case study

Cafe Rio Mexican Grill

CHRO Andy Hooper

Scaling culture change: A winning ingredient for rapid expansion

When small companies grow rapidly, the culture can get lost in a sea of new people, processes, geographic expansion, aggressive growth targets, and the avalanche of changes needed to scale. The culture can become a boat anchor, dragging behind the desired direction and pulling people in the wrong direction. But when senior leaders make a conscious decision to keep the best of the cultural elements that brought the company success in the first place, great things can happen.

Cafe Rio Mexican Grill did just that. In 2011, Dave Gagnon, a former Burger King senior vice president of North America company operations and training, took over as CEO and COO. Andy Hooper, who had led the culture-shaping work at Burger King, joined Cafe Rio as chief people officer. The organization had an outstanding culture, and was in its third year of nearly double-digit comparable sales growth. But to grow rapidly, the executive leadership team needed to codify the culture that was largely built on ‘tribal knowledge transfer’ to scale for national expansion.

Among the goals of the culture program

Senn Delaney was engaged to help strategically shape the Cafe Rio culture, building on its legacy of high performance, operational strength and deeply embedded pride in going the extra mile to provide the freshest of ingredients at every restaurant. Goals included:


  • clarify the vision, purpose, vision and values and bring them to life by driving consistent, expected behaviors
  • align the executive team and build trust, rapport and effective communication across the team and company
  • create consistency in execution as the company scales
  • help leaders understand the power of the leadership shadow they cast, and the importance of modeling desired behaviors

Results from shaping the culture

Cafe Rio has been at the forefront of strategically shaping a culture for the future that adapts a proud history to the realities of scale. The chain has grown from 44 locations in 2011 to 90+ restaurants, with a workforce of more than 3,500. The culture that makes Cafe Rio distinct from other quick-service restaurants is now deeply ingrained and a source of pride from the front lines to the executive team. “Cafe Rio’s culture is critical to the customer experience because it’s all about the way food is made and the people who make it,” says Hooper.

The recipe is working. Over the past few years, Cafe Rio has won numerous awards, including being named by Sandelman and Associates as the number-one Mexican restaurant chain in the country for customer satisfaction for seven consecutive years. “The culture-shaping process accelerated the senior team’s cohesiveness. It really built a lot of trust and dispelled the “outsider versus insider” dynamic. We came together to celebrate what is uniquely Cafe Rio. I’m convinced that had we not taken the time to focus on nurturing the culture, our challenges would have evolved very differently.”


“Our focus on culture has kept our growth strategy achievable. I think the culture will survive the entire leadership team and be a governing factor for many years to come. It will help guide us through the upcoming talent crisis that we’re entering. We need to make sure we’re the best alternative that somebody has and not the last alternative.”


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