Ferguson. Tom fearlessly discusses mental health and how to achieve balance, and how his company is making sure their employees are providing great service by taking care of them. Tune in and be inspired by Tom’s story.
We welcome Tom Ferguson onto the show. He is the Founder and CEO of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken Franchising, which has 16 stores across 7 states. Tom has an extremely interesting and inspiring story. We’re excited to share more with you on this episode.
We are here with Tom Ferguson. Welcome to the show. Thank you so much for coming on.
Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Are those birds behind you?
They are birds. I’m pretty into bird watching, what we call birding.
Is that the technical term for bird watching?
That’s the technical term.
Tell us more. How did you get into birding?
I come off a couple of nervous breakdowns and finally decided to go to my doctor. I asked him for a pill so I didn’t feel this way anymore. He said, “You’re not an addict or bipolar. You need a hobby.” I said, “I’ve been thinking for some reason about bird watching when I got older.” He laughed, “Do you think you’ve slowed down enough to watch birds?” I took it as a challenge. That was December 17th, 2018. That night I went and joined three bird clubs. I bought all the gear I needed, signed up for a little three-day trip out to the Outer Banks and was on my way.
I love it. It’s great. It’s given me balance in my life that I didn’t have before. I was a workaholic. Every way you can look at it, it’s all I thought about. Picking up this new hobby slowed me down. I learned new things and what it was like to learn again from scratch. It made me more empathetic for my employees and made me a better boss by splitting that time where I thought I had to put everything into what I did. I didn’t realize that by finding some balance, I became better at what I do.
What’s the rarest bird that you’ve seen?
The rarest bird I’ve seen is a black feet harrier, which is a very simple-looking bird but I saw it down in Miami. I haven’t met many other people who’ve seen it. I was with a guy and he took me to it. Seeing that, that’s the rarest.
By finding some balance, you become better at what you do.
Growing up, I begged my parents for a dog. They got me a dog but that only lasted about one week. My mom couldn’t take it. Instead, I got a pet parakeet so I ended up loving Stripey, my pet parakeet. I’m very into birds as well. I want to get more into your incredible career and some of the challenges that you spoke to that you’ve had to deal with as well. First, I want to rewind and go back a few years. You’re the Founder and CEO of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken Franchising. You’ve had an incredible journey leading up to Rise but let’s go back to high school. What was high school like?
When I was in 2nd grade, I was put back into 1st grade and it was fairly traumatic at the time. It’s a base of who built me at seven years old where I didn’t want to feel that way anymore. I had a lot of insecurity still do throughout my life. What I wanted to do is be accepted in a group. I was a person that was friends to a lot of people. I tried hard at things that were visual. School was difficult for me. I did well in football. I was an all-district undersized offensive lineman in Texas Friday Football. I did well there but at school, I had to go to summer school and graduate.
When that was over, I joined the military and became an airborne ranger. A military career was pretty easy for me as well. It was a lot of hands-on stuff. That’s where I flourished, I was doing things I could see, feel and do. That parlayed me into cooking, which is also the same way that’s hands-on. I’ve seen lots of gratification, instant rewards, every five minutes you put on a plate.
These things from being a second grade being put back, that insecurity and wanting to be accepted was where I pushed. Even in businesses, what I’ve started to dream that I’ll be successful was for other people to accept me. “Am I the man?” That’s what I told my wife after we started Rise. She’s like, “They know you’re the man. Stop that,” but I can’t stop it. It’s what feeds me.
You joined the Army and then you ended up becoming a chef. How did that happen?
I took an aptitude test when I was getting ready to get out of the Army. I had a reenlistment package for Special Forces for radio and I didn’t want to stay so I took the test. Number one on that was to be a politician. Number two was to be a chef. I’m like, “Okay, chef.” I like cooking for friends and throwing parties. I did that a lot in high school. When I got out, I hit the road running.
I went to Austin, Texas. There was a small culinary program there but I moved to DC with my chef. I moved back to Austin then I went to the Culinary Institute, New York and did my internship in Dallas where I met my wife. I went back to New York, finished school and moved to Los Angeles to learn about catering. After the Rodney King riots, we moved to North Carolina. We moved back to Dallas and back to North Carolina into Asheville, Seattle and back to North Carolina.
Did you become a Longhorns fan during that journey?
