Executive Spotlight: Sara Burnett, Director Strategic Sourcing & Procurement at Tropical Smoothie Cafe

Professional Development

SCS:  You have a unique background. How did you get started in supply chain?

SB:  My supply chain journey began in my last year of college. I attended the University of Georgia, and my plan from day one was to go to law school and become a lawyer. In my Senior year, I was approached about an internship from a newly formed group within BSI or British Standards Institute. They were establishing a supply chain solutions group out of Athens. At that point in my experience, I knew little of the supply chain but took a chance. My role at BSI focused primarily on global supply chain risk mitigation. I worked with both multi-national organizations and government agencies to support the CBP's C-TPAT program implementation with the primary objective to strengthen international supply chains and improve United States border security.

While I enjoyed the analysis and problem-solving aspects of this role, I came to miss working in the food industry. I started my foodservice career at 14, working as a hostess at a local family-owned restaurant, and it is this industry that has made me who I am today and holds a special place in my heart. With that, I knew I wanted to get back but in a different capacity. By happenchance, the opportunity presented itself when I took a shot in the dark and sent my resume to Zaxby's. I was fortunate enough to land an amazing job on the R&D team supporting the testing and product development process. I had the opportunity to build out the testing process layering in qualitative and quantitative data analysis to support the decision process for product development and continuous improvement projects.

During my time at Zaxby's, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful mentor, Dennie Sandefer, the Senior Director of Purchasing. She was an integral part of my decision to lean in even further into the business's supply chain side. I was lucky to have Dennie in my life and learned much from her during my time at Zaxby's.

Dennie encouraged me to make my next career move. At that time, Kristi Kingery was building a supply chain team at Tropical Smoothie. She had carved out a Promotional Manager role, and it was a perfect fit. I was allowed to come in and help build out the promotion management process working cross-functionally to support the product development process and LTO strategy. In early 2020 there was an opportunity to expand my role, taking on a bigger sourcing and procurement role.

SCS:  To that point, you were promoted right before the pandemic. What did that mean for you?

SB:  I felt that I had the support of the organization behind me. COVID was on the horizon, and we were unsure of the impact on our business and our industry.  Looking back today, this promotion reassured me that I was in the right place and proud to work for Tropical. It reassured me and made me feel confident in my ability.

SCS:  At the point where COVID hit, was there anything either through thoughtful planning or luck already in place that you thought, "This this is really going to help us make it through?"

SB:  There is no doubt that COVID had a fundamental change in how we are all looking at the future by reflecting on the last year. The shelter in place orders had a significant trickle-down effect that reshaped our café-level operations and re-enforced the importance of relationships with our suppliers and distributors. As far as what helped us, we were able to pivot very quickly with an all-hands-on-deck attitude. This mindset allowed us to review and address what programs and initiatives to start, stop and continue based on the rapid changes coming down the pipeline daily. Whether that was enhancing our curbside program, expanding third-party delivery, or addressing inventory continuity, ensuring that our cafés have products on the shelves. We had the fundamentals in place to make those pivots as needed.

What we already had in place that I thought would help us make it through is easy; it was our relationships. Our relationships with our internal teams and our relationships with our suppliers and distribution partners made the difference in 2020. Everybody was all-in and working towards our ultimate goal of supporting our franchisees and cafes.

SCS:  Would you say there are any changes that were made that are here to stay, such as curbside?

SB:  Curbside is not going away. That was one project that, as an organization, we focused on during the beginning of COVID, and it paid off. We saw the need to enhance and re-enforce the program as it was clear it would be a game-changer within the industry. 

I believe the drive to digital is the biggest change coming out of COVID for our industry. This drive to digital encompasses initiatives such as third-party delivery, restaurant foot-print redesign, and how we leverage these technology platforms to streamline operations and the guest experience.

From the supply chain perspective, inventory management and risk mitigation have a spotlight focus. We're are looking at 2020 as a roadmap for the future, exploring and implementing protocols and procedures to protect inventory and ensuring we have the products in the right place at the right time.

SCS:  Are you pretty technology-heavy at Tropical Smoothie?

SB:  Yes, technology is a critical part of our business. Integrating data into every aspect of the business process is a fundamental expectation. We utilize tools such as Power BI and Arrowstream to capture and analyze sales and purchase data in real-time. This technology also allows us to develop interactive dashboards, looking at various data points to solve problems and find solutions quicker than ever before.

SCS:  It's not just spreadsheets and comps anymore, is it?

SB:   No, it's not. Automation is equally as important as real-time data because it's all about time and time management. Conditions change so rapidly in our business. What you see today might be completely different tomorrow. Automation and data and how you bridge the two is always something we explore day in and day out. 

SCS:  You have such a unique background. What are your skills and superpowers that have helped you get to where you are now? What advice do you have for students or younger professionals that want to want to progress in supply chain and procurement food service?

SB:  First, the experiences that I've had working in restaurants have helped me tremendously in every aspect of my career, from cross-functional relationships to project management and problem-solving skills. I highly recommend taking the time at some point in your career to work in a restaurant. The skills you acquire will be invaluable.

One skill that has impacted me the most in my career is understanding how to navigate project work and leverage project management's fundamentals to problem solve. Also, get comfortable with data! Data is a driver and an important tool for any person in the supply chain.

SCS:  Anything else you'd like to add?

SB:  I think it's a magnificent time to be a part of this industry, and the future is exciting. 2020 was tough for all of us, but we are resilient, and I believe that with all of our learning from the past twelve months, we will come out on the other side of this stronger than before.

Author: Supply Chain Scene