Shortly after leaving his job as chief financial officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to strike out on his own as an entrepreneur, Nick Reader wondered if he’d made the right move.
"I probably had one of the coolest jobs in Tampa," said Reader, 42. Six years later, the chief executive officer of PDQ restaurants is certain it was the right move.
"I was at the point where I had a great job (with the Bucs), and I was going to do it the rest of my life or take that tiger by the tail," he recalled, sitting at the PDQ on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park. He started with the Bucs at age 28, and became the youngest CFO in the National Football League. He worked well with the team’s owners, the Glazer family, but of course they had the final say in everything. Reader wanted something of his own.
"Starting something that you will have around for a long time, the thought of that just blew me away," he said. "This legacy of something that you were a part of and having a real say to whether it’s successful or not."
So Reader went to his longtime friend and mentor Bob Basham, a co-founder of Outback Steakhouse, for advice. "Someone once told me to always have a good mentor," Reader recalled. Basham is his.
Because of Outback’s success, Basham receives plenty of pitches from small businesses that want his investment and expertise. The two men formed MVP Holdings, and Reader started traveling the country vetting the ideas, everything from waste management companies to restaurants or companies trying to be the next big thing.
"Bob (Basham) said, ‘I’m not paying you to sit around and look for deals for me. I want you to find the deal that your livelihood depends on,’ " Reader recounted. With a smaller paycheck, he and his wife downsized their house and she went back to work as a teacher.
Several months down the road, Reader honed in on a little fast-food place called Tenders in Cornelius, N.C., a town of 25,000 outside of Charlotte. All the food was made on site, including dipping sauces and crispy chicken tenders of juicy meat breaded with just the right amount of herbs and spices. As the father of young boys, Reader felt there was a shortage of fast-food options that weren’t processed and overly greasy.
"I found myself hiding these (fast-food) bags that my yuppie, judgmental friends would give me a hard time about," he said. "Chick-fil-A is great, and I felt that it was the only (fast-food) place people were comfortable telling people they were getting their kids’ food from." But Tenders was "real" food, cooked from scratch and in a timely manner. MVP Holdings bought the store, refined processes and quickly moved weekly sales from $10,000 a week to $60,000. Then Reader and Basham figured out how to duplicate the concept with a chain called PDQ, which stands for "people dedicated to quality," and, unofficially, "pretty darn quick."
"We wanted to have authenticity," Reader said, explaining why the kitchen, including the breading station, is in full view at all PDQs. "Fast-food always felt like the Wizard of Oz to me. Everything was behind the curtain. Our designers said: ‘You are insane to put raw chicken and buttermilk in full view of the customers.’ "
Reader and Basham encourage store managers to support local causes with a connection to employees and customers. A store in St. Petersburg might offer up its parking lot for a carwash and a percentage of sales one Saturday to a high school swim team while a Tampa location might give $10 PDQ gift cards to another school’s drama department to sell for $6 each.
"We have ‘random acts of kindness days’ when we give somebody in the drive-through their food for free and tell them the car in front of them wanted to buy their lunch," Reader said.
The chain also works with former Bucs coach Jon Gruden and his foundation, Fired Football Coaches of America, which raises money for high school football teams. Supporting the community is the right thing to do, Reader said, but it also makes good business sense to build a loyal base of customers and get your name out to new ones.
Reader also encourages managers to hire people who might not get a job at other places such as someone with nonviolent arrests on their record or one on the autism spectrum.
"Sometimes your biggest risk is your biggest reward," he said.
Perhaps his own success so far with PDQ is proof of that.
This story originally appeared in the December issue of Bay magazine.