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Distinguished speaker to share restaurant experiences — from fast food to upscale
Entrepreneur Rhoads to speak Nov. 18 in Fabiani Theatre
ANGOLA — From a helper in his grandma’s diner to managing some of the biggest restaurant companies in the business, food entrepreneur Mitch Rhoads knows his way around the kitchen.
Rhoads will draw on his personal experiences — from fast food to upscale — when speaking as part of a joint Distinguished Speaker and Steuben READ Express event series Thursday, Nov. 18, at 7 p.m. in Trine University’s Fabiani Theatre. The series has included multiple discussions and presentations centering on food and two books dealing with the subject, “Playing for Pizza,” by John Grisham and “Heat” by Bill Buford.
Tom Tierney, who serves as a professor of humanities at Trine and as an event organizer, said Rhoads will talk about the restaurant industry primarily from the managerial perspective.
“Mr. Rhoads is an entrepreneur in every sense of the word. From his early experiences at the lower level of the restaurant business to his rise to the top of the corporate ladder, he’ll offer some stories and advice worth listening to,” Tierney said.
Rhoads first started working in restaurants when he was 5 years old. He would walk from his kindergarten classroom to Grandma Lois’ diner in Terre Haute every day at noon. She served food mainly to the blue-collar workers from the Pfizer Drug Company.
“Her dishes came from family cookbooks and the plates from her kitchen,” Rhoads said. “She’s probably just like everybody else remembers their grandma to be — dedicated to serving a perfect meal.”
Rhoads’ experiences of counting change and bussing tables prepped him for future success.
“Her commitment to excellence stands out to me the most,” Rhoads said. “If you don’t have high standards for customer service, then you don’t have much.”
After high school, Rhoads pursued a business administration degree from Tri-State University. He paid his way through school by working in the school’s cafeteria and as a waiter and bartender at Captain’s Cabin restaurant in Angola.
After graduating with a business administration degree in 1966, Rhoads took a job with Kaiser Steel and Gulf Oil Co. and served three years in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. When he got out, he went back to work in the restaurant industry, first with Collins Foods International Franchise of Kentucky Fried Chicken in southern California.
“Jim Collins was eating, and over dinner, on the back of a napkin, Colonel Sanders wrote out a contract,” recalled Rhoads, who explained that Collins was the executive agent for KFC in the early 1960s in southern California. “Colonel Sanders basically sold the rights for his recipe to southern California on a napkin.”
Rhoads stayed with Collins Foods KFC and Sizzler Family Steakhouses, working as a foreign supervisor in Australia. Then, he caught the eye of executives at A&W Root Beer. At just 29 years old, the company — then the largest franchise in the world — hired Rhoads to serve as vice president of operations.
He then went on to work for International House of Pancakes and Burger King. He opened some of the first fast food restaurants in Japan and Singapore. At Burger King, he started out as regional vice president and then became the executive vice president of worldwide operations.
In 1992, Rhoads purchased LePeep, a once-struggling breakfast-brunch-lunch restaurant in Denver, Colo. Today, LePeep restaurants are is in 12 states and thriving. It’s open from 6:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and serves breakfast and lunch. Workers are free to be with their families every evening, and it's a "lifestyle franchise concept," Rhoads said.
“We concentrated our efforts on quality time with people. We want people to enjoy working there without experiencing burnout and leaving the industry,” said Rhoads, who still owns seven LePeep restaurants in Chicago, Dallas and Denver. “LePeep is like my grandma’s restaurant — it was only open for breakfast and lunch. We want to maintain that same commitment to excellence in a family environment.”