March 26, 2021

Helen Lao — Founder and President of ClearPat‪h‬

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #31

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Helen Lao, Founder and President of ClearPath Solutions. ClearPath is an executive search firm that matches talent within the industry. In her role, Helen leads a dynamic team across the country in matchmaking different growth brands with top leaders within the industry.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Helen and 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci discussed several topics including how you can make an impact and help the people around you even if you don’t have a lot of resources to work with and what the future of work looks like for the restaurant industry.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Helen Lao shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “We need to make more happen with less.”
  • “Retrain your teams, because the times are different.”
  • “I do believe we’ll bounce back. Will it look different? No doubt, but it’s a resilient industry.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Helen: I love  1Huddle. As people are talking about training and retraining their teams and rehiring people, it’s such a great way of training. So I really applaud you guys. And by the way, thank you for the support and helping us get the word out there. 

Sam: Helen, why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about you, your background, your work. I love your background on what you’ve been doing to create value for a lot of brands, but it would be cool to hear your story.

Helen: I’ve been in the executive search space with ClearPath for the last 10 years. Oftentimes, we’re actually serving growth brands and helping them put executive leadership in place. However, when this pandemic hit, the reality is I’m a small business owner and I found myself having to actually furlough and lay off my entire team mid-March. I think at that point I was wondering: is there a business to come back to? Not even understanding what a shelter in place meant. I found myself going into a different mode, which was how do I help these operators that are out there struggling, wondering, if they were going to be able to survive this. I started putting on some webinars and just trying to share information on how to access resources. At first it was PPPs, the first round of closures. Then the second closures that came right behind that coupled with the social unrest in some of these major cities, it was really devastating for so many restaurant companies—I mean small and large alike at that point. Where I found it was most heartbreaking was kind of depending on where these businesses were located, whether it be New York or Chicago, LA, or San Fran, they really didn’t have a choice. It was kind of state-by-state. Depending on where they were, it was outside of their control. I found myself once again trying to say: what can we do? I started bringing my team back probably at the end of July. We started getting calls again from clients and saying, “hey, we’re thinking about hiring in Q4.” The reality is, my heart goes out to these small business owners. We’re having a hard time actually accessing PPP money the first go around and understanding all the criteria. It was extremely labor intensive to actually put everything together and by the way, they’re trying to keep their business afloat. There were a lot of challenges for everybody across all industries. With the restaurant industry, the number one largest private-sector employer, we saw millions of jobs lost during that time. It was just a big ripple effect. For me as I thought about ClearPath and how we’ve been able to build our business, our reputation…the one thing we could share was actually our relationships. We were working with some of the very top executives, private equity groups, folks all across the country that wanted to help. The day before Thanksgiving, I thought: what do these restaurant operators need right now? They need cash in hand; that’s what they need to get through the winter months. I socially challenged a few people to ask them to purchase gift cards and honestly it went viral all across the country. Thousands of people have created these videos purchasing gift cards, and you may have even seen Cisco actually doubled down. They actually purchased another $525,000 in gift card, this was just last week. Millions of dollars have actually been out there circulated to try to help these independents.

Sam: So let’s drill down there. For your Step Up to the Table initiative, what gave you that idea? And how’s it going?

Helen: I thought of the ice bucket challenge. I thought about what really went viral and I said, let’s see if the power of social media really is that powerful. So I went out, I purchased gift cards from Breakfast Republic near my house. I challenged several people to step up to the table. I said, let’s all do our part step up to the table, help support your local favorites before it’s too late. I can tell you that hit home with a lot of people. From there, it’s honestly taken on a life of its own Sam. At this point, people were calling me saying, what can I do? How do I contribute? I started scrambling around and created a 501 C3 and created the foundation. We’re in the works and filing for articles and I’ve never done this before so it’s been another full-time job for me. We’ve created shirts, we have a website that’s stepuptothetable.com. It actually has a QR code that leads to our donation site. We’re just going to do our part and try to help save some restaurants across the country. 

Sam: You’ve been traveling like a wild woman everywhere. What are you seeing on the frontline with the way the pandemic is impacting the workforce within restaurants? Are you seeing anything shifting, any predictions of what’s to come?

Helen: I think the keyword is efficiency. I think what we saw through this was when many companies had to either lay off or furlough their teams, there was a point where some folks are picking industries outside of restaurants. They’re like, I need to start looking for a different career. That’s actually a fact. What are we seeing? I think we need to make more happen with less. I think people are really looking at what they were ready for off premise, or were they truly a dining experience? If you think about what was shut down, all bars, any type of large gatherings, catering was shut down. There were no office parties. There was so much that shifted and the consumer patterns shifted, which therefore your workforce reflects that. When I really look and think about it, there are plenty of people who are still working from home. Therefore breakfast spots, late night spots, all of these have been impacted greatly and therefore the workforce, maybe you had 10 servers before but honestly now you need half or less than that. Managers are actually running. I met with one group this week. I feel like we had to let every hourly employee go and our managers were running to go. It was just a shift so definitely efficiency’s the word and it’s a huge impact. 

Sam: What about any advice for restaurant owners? I’m sure you’re seeing some restaurants that are doing some pretty cool things. Anything that you would say to any restaurant owners or workers out there?

