From burger flipper to CEO: Abt learned restaurant ropes as he pursued degree

Michael Abt

From burger flipper to CEO

By Daniel P. Smith

Abt learned restaurant ropes as he pursued degree

 As a 15-year-old flipping burgers at Charlie’s Hamburgers, a Houston-area eatery that lived by the irreverent slogan “Over 2 Dozen Sold,” Michael Abt gained an early fascination with the restaurant game.

“The action of the restaurant just energized me,” Abt says.

It wasn’t until the Houston native arrived in San Marcos, however, that a career in the restaurant industry emerged as a serious option. While pursuing his finance degree at Texas State University, Abt spent more than three years as the assistant manager at Palmer’s, the thriving upscale restaurant located several blocks from campus.

Under the charge of ambitious brothers Rick Travis and Rob Haug, Abt studied the entrepreneurs’ attention to detail and the guest experience, their savvy commitment to marketing, menu, and management.

The real-world experience Abt gained at Palmer’s served as a fitting complement to the finance skills he was picking up in the classroom, a combination that only solidified his ties to the restaurant industry.

“My work at Palmer’s really set my career in motion,” says Abt, who was also a member of the university’s competitive water ski team and Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1987.

Three decades later, Abt remains rooted in the restaurant game — and in a way he never could have envisioned during his undergraduate years. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based Huddle House, the 24/7 restaurant chain known for its Southern-style comfort food and “Any Meal, Any Time” mantra. Abt oversees 401 restaurants open and in development across 23 states, including 18 in Texas, and an enterprise with annual sales of $250 million.

When Abt, then a senior vice president of operations for Arby’s, joined Huddle House in 2012, he was charged with revitalizing what had been a languishing brand. Staggering from the heavy blows of the economic downward spiral of the previous four years, Huddle House was struggling. Sales were still on the decline with its units failing and its franchise partners, who accounted for about 90 percent of all Huddle House units, growing increasingly frustrated at the leadership’s inaction.

Eager to understand the brand’s strengths as well as its deficiencies, Abt spent his first 30 days as Huddle House CEO on a restaurant barnstorming tour. He connected with the company’s franchise partners and its front-line staff, observed operations, interviewed vendors, and began crafting a new strategic direction for the company. 

Founded in 1964, Huddle House’s positioning in smaller communities across the United States is one of the things that Abt particularly loves. Typically located in towns with populations under 20,000 and run by local owner-operators, the 80- to 90-seat Huddle House restaurants serve as warm gathering spots for locals. “We’re the kind of place where owners and servers know people by name, so our restaurants feel far more like a local mom-and-pop restaurant than a large chain,” he says.

But Abt also saw obvious weaknesses and quickly defined his top priorities: to rebuild trust with franchisees by delivering enhanced marketing and operational support, to refresh outdated restaurants, and to modernize the menu. He also began assembling a corporate team capable of executing his strategy, bringing in new executives to oversee marketing, operations, development, legal issues,  and culinary matters.

“Getting the right people in place is critical in a major turnaround situation like we were in,” he recalls. The last several years have been packed with action as the Abt-led Huddle House team has improved the guest experience by unveiling hearty new items for guests such as biscuit platters and “Wafflewiches” and remodeling more than half of its units. Most importantly, Huddle House’s franchise partners — so critical to the success and sustainability of the brand — share heightened optimism for the brand and its future.

“Twice a month, I spend three to four days at a time in restaurants and I see folks excited about what they’re doing and where we’re headed, and that’s invigorating,”  Abt says.

“I like results and being able to make things happen by helping a business and people grow. It’s not about what I do every day, but what I can do to motivate others so we’re all moving in unison,” he says. “It’s the world I love and I honestly can’t see myself doing anything else.”

The once-sinking chain is now rising under Abt’s leadership. Huddle House is opening new stores and scoring impressive sales gains.