A Q&A with Director of Culinary Ray Kees
By Nancy Wood
Hold on to your square burger. Krystal Restaurants is deep in the throes of making a comeback.
For Ray Kees, returning to Krystal Restaurants as Director of Culinary is a homecoming he’s excited about. The Mississippi native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America is part of the driving force bringing the brand back after a few years of turmoil, including being bought out of bankruptcy in 2020 by Fortress Investment Group and merging with SPB Hospitality – owners of several brands, including J. Alexander’s and Logan’s Roadhouse – in April of this year.
With his wide-ranging background in every facet of the business, Kees brings his passion for food and his knowledge of food manufacturing and kitchen operations to his current role. Restaurant Informer recently spoke with Kees about his own career path and how Krystal is aiming to appeal to a younger audience while keeping the heart of the nostalgic brand beating. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What got you interested in the culinary arts initially?
A: I’ve always had a lifelong passion for food, and it’s really never left me. It started as a child cooking with my grandparents. We had a small vegetable farm in Mississippi, and one of the first things I learned how to cook was pecan pie. As I got a little older and needed a set of wheels, I got my first restaurant job in a catfish house in Southern Mississippi, saved up my money and got a car. That just opened up the world to a lot of other restaurants.
Q: Did you have other jobs during high school?
A: One summer I was cutting and cooking steaks for a restaurant where we had live bull-riding in the back! I was also working at a local butcher shop learning how to break down different cuts of meat, prepare different kinds of sausages and smoked turkeys and things like that. Then my father decided he wanted to open up a restaurant, so my twin brother, who is a chef on John’s Island [in South Carolina] now, and I helped him get one up and going – a typical southern seafood buffet-style restaurant.
Q: What made you decide to go to the Culinary Institute?
A: After a little stint in the workforce, I went into the corporate side of restaurants with Hop’s Microbrewery and Applebee’s and traveled around with both of those concepts. I had no idea there were more layers and tiers of culinary work to be done out there in the industry. I had no idea there was a team of chefs that developed limited time offer menus or menu items for these concepts. While I was at Applebee’s, that was my goal. So I did some research, and we decided to pack our bags and move to upstate New York.
Q: How did that experience affect your career?
A: While I was at the CIA, most of the other students that were in my class went into really high-end restaurants and resorts. I went into R&D and did my internship with Brinker International in Dallas, and that was a fantastic experience. I got to work with the head chef for Chili’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Corner Bakery and On the Border as well. Then, I linked up with Grand Luxe Café – part of The Cheesecake Factory – then went back to independent restaurants.
Q: How did you come to the conclusion that R&D was your career path?
A: While I was working in restaurants, I knew I wanted to get back into R&D, but I knew there were more things I needed to learn in the industry. I knew a path to get there would be to learn about manufacturing, understanding that side of things and what that world looks like. I applied for a job with a manufacturer of high-end puff pastry, and we sold our hors d’oeuvres at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and different halls and casinos along the east coast.
While I was in manufacturing, I knew there was another segment that would lead me to where I am today. It was understanding and getting that backbone in manufacturing to meet people and build relationships. I took a job with Mondelēz International in their foodservice culinary sales on the national account team. They have brands like Oreo and Nutter Butter, so I got to work with chefs from Dairy Queen, Burger King, Five Guys – and smaller chains as well.
Q: How has this wide variety of experiences contributed to your current position at Krystal?
A: I like to think I have a pretty good understanding of how the relationship works between what I do today and the suppliers. Basically understanding the whole flow of product from manufacturing through sales to the restaurant that’s using the product. I think it really helps me in that regard.
The path is what worked for me because it’s more about work experience versus going the whole academic route – like food science. I’ve gained some of that through work experience, but there’s another path as well – going the whole culinology route.
Q: You had worked at Krystal before. What drew you back in 2021?
A: It was a nice homecoming to be back at Krystal. There are new owners, and what they’re looking for and the vision for Krystal’s future was really enticing. I always loved the brand and loved the product. I grew up with it. It’s so nostalgic.
I think it’s great to be back to right the ship. We’re going to turn this thing around. We’re very optimistic, especially since we merged with SPB.
Q: What has been the greatest impact that the merger has had on the organization overall?
A: The biggest advantage is having the shared services and resources for the company in general. Also, you’ve got folks who have worked with J. Alexander’s for 20 or 30 years and Logan’s Roadhouse, and they’re bringing different perspectives in. It’s always very interesting to listen to their take and their approach toward the business vs. a typical QSR causal dining kind of process.
Q: How do you work with the people at SPB?
A: We’ve got an executive chef who oversees all the brands, Ian Dodson – who had been with J. Alexander’s for 25+ years. He has a test kitchen in Nashville, and we’ve got ours in Dunwoody. We need the space. We’ve got 300 restaurants, and there are a lot less with the other brands. We meet a minimum of once a month to talk about the business. We go through product mix, sales and see what’s in the product innovation pipeline – what we’re working on.
Q: What is your process for adding new items to the menu?
