MBAs Help Ruggles Green Rise and Shine

By Marc Brubaker

When Lauren Guillerman-Franco ’13, a recent graduate of the Rice MBA for Professionals – weekend program, signed up for Professor Vikas Mittal’s course: Customer Focused Strategy Implementation, she never expected that a project she undertook would pull her out of the classroom and into her father’s restaurant.

“The assignment was to conduct a survey to answer a specific question for a business,” she recalls, and a topic came readily to mind. Ruggles Green. Her father Robert Guillerman is a partner in the local restaurant, which strives not only to provide quality fresh food, but also to be the greenest restaurant in the world. As Houston's first green certified restaurant, Ruggles Green aims to surpass a score of 400 points on the certification scale with their new location in the Heights by employing a 2.5 kW solar array on the roof as well as various composting and recycling efforts.

“They're clear on who their target market was already; they know their customers pretty well,” said Lauren, “but they had a few different challenges. The one that we decided to do - because it would be best for the survey - was in their Heights location where they were thinking about opening for breakfast.”

Her fellow students liked the concept, so they set up a meeting with the restaurant owners. “The timing was good,” remembers Federico Marques, the other partner in the restaurant. “The fact that they were willing to come down and talk to us about what we needed was helpful — what we were looking for, what our growth plans were — it felt like something we should do anyway.”

So the students set about their task. Throughout the semester they researched the needs and demographics of the restaurant’s potential guests, many of whom come from the surrounding neighborhood. The Rice MBA students regularly held meetings with the restaurant management, developing the survey and updating on their progress.

“We decided to try to help them see what people in the Heights expected to pay Ruggles Green for breakfast,” said Lauren. In addition to providing guidance about the menu, the survey also sought to answer questions about other value drivers of a restaurant visit such as what time and how many days per week the restaurant should open for breakfast. “We added a little bit more to the survey,” she said. “They have a lot of gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan things — and we wanted to see how important that would be to people at breakfast.”

They designed the survey to distribute to half Ruggles Green clients and the other half to people who lived in the Heights. The group wanted to understand the needs of not only the current patrons, but also future/potential patrons of the restaurant. As advised by Professor Mittal, “a smart customer-focused strategy not only encompasses current customers but also potential customers of a brand.”

According to everyone involved, the survey results were quite helpful, answering many strategic questions that guided implementation. “We got around 450 surveys back, which was really amazing. The price points were right on the money,” Lauren said, “and the survey determined that there was little benefit to opening [for breakfast] during the week. It was helpful because it also showed that no one would go before 9 a.m.”

Professor Mittal explained that the project "allowed the students to actually use their skills—conceptual and statistical—to help a business make better decisions.” He stressed the importance of systematic thinking and rigorous statistical analysis to provide guidance, as opposed to relying on one’s intuition to make business decisions. “Especially when it comes to small business. Many owners go with their gut on important issues, which can undermine long-term viability of the business.”

One important place to start, according to Mittal, is with customers because for a typical business its customers are the largest source of cash flow. He stressed the importance of systematically listening to the customers using qualitative and quantitative research. “This group [of students] conducted a lot of focus groups and in-depth interviews. They actually did a customer survey to make sure that the voice of the customer was incorporated into the decision making.”

Marques was pleased. “The study exceeded our expectations. It was very well done, and very detailed — and I like detail; I'm a data guy. It had some good probabilities of what to expect.” Not only did the study itself provide valuable information, but it also helped in passing that information on to the staff. “We were able to meet with our managers and give them the study, and say, these are the results from it and this is what we need to take a look at. Our managers are very aware of what we want to do and how we want to do it.”

The benefits of the study are already starting provide a return as well. “Right now they are meeting our expectations,” says Marques. “It's only been a couple of weeks — five to six since we rolled it out — but I think in the next several months the results for the Heights location will exceed our expectations as well. It's been growing weekly and doing really well.”

For Lauren Guillerman-Franco, the comprehensive nature of the project led her to reflect on her experience in the Rice MBA program. “You take statistics class, and you take the marketing class, and it's really an introduction,” she said. “But this class is very specific as far as how do you actually do the survey, interpret those statistics, and make them work for you in terms of strategy implementation."