I grew up a Longhorns fan. My daughter’s going to the University of Arizona and they haven’t won a football game. It’s October 5th, 2019. That’s brutal. I wear that Arizona hat everywhere but I have the longest losing streak in football.
At least there are low expectations every season. That’s the worst part about being a Longhorn fan. For everyone reading, Texas played Oklahoma and the Road River Rivalry. Texas was up four touchdowns at halftime, ended up blowing the lead and losing the game. It’s quite painful but unfortunately that’s the story of being a Longhorns fan the past decade.
Tom, it’s interesting and amazing that you’re open and honest about the insecurities that you have. We all have insecurities and it seems that you’ve done a good job of being self-aware about what your insecurities are and have turned that into what fuels you and ultimately built superpowers that have come from those insecurities. Can you speak a little bit more to how you were able to turn something in second grade might have been a weakness per se but instead have empowered you for these to be your superpowers?
Don’t underestimate the easily underestimated. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to anybody. I was underestimated a lot. I’m dyslexic but didn’t know it until I was older, which helped things make a lot more sense in the trajectory of my life. I didn’t think a whole lot about the insecurity and the negative aspects of it until I went to rehab. When I had my first breakdown, things were pretty crazy. I was having panic attacks. I didn’t understand what they were.
When was this that you went to rehab?
This was years ago. My plate was full. I knew that Rise has some problems that need to be fixed. I’ve made a whole bunch of money with standing on the shoulders of my ego. I saw the problems but didn’t know how to fix them. I ran into drugs and got away. I didn’t know how to handle it. I knew enough that it had gotten bad enough for me to go to rehab. I went away for three months in California and it was the first time in my life I’d ever had a period of time to reflect on me. I learned some tools that could help me. We did a lot of it. It was a Twelve-Step program. It was a pretty hippy-dippy program. There’s a bunch of yoga, sweat lodges and lots of group therapy.
Everybody was so good to me, partners and investors. Everybody had about $20 million invested in me. It’s not the greatest thing when the CEO goes to rehab. You’ve worried about your investment but they were good to me. I learned these things that were important that I have that time to go through it. When I was in rehab, I wrote a cultural manifesto about how I wanted the culture of my company to be. I have to give back what I got from others, that understanding and love that was there.
I have somewhat done this. I’d been at a fair boss my whole life. We’ve taken care of people. I cared about the people who cooked who were in the trenches because from my story of moving around, I was in the trenches for a long time. When I got out of rehab, I had to start fixing the company, breaking it down and building it back up. I also went and meet with different employees at different stores, 30 minutes each and then 30 minutes with a manager to tell them my story. When I would share my story, you see their shoulders relaxed and then they would want to share theirs.
What happened is a lot of these people were sharing things that they never shared with anybody before. They never had anybody else share their story with them. It’s so powerful when you put yourself in a vulnerable situation to share something without worrying about the ramifications of somebody having that knowledge of your shame. It doesn’t matter. You share it. They relax. Fifty percent of those meetings were tears from me, them or both of us. It was powerful. That type of leadership for our culture is what I’m trying to base on at the beginning.
We have four different groups of people. We have people who don’t like the job so they should move on, better for them. People who like to do one specific thing. People who want to move up in the company and then people who are at a stopping point where they figure out where they want to go or what they’re doing. We like to help and encourage them, figure out where they’re going and hold them accountable for it. We want to be a place that if you want to be in for the long haul, we have plenty of opportunities. If you’re a stopping point, we want to help you get where you want to go.
How big was Rise at this point? How many stores were there?
It’s probably pretty close to what we have. We’ve opened 25 stores but we closed 9 back in the day. It was too inconsistent too big of staffs, no ROI coming back. It was a big task to fix this company but it’s fixed now and it’s doing well. There’s nothing to hide on this rocket. It was worth it. For me, everything I’d made my whole life cooking had been from scratch. That was my identity as a chef. With Rise, the donuts weren’t working.
I had to take the emphasis off the donuts, put it all on the biscuits and then bring in a product to use for a few donuts to satisfy those people but people were still looking at me like I was trying to be a donut person. I’m not, as integrity as a chef. I am a biscuit guy. That was hard, especially with social media, all the crap talking and people bitching about this or that. That’s not what we are anymore.
Speaking of being a biscuits guy, Rise is notorious for having incredible biscuits but in the early days of Rise, something else you became notorious for was accepting Bitcoin.
We were the first retail place in North Carolina to take Bitcoin. We were early on in that. That had to be 2014 or 2015.