A: It’s changed over the past six months. In the past, we would go through a typical process [starting with] strategy as a company, then go into the calendar – what needs, dates you’re looking to fill on the calendar. Maybe it’s a menu gap, operations, a partner promotion or targeted consumer.
From there it’s an ideation process basically. We did that in two ways – internal with different brainstorming exercises. And externally as well, either collaborative sessions or supplier ideation briefs. I would come up with 40 to 50 ideas, and we would whittle that down to a manageable number. We would send those out – basically a survey – and gauge customer reaction to the name and the description of the product.
Q: So you go straight to the consumer with a possible idea?
A: Definitely. We like to lead all innovation based off the customer needs and wants. There are some things we might want to push because it fits more of that company strategy and where we’re heading, but 90% to 95% of the time, the customer’s going to win.
Q: What’s different about your process now?
A: We’ve trimmed back that typical process. Now we’re leading with online sorts, then we go into a one-store test. We’ve got an R&D lab test store in Cartersville that’s recently been implemented, because that is a process that relies more on actual upfront customer reaction.
The process now is we’ll go into the R&D store, and from there we’ll go into a mini market – 4 to 5 stores. Then we’ll go into a larger market test and after that, an LTO – limited time offer. From there we decide whether it makes it onto the core menu or not.
Q: Can you tell me about the reengineered chicken sandwich? And anything else in the pipeline?
A: That was my first project coming back to Krystal, and we’re continuing to build on that as well. In the past we had a chopped and warmed chicken combo. Now, we’ve gone to a crispier, crunchier, better all white meat breast. And instead of a three sandwich combo, we’ve gone to two. We may have to charge a little bit more for it, but that’s a product mix across the entire menu and we’ve doubled our chicken incidence on our orders. That was more of our quality entry. We followed it up with a spicy chicken sandwich, and it’s doing really well for us.
Also, we’re using the flat-top grills for more than just steaming the Krystal burgers. We’re looking at other types of seared proteins that can be roasted, like a pan-roasted chicken sandwich approach – where it’s not breaded, a little cleaner. We’re also looking at French toast using our buns as well. It makes a lot of sense on our flattop grills. We’ve also got a grilled cheese sandwich now that is in a one-store test in Alabama, and that seems to be going well. It’s offered on the kid’s menu.
Q: Can you talk about Krystal’s move to embrace marketing through social media influencers? How has that impacted your approach to the menu?
A: I would say for any change it always comes down to the quality and consistency of the product – no matter who’s involved. The influencers and celebrities we’ve been working with are more on the beginning stages of the product – more inspirational – for the idea of the build. Then obviously like anything else or any other chain, it’s being vetted by every discipline.
Q: What has it been like to have Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz come on board as head of creative marketing?
A: He’s a very creative guy – obviously – who brings a different perspective to the brand. Having a conversation with folks who typically aren’t in our business – that aren’t so close to what we do in our world – is bringing a different perspective. He’s a really laid-back guy, really genuine and pleasant. He’s been in a couple of times, but typically, it’s conversations ahead of time.
Because of our kitchen set up, I have to work with manufacturers to bring the product in so we can execute it consistently. Whenever he’s in the test kitchen, we typically have a product showing or cutting. I can’t tell you how cool it is having him in the test kitchen and making food for him.
Q: Krystal is currently expanding to new non-traditional markets. How has that influenced the menu?
A: Up until a year or two ago, we always held a Southern halo over the approach to food. We’re kind of relinquishing that now, and we’re branching out to flavor profiles of different regions of the U.S.
Six months ago we opened a store in Puerto Rico, and it’s a completely different Krystal burger that you would get here. Down there, we’re using fresh beef and a little sweeter bun. The burgers there are more like a smashburger style vs. our typical steamed Krystal burger. Also the sauces are a little different – no mustard and pickle. It’s a mayo-ketchup-garlic sauce. It’s fantastic.
Q: Can you talk about any other regional changes – particularly with some of your more well-known franchisees like former NFL star Victor Cruz?
A: [There] would be a couple of items that would be limited and would just be at their location. Some of those details we’re still working on. [One of his] stores is opening up in New Jersey, and we’re still working through the details of what those signature items might be.
It might be something like Yucca fries or plantain chips – it could be some sort of pork slider or a different side item. Kind of leaning into his heritage. It’s a great way of bringing something a little extra to the table.
Q: You were named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef this year. Do you have plans to locally source anything?
A: I haven’t cracked the code yet into a Krystal restaurant enveloping local product, but I will. Right now, there’s one company I’m really interested in – Doux South – with pickles and relishes. They’ve got some really interesting things that I think would play well on our menu. When there is a product or manufacturer out there that I think would do really well in the Krystal system, without a doubt they’ll be in consideration for our test model.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: We’re looking at what the next slider looks like for the next 50 years. Not a short order there. How do we put a product in that’s sustainable over time and create another legacy product? That’s my No. 1 priority – figuring that out.
We need to bring in a newer audience. We’ve got to create a product that fits the flavor profile – what they’re looking for today.
We’ll always embrace the Krystal burger because it’s so nostalgic, but we can also offer more products that fulfill a different consumer need state. It’s challenging, but it’s fun trying to usher the brand into more relevancy with expectations today.