Helen: This is really not a plug for 1Huddle, but I would say retraining your teams because the times are different. Talking about efficiencies that people have to actually learn, whether you’re a full-service restaurant, having to learn one position or all the different positions because they all come together. It kind of goes back to a level of productivity. These poor restaurant owners are saying, “gosh, costs are going up and we already have thin margins here in restaurants.” Now there’s this to-go component where we’re paying 25% to 30% for third-party delivery. I mean, at every turn they’re faced with some other challenge. So it really is training their existing teams to be cross-functional now more than ever and to make sure that they understand what they actually have access to. I know there’s another bill that’s being proposed that’s going to be available hopefully to a lot of independent restaurant owners, but sometimes they’re just heads down trying to keep their business open. 

Sam: I don’t know what the number is. You probably would know, but I can imagine that a pretty large amount of high school students and college students and recent college grads work in the food industry to get by and make a living and support themselves. I was reading on LinkedIn, you were named one of the 10 best women leaders of 2020. So with that lead in, any advice to college grads right now that are either considering what the next step is in their career?

Helen: I actually spoke with a class at Caifornia State University Long Beach and these were a class that’s going into hospitality, that is their major. Really what they’re looking for is just some hope. I actually do believe we’ll bounce back. Will it look different? Yes. There’s no doubt, but it’s a resilient industry. If you think about how many people are employed within the hospitality world, food is the number one employer. That’s not going to go away. I do think with technology, with restaurants, we’re not really tech-forward. When I think about restaurants, I would say that we’re probably a little slow compared to other industries around being tech-forward. I think that goes from everything from how we’re building out restaurants to how consumers are interacting with the brand. We’re seeing the whole contact list now, pick up at the curbside. Those are things that we were just starting to do and it’s been accelerated through the pandemic.

Sam: People know what a QR code is again. I was talking to a company the other day about a marketing campaign. And I said, why don’t you use a QR code? And the immediate reaction was, we don’t know how to use those anymore. I go, have you been to a restaurant recently? And they said, well, actually, now that you say it, that’s how I got the menu. So it’s even interesting the way that it is.

Helen:It’s a resilient industry, there’s so many leaders. When you think about what the industry has given so many people — I say this all the time — it gave us all a chance. It’s given so many opportunities to so many people, and when you think about the dining experience, people are going to want that back. They don’t want to be picking it up curbside. Picking up a steak, eating it at home, it’s memories created. It’s about community. I actually had interviewed some servers and bartenders and managers about: what does the restaurant industry mean to you? Because I don’t think people think about it like that. Millions of jobs are at risk and they continue to be, and this is their livelihood. 

Sam: What were some of the big takeaways when you asked that question?

Helen: It was all around family. This community is my family. People want to come in and sit at the bar. I know what their drink is before they even sit down. They’re there to talk about their day. I feel like they’re my family, and it’s so much about serving the community and being a fabric of the community. That resonated with me so much. I mean, over and over, that was the same message. They’ve got the hospitality gene. They want to serve and they love that environment. There’s so many people who’ve made a career out of it. I had one bartender who was like, I started this to put myself through college, and 23 years later here I am. I am a career bartender and I love it. It’s really heartwarming to hear a lot of those stories. 

Sam: We live near Hoboken. I have a four-year-old daughter and even during COVID you gotta get out of the house. Otherwise she’d drive everybody crazy. So we go down to Washington Street and she scooters down the street and then we got a pizza spot that’s right on Washington Street. She, at four years old, knows the guy who makes the pizza, the server. Even though she can’t go in, she just pats on the window and it makes me think about how our relationship with the entire staff inside of a restaurant has changed. We have more empathy. We have more understanding. We look at the server or even back of house teams differently, or we at least should. I had a phone call the other day where I was on a post-call after a webinar and someone on the webinar event kept talking about low-level workers. It was almost like it was in their culture, some weird manifestation that they called certain workers, high level and certain workers low level. It just makes me think about when I heard what you said about talking to restaurant workers. It is a thought process that I think will have shifted in food coming out of COVID.

Helen: I completely agree. I met this young lady, I think I posted a little snippet of what she talked about, but she was like, “I’m 18 and it was my first job. I’m just trying to pay rent and, by the way, I come here and these are my family. These people that I’m working side-by-side with, who I’m spending a lot of my day with day-in and day-out. She’s like, “I’m just grateful to have a job.” I think one person alluded to the fact that this doesn’t look like a profession to some, and in fact, people might look down on it. And she’s like “I love this industry when you think about what it’s provided for me and my family.” So I agree with you Sam. 

Sam: I’m going to set you up if you want to get involved with Step Up To The Table. What should people do? 

Helen: Continue to support your local restaurants, pick up a meal, purchase some gift cards.

It’s a gift that gives twice. We’ve created a foundation step up to the table.com where people can make a donation. We received $25,000 and our goal is to take that money and provide it to help save 100 restaurants, or 1,000 restaurants across the country by giving them grants. Every dollar helps. If you’re able to make a donation, we’re going to be taking nominations of independent restaurant owners and trying to provide them with some access to some funds that they need very, very much. 

Sam: That’s great, Helen. Thank you for your leadership. It’s again awesome to watch the journey. It’s going to be a lot of gift cards that you’re going to be able to have contributed towards over this last year. So thank you for all your leadership. 

Helen: I wanna thank 1Huddle for sure Roger, George Donahue for making the intro and really, I do want to thank Tom Bene from the National Restaurant Association, the President and CEO.  He really did step behind this and challenged several folks from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo and a number of the large food vendors like Cisco. I would just want to thank everybody who’s actually participated in our gift card challenge. Let’s go out there and help support the restaurant industry.

Topics discussed: Leadership, Impact, Future of Work

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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