Bolay’s Mike Harper Shares His Simple Philosophy

“Stick to your mission. Make contingency plans. And serve the best gluten-free chocolate chip cookies in the world.” A Brickell location is opening Jan. 27.

“What we realized through COVID is that we’ve got to build this thing for rough seas,” says Mike Harper, chief operating officer of Bolay, the rapidly expanding fast-casual restaurant with headquarters in West Palm Beach. “There are so many uncertainties ahead that if we’re only built for a beautiful sunny day here in Florida, it doesn’t position us well.”

The build-your-own “bol” concept started almost six years ago with a location in Wellington, and grew steadily thereafter. Created in partnership with Outback Steakhouse co-founder Tim Gannon and his son Chris, the operation now has 23 locations and nearly 800 employees. With an appealing, healthy menu that offers endless combinations and favorites like lemon chicken, spicy Thai shrimp and Asian sweet potato noodles, Bolay is a timely, impressive success story.

But COVID-19, of course, slowed even the mightiest of juggernauts. The Bolay team had planned to open seven restaurants in 2020, and instead opened two—“which was good,” Harper says. “It kept the lights on and kept our team fired up and employed and believing in what we were doing. The biggest issues for us have been logistics and the supply chain. There have been disruptions before, but it’s completely broken right now.”

Harper is not one to throw up his hands. Early on, he pressured vendors to increase their inventory levels, and began building contingency plans for every product on the menu. “We’re very specific,” he notes. “It’s not just having it; they have to be as good as the current product or better, no matter the cost. It has been a tedious process, but it put us six to eight months in front of the supply chain.”

Next year, the company will expand beyond Florida with 10 to 12 more locations (“signed leases, not hopeful opportunities”) in Washington, D.C.; Maryland; and Virginia. Then comes Atlanta, followed by what the executive team hopes will be a national rollout. “We’re gearing up for it and planning for it,” Harper says. “We know things not to do, like go plant one in Las Vegas and one in Jersey and one in Arizona. You have to have synergy building your brand, like a hub and spoke. We’re going to be disciplined.”

Harper’s focus derives from his wide-ranging experience, acquired over more than three decades in the hospitality industry. He started out as a line cook, helping his single mother support his sisters and him growing up in Tampa. He hooked up with Macaroni Grill early on, rising through the ranks to open 17 locations as a sous chef. A stint with the company in New Jersey offered him a chance to take classes at the famed Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. (“I was 20 years old and had never seen snow,” he says.) He spent time in Pennsylvania, then accepted an opportunity to join Outback Steakhouse—first in Michigan and then in Ohio. He grew close to the Gannon family, eventually helping them to develop the PDQ chicken restaurant and, most recently, joining with CEO Chris to launch Bolay.

It’s Harper’s most personal project to date—creation, more than management. And that difference shows even in the menu which, astonishingly, is entirely gluten-free. Harper’s daughter with celiac disease can eat there without hesitation—but he says it’s more about the company’s broader mission to offer a healthy destination.

“I think there’s very high percentage of Americans who have no idea they have gluten intolerance. They just know that they don’t feel good after eating some things,” Harper notes. “When we started this concept, we knew we could do big bold flavors, we knew we could do high nutrient counts, we knew we could make it attractive. But we also knew if we could do gluten-free, we could offer people a better way to eat without putting taco shells and hamburger buns and french fries in the mouths of the community. In 2020, even with a reduced menu and reduced sales, we sold over a million pounds of broccoli.”

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