How did that happen?
I hate banks. I’ve only needed bank once in my life and they weren’t there for me. I’m like, “Go to hell.” It’s more of a revolutionary way to fight the power with pop rocker back in my day. I don’t know how much it’s doing for that but at least that was my stamps.
Don’t underestimate the easily underestimated.
Did anyone purchase?
We did. At that point, we were taking it through Coinbase. We had a separate little iPad for that then we moved away from Square to Revel and the Revel facilitate those cells. We only did it for about a year and a half when we mentioned the new POS system. They make it difficult. It wasn’t a whole lot but it got people talking about it. It started their interest and that’s what I want to do. You would take the Bitcoin and then cash out that night.
Are there any stories of Domino’s where someone spent $9 million on a pizza?
We didn’t have anything like that because we cash them out every day but I bought three Bitcoin back then for $500 each and then I email changed, lost password and they were unattainable for me for about three years. When I finally got cashed out, it was over $10,000.
You have 16 restaurants in 7 states, which is incredible. How did it end up happening that it’s 16 restaurants across 7 states? What was the strategy behind being in 7 states versus being in 1 specific area?
There’s not a strategy behind that. It has to do with franchisees that are interested. When the franchisees come and want a certain territory, we vet them, they’re vetting us and then we’re trying a new area. Back in the day, we weren’t very sophisticated in finding locations. It was all made income of the people who lived in the area and people who lived their daytime population. Now, it’s a lot more sophisticated.
We know the Mosaic profiles of our customers, which I don’t know if you know this but there’s 72 profiles. We build off the addresses that we have for our customers and it follows their credit card spending to their address. It makes up a profile. We take all our addresses, make it into the Rise profile and layer that into a heat map. It shows us the destiny where our customers live so we can pick and go where they’re at.
How are you able to use Mosaic in order to build your marketing strategy?
We’re not using it for marketing but it can be used in marketing. What we’re doing for marketing is back in the day, you would try everything like billboards or radio but when you’re smaller, it doesn’t do much good. What we do is YouTube and Google ads, probably about three campaigns a year. What’s the most efficient is direct emails to our customers that we have, telling them about things and they pass it along but we’re getting ready to kick off text messaging marketing tool, which is pretty elaborate on the information that they pull in.
It will all combine our social media, email and text messaging campaign along with an app. What’s good about when you’re spread out over as far as we are, you’re able to draw a radius around your store and market to those people or in other areas where you’re fairly close, where you think there’ll be. The ability to pinpoint your marketing helps us align.
Shifting back to the culture shift that you instilled at Rise, it’s incredible how vulnerable you were with your team and how you’ve been able to put team members into 1 of those 4 different buckets in order to set them up for success. There are 16 stores in 7 different states. You can’t be in so many different places at once. When you’re not there having these incredible conversations, what are other ways you’re able to instill that culture on a consistent basis?
I don’t believe it works so well to write your values, although we have our values in the store, to write a document, “We’re going to be this way,” or to say, “Welcome to Moe’s.” It starts with how you treat the people under you. For instance, we have 3 corporate stores in 13 franchises. We manage our corporate stores. This is the core of what it is. Whenever something’s happened, if somebody who’s coming in late, no showing, no calling or not doing one of their tasks, it’s not the problem. It’s a symptom of what the problem is.
If you treat that person in a way saying, “What’s going on with you?” You help them deal with whatever the true problem is, that starts to domino down. There won’t be an asshole to someone underneath them either. You’re starting one that’s built off of trust, respect and love, figuring out what issues are going on in their life and not being hardcore like, “Why you’re late? I got to write you up a 2nd or 3rd time. Let’s dig a little deeper, spend a little bit more time trying to get them.”
When you do that for someone, they do it to the people under them and your culture starts getting tie of what we’ve seen, our profits start going. I don’t worry about customer service because I know if my employees are happy, they’re going to give the type of customer service that we’ve had to get. I see that going on. Your ROI is going to go up and you’re making more money. I share that with the franchisees to say, “This is working.” It’s working being like this.
We pay a fair wage. Our employees make from $15 to $21 an hour. Managers make over $75,000. We do pay days off and gym memberships. We’ll start playing with all different things because our cost of labor has dropped a lot. We have a lot of money to reinvest into the employees. Since we’re only one shift a day from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM and everybody’s home by 3:00 PM, it’s a lot less to manage. We have eight employees in each store total so we take better care. Part of that better care is to build a culture that’s real. You see it everywhere. Major companies are having trouble with employees, Disney, Apple and Amazon but we’re not at all.
