I arrive 15 minutes early for our 7:30 a.m. appointment, but Kelly Baltes has beaten me here. I spot him sitting in a booth near the far side of the nearly empty dining room at Panera Bread in Las Colinas and walk over to introduce myself.
At 48, clearly in good shape (he’s a habitual runner), and with what looks like a day’s worth of stubble on his face, the CEO of the Irving-based Cheddar’s restaurant chain projects a youthful and energetic air. His iPhone, iPad, and a pair of sunglasses sit on the table.
“You do a lot of work on the iPad?” I ask him as we head to the counter to select our breakfasts. “I never carry a laptop anymore,” he says.
He orders coffee and a yogurt, while I opt for the oatmeal and a plastic bottle of orange juice. I take a number, and we head back to our table to wait for the food. It’s only a few minutes later when a server shows up with a small bowl for me. It’s overloaded with strawberries, pecans, and brown sugar. Baltes’ meal hasn’t appeared yet. I wait to dig in as he tells me about what got him hooked on the restaurant industry more than 30 years ago, starting with his first job bussing tables during high school.
“What I found in the restaurant business is that if you worked hard, applied yourself, and cared about what you did, there was a self-fulfilling kind of success model. You’d earn a position—even if it was busser—and if you were absolutely the best busser, they would come to you and say, ‘Wow. You’re great. We need you to do more,’” he says, explaining his rise through the ranks to the C-suite.
I’m feeling peckish and finding it increasingly difficult to resist the warm oatmeal in front of me. I suggest that we should make sure the Panera staff hasn’t forgotten about Baltes’ order. He jumps up to check and returns about a minute later, empty-handed. Apparently they’ve run out and need to whip up another.
“It’s OK. I’m the first guy to notice something that we’re not doing right in our restaurants, and the last guy to complain in a different restaurant,” he says, then urges me to begin eating. In his early 20s, Baltes made the choice to drop out of college in favor of work (at the time, he was a bartender). With no parental expectation that he earn a degree—he was the first in his Iowa family to pursue higher education—it was easy to opt out of 8 a.m. accounting classes.
Years later, when Baltes was working as a division vice president for Chicago-style pizza chain Uno, he decided to finish his degree. He then went on to earn an MBA from Auburn University in 2005, while running about 100 Olive Gardens as a senior vice president for Darden Restaurants.
The server arrives at last with the parfait. It’s in a plastic cup with a thick layer of granola on top. Baltes removes the lid and spoons about a third of the granola off the yogurt and onto the lid before beginning to eat. I switch from hesitantly picking at my oatmeal to devouring it.
Since Cheddar’s hired Baltes as CEO six years ago, the company, which was founded in Arlington in 1979, has grown from 63 stores in 16 states with $255 million annual revenue, to 144 in 28 states and $545 million revenue. He’s hesitant to say how much larger the chain hopes to grow but clearly believes that plenty of potential remains.
With so many restaurants, it must be difficult to maintain quality control, especially with the scratch-cooking methods on which Cheddar’s prides itself. Toward that end, Baltes spends about 50 percent of his time on the road. Having worked his way up through the operations side of the industry, he considers it important that both he and his leadership team stay in touch with what’s happening on the ground level, as “that’s where our cash registers are.”
“It’s funny—I’ll talk to other business people who travel, and their view of travel is very different from my view of travel. Their travel is they’re back to the hotel by 5:30 or 6 p.m., thinking about where to go for dinner. I’m bussing tables,” he says. “I’m like, ‘This is full circle here.’”
“You’re paid a little better to bus tables these days,” I say.
He chuckles. “Yeah, probably so.”