The 92-unit chain has created an inviting work atmosphere that retains workers for several years.
“It’s all about the people”—it’s a phrase heard countless times when talking to any Sonny’s BBQ employee. The southern-based barbecue brand has made its mission clear: spread kindness and hospitality through the spirit of BBQ. And, especially with regards to employees, that mission runs deep: it’s common to walk into any of Sonny’s 92 locations and meet an employee that’s been with the company for five years, 10 years, or more.
“We treat people like people,” Sonny’s BBQ Chief Talent Officer Christie Schatz begins to explain when reflecting on Employee Appreciation Day (March 4). “We make barbecue, and the culture of barbecue is creative, passionate, and caring.” That’s why from the earliest days of the company, employees were seen as family; the priority was always to help them pursue their goals. Today, Schatz and her team work with employees to recognize their talents and strengths that support them to achieve their goals and find their place in the Sonny’s BBQ community.
After seven years working at Sonny’s, Spencer Solomon, a server at the New Port Richey location, will tell you exactly that: “We’re like a close-knit community. After a long shift, when you’d think you’d be so tired, there is just this energy from our team that lifts you up. You might be so inclined to jump into a double shift… a dance party at the very least.”
It’s this same community spirit that’s kept Shelly Wall, now an assistant manager at the Baton Rouge location, coming back to work at Sonny’s for 26 years. Wall’s helping her team continue living that same southern hospitality and looking to use their talents to make the best experience for employees, and the customers that start to feel like family.
“Employees call me ‘Mama Shelly,” shares Wall with a laugh. “I think sometimes it’s because I’m a bit of a worrier but more so it’s because of the kindness we show to each other. Kindness and taking care of each other.”
One story stands out to Wall from over the years about a server she was helping to achieve her goals, not just professionally but personally as well. Everyday they worked together, Mama Shelly would encourage her to try something new, focus on her dreams. After a few years, the server was back on her feet, had completed her education and put an offer on her very own home.
Solomon reflects on how that kindness has come easy to him and his colleagues. “We’re encouraged to help each other,” he says. “Throughout my day, I think of my mantra: ‘It’s a simple request.” Breaking down each part of the day into a simple request has helped him stay inspired to serve southern hospitality daily and support his co-workers.
Another way that kindness is spread at Sonny’s BBQ is through their giving pillars. One pillar that Solomon finds appreciation for is the military and veterans. He knows he can never walk a mile in their shoes but feels honor to serve those that have done so much to serve our country. He’s proud to work for a company that recognizes these heroes and his opportunity to play a small role in it.
The reality over the last few years is that it hasn’t always been easy. “I’ve stood by Sonny’s in the good times and the hard times,” shared Wall when thinking back on her career that began Tas a host at only 15 years old. “I love it and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
It’s employee stories like these that keeps Schatz focused on the employee experience across Sonny’s BBQ. “Our employees each have unique journeys during their time here, and a lot of them span decades,” she says proudly. “We’re on a continuous mission to keep improving our employee training and programs so there is always opportunity.”
For Solomon and Wall, their combined 33 years is only the beginning. The connections they’ve made with their colleagues will span a lifetime. “Barbecue is about bringing people together,” Wall says.” At Sonny’s, they are doing just that.
Tanner Wenzel is a communications professional working across the hospitality industry for casual, quick service and restaurant brands. His love for food pairs well with his motivation to write about it, and he’s always ready to visit the next best restaurant in search of amazing cuisine.