On a scale of 1 to 10, in order to get repeat customers and keep people coming back, how important is the quality of the product and customer service?
First to say, if you have a great environment for the employees to work in, they’re going to take care of the product and the customers. We don’t have any cashiers so we don’t have any forefacing employees. You order off a kiosk in our store online or through one of the third-party delivery companies. Where we used to give customer service was the cashier saying, “Have a great day taking the order.” That wasn’t the most ideal place to do your customer service because they can put it in the order wrong or be grumpy. There are all kinds of things.
Once we went to the new way of doing it, all that customer service comes from the expediting person who’s handling the food, bagging it and handing out or putting in the food lockers. About 70% to 80% of our orders are done on third-party delivery or online where they come in, go through the locker, get their food and go. The rest is placed at a kiosk and we hand the food to them.
Customer service for us is two things. It’s the technology that is working as promised with times there and then for the expedite handing of food to the person who’s ordering and helping them in the store go through the kiosk when they need it. People want that but people could care less if they’re talking to someone.
They want to get their food and go. That percentage is growing an awful lot of people who want it but they do care if the technology’s working as promised ad hear their order of billing right. Was it complete? Was the speed of service good? Was it accurate? Was it easy to get? Was it understanding when they went to the store?
There’s an equal relationship for customer service between the technology and the employees. We work hard to care equally about both of those. In our culture, which has traditionally been manager-employee or employee-employee relationships, we put a technology in there to be another person in there, technology, employee and managers.
How do they all get along? Do they all like each other? Does the technology work as promised? Does it make their life easier? Do employees know how to use the technology and fix problems? Once we started thinking of those as technologies being an equal partner, our customer service went up quite a bit.
Food’s always been important to us. We make the biscuits all day long from scratch. All the ingredients we put pretty much the order unless it’s busy and we’re getting ahead. We’ve always cared about that. In our culture, it’s a given that every employee has a right not to serve something if it doesn’t look right. They’re both equally important but above them are employees.
This might be proprietary information but can you teach us the secret to making the perfect biscuit?
We only have five ingredients. We have self-rising flour, eggs, butter, buttermilk and sugar in that biscuit but the biggest thing is not to over mix it. That’s the biggest key. When you start over mixing it, it gets hard. You’re cutting that flour, adding your buttermilk and your eggs when it first comes together, putting it on a board, rolling it out, folding over twice and rolling it out again. That’s probably the most important thing.
If you have a great environment for the employees to work in, they’re going to take care of the product and take care of the customers.
We’re a community marketing show. I want to shift and talk a little bit about community marketing. What are different tactics and ways that local Rise stores engage with people that live within a few mile radius of their stores? In addition to the text messaging that you’re rolling out in digital marketing, are there any other in-person or out-of-home marketing tactics that you deploy to make Rise continue their efforts and being part of the communities that they serve?
Mostly things from the beginning with Rise, all of our givebacks were pretty much focused around kids in learning or in sport, whatever it was. When we first opened the store, we partnered up with a local school and gave a percentage of our money. Restaurants get reached out to so much to give stuff out. It’s pretty hard to funnel off. You have to pick who we care about. We care about everybody but who do we want to focus on?
In the early days and still now, a lot of that store marketing that they do is done for things with kids but we’re not as much of a kids place as we were when we were donuts. We’re more of the young mover and shaker type of person. We still do stuff where kids are local. From a corporate side, we do stuff with mental health organizations whether that’s NAMI, mats or homeless causes, things that are helping people out there. That’s from going through what I went through. I learned a lot about how we’re not taking care of people with issues similar to what I’m at. Benefits have gone there for corporate but to kids, they’re local.
How are you able to measure the impact of your investment in supporting kids in the community and mental health initiatives in the communities that you serve?
There’s no measuring stick for this. For us, what we want to do with mental health is take away the stigma and let people know what’s being done at a cutting-edge level that they may not understand. For us, me telling my story, which I have, I had issues and this is why I’m passionate about mental health, it’s been more of an education for my name so much. They give back in a way to measure it. I don’t know how to measure it but many people have reached out me and said, “Thank you for sharing that. It’s opened it up for me to start talking about it too.”
