Made in Tampa: PDQ

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Made in Tampa: PDQ

How Outback Steakhouse founder Bob Basham and partner Nick Reader’s PDQ chain of quick-service restaurants are satisfying the public’s insatiable appetite for quality chicken

by Kathryn Deen
January 7, 2022 

Bob Basham and Nick Reader craved a better fast-food option. So the savvy Tampa businessmen dreamt up a new concept — PDQ. They opened the first location 10 years ago this month on Dale Mabry with about 60 employees. Fast forward to today and the fast-casual restaurant chain has over 2,000 employees at 60 locations in five states, with its first international stores coming soon. People Dedicated to Quality has become a household name for quick, tasty chicken and sauces.

The real secret sauce was the perfect founding duo. When Basham and Reader paired up in 2009, Basham had nearly 40 years of experience in the restaurant industry. Most notably, he co-founded the popular global chain Outback Steakhouse in 1988 in Tampa; its first location is just a mile from PDQ’s first restaurant. Basham relocated to Tampa from the northeast in the late 1970s at the request of his former employer, Steak ‘N’ Shake.

Reader brought his financial prowess to the table. He formerly served as chief financial officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He also worked for PwC (formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers), handling client accounts such as Outback Steakhouse and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Chicago native was a child when his family moved to Tampa for better weather.

“Most accounting people are pretty black and white,” Basham says. “But I saw in Nick that he could really relate to the people side of the business; he could talk to the dishwasher and have a relationship.”

PDQ co-founders Bob Basham and Nick Reader say they’re most proud of the opportunities they offer their employees to rise through the ranks and excel. Many longtime employees have received several promotions and now have leadership positions in the company.

Reader was a longtime fan of Basham. He recalled meeting Basham as a kid accompanying his dad on a business meeting to pitch an iced tea account. In graduate school, he wrote an endearing master’s paper on Outback, where he also had bussed tables. In 2009, mutual business connections brought them together for the long haul. Basham and Reader bonded over their common entrepreneurial spirit, sense of humor and love of the NFL. Together, they embarked upon a quest to launch a new fast-food restaurant.

“I was always intrigued by fast food,” Basham says.

So was Reader, who found himself frequenting quick-service restaurants (QSRs) with his kids after sports practice, but not satisfied with the options. Basham and Reader accepted an invitation to visit Tenders, a QSR in North Carolina looking for investors. Tenders won them over with its fresh, made-to-order chicken tenders. They ended up taking over the company. However, they needed to look elsewhere for inspiration to create an atmosphere that matched the quality of food. And that called for a road trip.

After about a year of research — or “dark and lonely work,” Reader quips — they came back with a clear vision of how their company would stand out. They would do better in three key areas they saw lacking in the industry: food quality, hospitality and cleanliness. Thus, PDQ’s menu items are made in-house from scratch with fresh ingredients, food is made to order and the chicken is double hand-breaded daily.

“That gave a tough barrier for our competitors who were built on speed, speed, speed,” Reader says. To up the hospitality game, they created a casual-dining atmosphere with comfortable seating options and friendly employees who take your order face to face, even in the drive-thru, call your order by name, visit tables and offer umbrellas. “We always knew it was a people-first business,” Reader says. “If you get an opportunity to make two or three people’s day, make their lives better, that’s what we challenge our people with.”

Their emphasis on cleanliness is why their restaurants have open kitchens and brightly lit dining rooms with hand sinks, warm water and quality soap. As for the name? Basham and Reader wanted to rename Tenders something clever and brief. They wanted people to know the restaurants were pretty darn quick — but also that the focus was on people. “I’m big into the names [having] to conjure up something in your mind,” Basham says. So, PDQ (People Dedicated to Quality) was born. But not without a few laughs. “I thought everybody knew what PDQ stood for — pretty darn quick,” Basham says. “Nick never heard of it.”

Now, he’ll never forget. Basham and Reader also fondly recall opening the doors to the first PDQ in 2011. They were overwhelmed by the community’s response. Lines wrapped far down the sidewalks. Dale Mabry got so backed up with cars, an employee went outside and directed traffic with a food tray. Just a few weeks in, repeat customers returned and competitors were taking notes. That’s when they knew they had something special, something that would stick. “They recognized it was a cut above,” Basham says. “South Tampa has supported that store very well.”

Tampa has been an ideal test market for expansion. “We have a great, diverse population here,” Basham says. “It’s a very representative area in terms of demographics. If it works in Tampa, it will probably work almost anywhere in the country.”

That’s why PDQ is thriving in Florida, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and South Carolina, with five more openings planned among those states. It’s why the first international locations are opening soon in Kazakhstan and Russia. Basham and Reader share that success. PDQ has given over $6 million in monetary and in-kind donations to local charities, schools and organizations since its inception. It also offers employees a variety of opportunities to grow with the company, including retention bonuses, employee reward programs, contests, sales training, leadership training and development, a scholarship program and a new wellness program. Basham and Reader feel that some of the company’s sweetest success stories are watching employees soar within the company.

But Basham and Reader are still hungry to improve PDQ. This past year, they invested in upgrading its technology, launching a new app and rewards program in April. They also are testing digital boards in the drive-thru, as well as a new point-of-sale platform.

Basham may be the principal and Reader may be the CEO, but these men have not forgotten their humble beginnings. Reader frequents the Carrollwood location, where a handful of the original team members still work; he looks across the street and recalls his first job bussing tables at the Boston Market. Basham visits the original Dale Mabry PDQ every weekend to bring the team doughnuts.

PDQ isn’t the only feather in Basham’s and Reader’s caps. They also own Glory Days Grill, a family-friendly sports bar and grill chain in six states, including Florida locations in New Tampa and Carrollwood; and Rocca, an upscale Italian restaurant in the Heights District. Basham is working on a new flex-casual concept, Bare Naked Kitchen, slated to open this month on Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa.

During COVID, Reader didn’t hesitate to walk this walk. He didn’t feel right, he says, asking employees to operate from the trenches and take risks while he stayed at home. “I thought it was important that we didn’t have this wall between restaurant and home office employees,” he says.

Reader held weekly Zoom calls with every manager. Anybody could dial in. “I answered every question,” Reader says.

“The teams that win championships, they play for each other, not with each other,” Reader says.

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