How vulnerable were you prior to going to rehab?
I was but I didn’t talk about my deep secret. I didn’t talk about the addiction part. I wasn’t so honestly vulnerable about it then I’m like, “Who cares? I can share it.” Everybody’s got something, not as much but I was still open. I just wasn’t showing the whole picture.
What advice would you give to someone that is going through some mental health challenges but they’re an executive or head in marketing at a company? There are a lot of people reading this and they don’t feel like they can take off work. What advice would you give to those people?
Find your hobby. I didn’t realize how many people had hobbies until I got my own. The people who have hobbies and they give it equal time, they seem to be the happiest. Find your life’s purpose. Money doesn’t satisfy that. I know I’m not alone to say, “I made a big bunch of money but didn’t change.” My life was the same the next day. It didn’t fulfill me. Seeing my employees move up through the ranks of our company, changed their life financially so they can do other stuff that they want. Run your company not for money but for something greater and find balance in your life. Hobbies are a great way to do that.
Starting a show and talking to cool people like you, does that count as a hobby?
No. You got to find one. Start with your family if your chef is not cooking. Preferably in nature because we all need to spend some more time in nature.
Tom, this has been inspiring and incredible. The last section of the show is the lightning round. I’ve got four questions, the first thing that comes to mind for each of them. First question, what is your favorite youth sports memory?
Playing football Pee Wee for a team called The Packers. It was a rainy championship game. I didn’t play much in 2021 but I was in my rain gear and my whole thing on the sideline. It was on TV and they were filming me with a whole mud on me, totally clean by playing football. I loved playing Pee Wee football when I was young. I did it from second grade.
Second question. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A football player at one point. I didn’t have a whole lot of aspirations on what to do. There was nothing that was there that I was shooting for. There are times I want to be a soldier because I was built to be that by toy guns, movies and everything that was out. I ended up doing that but I don’t know that that was always my goal but at some point, it became.
What is a brand whose marketing you admire most?
Dutch Bros. Coffee. They’re on the West Coast in 7 or 9 states. It’s a quick-service coffee place. You can drive through. Drive three places. They brand through their employees too by the way they train or interact. The culture that they have spells out everything else they do. It’s impossible to go there and not feel good about yourself when you leave. If you don’t know them, learn more about them. They’re an amazing story. They went public and the owner’s worth over $1 billion dollars. He earned and did it. It’s an amazing story.
Last question, what is your go-to cause to support?
Mental health at this point. The whole nation has gone through trauma over 2020. We’re divided not of our own fault but because of our media or government divided us on purpose. A lot of people that are to the extreme left or right are so convinced that they’re right, that everybody that wants that life differently from them is evil and enemy. It’s not the case.
Run your company not for money, but for something greater, and find balance in your life with your hobbies.
If you take the time to understand the life situations or experiences that people have in these groups, this is what takes them to their side. You are a product of your experiences. You are not a product because you were a bad person. That’s not the case of what’s going out there. Mental health needs a lot of work.
Tom, thank you so much for coming on. You have inspired me and I look forward to watching you continue to inspire the people you work with and many other people in your life.
Thanks for having me. Good luck in everything and your show.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for reading the episode with Tom Ferguson. As a recap, we discussed his incredible journey from getting held back a year in the second grade to going on founding and running a thriving restaurant chain in Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken Franchising. The power of vulnerability, being open and honest with your team and how to instill a positive culture in your organization from the top down. See you next time. Play on.
Tom Ferguson is the founder and CEO of Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken and Your Birding Story. Ferguson is a serial entrepreneur with an ability to see and bring people together for a common goal. Rise is a fast growing franchise known for innovative, chef-inspired twists on favorite breakfast and lunch items, tight operating procedures and a corporate culture that promotes love and respect at all levels. The concept has grown from a single restaurant to 16 Rise locations now open in North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Kansas, Georgia and Tennessee with over 100 units in development. Visit www.risebiscuitschicken.com for more information.
Your Birding Story is a community that helps you get started in birding, connect. with other birders and share your birding stories. Ferguson speaks publicly about the impact birding has had on his life and is passionate about sharing this story. and impacting the lives of others.
Earlier in his career, Ferguson was a pioneer in the North Carolina food truck. scene with Only Burger and one of the area’s premier caterers as chef-owner of Durham Catering for 16 years. Tom is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a veteran Army Airborne Ranger. He lives in Durham, NC.