When Michelle Bythewood ’89 arrived on campus for her freshman year, she was a bit shy. But before she graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration, she had gained the confidence and determination to take smart risks and conquer some “firsts” in restaurant marketing that would benefit her future employers.
Thirty years later, she’s president of Salata, a custom salad bar company founded in Bythewood’s hometown of Houston in 2005. It now has more than 90 nationwide locations. She also was recognized as one of Houston’s Top 30 Most Influential Women of 2019.
Bythewood is celebrating another important “30” this year — her 30 years of marriage to Richard Bythewood ’89, whom she met at SFA.
Preparation in the Pineywoods
As a high school senior touring Texas colleges, Bythewood discovered that, “SFA was the perfect choice for me.”
The campus wasn’t too big, Nacogdoches was the right distance from Houston for weekend trips back home, and “the pineywoods were beautiful.”
Several “excellent endorsements” of the Rusche College of Business at SFA sealed her decision, and Bythewood began working toward her successful marketing career. But first, she had a few skills to develop.
During her sophomore year, she joined the Delta Zeta sorority. “Going through rush gave me the confidence to interact with people from different walks of life,” she said.
Serving as treasurer of her pledge class and a Sigma Chi Little Sigma also chipped away at her shyness, but being elected Delta Zeta’s social director challenged her at an even greater level. “When I was nominated, I thought there was no way I could lead an entire chapter in events, but that anxiety was short-lived, and I had a blast stepping up to the role.”
Bythewood’s new-found confidence was tested in her first public speaking class at SFA when she had to deliver a humorous speech. “I could hardly give the speech, much less one that was funny,” she said. But, to her surprise, she made her classmates laugh.
“I was so proud that I actually survived,” Bythewood said. “Gaining confidence in front of a group and knowing how to command a room is extremely valuable. Almost every job requires it at some point, and it just makes you a better communicator.”
Bythewood also said the real-world applications in her business policy class helped prepare her for her career. “We had to create numerous case studies on business problem-solving in a team setting and present our strategies to the class.”
But her business law course gave her the biggest positive lesson in risk taking. After meeting a guy named Rich on the first day of class in 1987, Bythewood asked him to dance at a local club called Studio 224. Nearly two years of dating later, he proposed to Bythewood on her graduation day in front of the McGee Business Building with an engagement ring he purchased from a local retailer. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in February.
“Rich is absolutely my biggest fan,” Bythewood said. “He’s the first one to pump me up when I need the encouragement. He’s also the first one to keep me grounded if I’m getting in my own way. I am blessed with a loving and supportive husband, and I’m thankful that SFA brought us together.”
Funny name. Serious career step.
When she graduated, Bythewood was determined to get a “true marketing job” instead of a sales job.
“I was passionate about brand marketing and finding a company in a high-growth mode where I could be involved in the life cycle of a product or brand strategy,” she said.
An employment ad in the Houston Chronicle for a local field marketing manager position led her to Schlotzsky’s and her first “first.”
“I was the first and only field marketing person in the company, so if I didn’t drive sales and one of my 12 company-owned restaurants failed, it would be my fault,” Bythewood said.
Despite this pressure (or because of it), she got hooked on the restaurant industry. “It’s dynamic and challenging, and there’s never a dull moment,” Bythewood said.
Remember that clever Schlotzsky’s slogan, “We start baking our bunz before you even put your pants on”? Bythewood helped with that and several other slogans during her 22 years of marketing for the restaurant. Promoting a Texas brand with a cult following taught her self-discipline and drive even when working from a home office. It also taught her how to further appreciate and respect others.
“When you work with franchisees, you get a chance to work with passionate individuals and families that have poured their life savings into owning their own business,” Bythewood said. “Their success is your success, and sharing it is quite rewarding. I’m still great friends with many of my Schlotzsky’s family members.”
Her dedication was beneficial in 2004 when Schlotzsky’s filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, which led to new management. The marketing department of 13 people was cut to just Bythewood and an administrative assistant. She was told her job was safe because of the relationships she had developed in the field with Schlotzsky’s franchisees.
“All the hours I spent on the road helping people grow their businesses paid off,” she said. “I was then tasked to take on basically every role in the department overnight.” Bythewood served as vice president, brand manager and field manager.
“While it was a tough time, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything,” she said. “Being thrown into a situation like that makes you take charge and get things done.”
It also led to some nonmarketing opportunities outside Bythewood’s comfort zone that helped her grow. She was asked to manage Schlotzsky’s re-image program for 450 restaurants, which required her to serve as a general contractor for two years. She hired a brand design and development team to completely overhaul the company’s logo and all Schlotzsky’s interior and exterior design elements and materials, while being careful to avoid compromising the roots of a 40-year-old brand.
This effort worked. System sales increased by double digits because of the remodeled locations.
The Making of a Corporate President
After two decades at Schlotzsky’s and three years in marketing leadership at Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, Bythewood served as vice president of brand at CiCis Pizza. Then she decided to start her own business, Field Marketing Focus.
“I felt a great need to help multiple brands grow,” she said.
Once she conquered the logistics of starting a business, she began building connections and proactively seeking opportunities.
“I was very fortunate that I never really had to cold call,” Bythewood said. “I started doing small projects for a few brands, and the next door opened through another connection.”
The next door belonged to Salata. At Field Marketing Focus, Bythewood consulted with Salata’s marketing department, worked on the brand, and conducted research and field work. After a year of consulting, she encountered another “first” — she was asked to join the company as its first full-time chief marketing officer.
“This was a big deal for the brand,” she said.“Salata had never hired a chief-level employee before I came on board.”
As Salata’s first CMO, Bythewood helped take its local success story to the national level. She also set a goal for herself to become president of the company. She accomplished that goal in only 18 months.
“I’m in my role today because when my boss asked me at my annual review what I wanted to do next, I said, ‘Run the company.’ Six months later, I took on the role of president, and I just celebrated my first anniversary in the position.”
With help from her Salata family, Bythewood has made big changes at the company, including overhauling its entire technology package.
“I’ve surrounded myself with a dynamic team that shares my passion to help me accomplish this,” Bythewood said. “I couldn’t do it without their commitment and support, and the support of the founders who trust me to evolve their original vision.”
A Mentor to Marketers
Bythewood is excited about SFA’s restaurant business ventures: the Culinary Café and Lumberjack Express mobile food lab. Lumberjack Express marked its first year of service on the SFA campus in February.
“The food lab and Culinary Café are both excellent ideas to provide creative outlets for students,” she said.
When she’s not running Salata, Bythewood enjoys mentoring marketers in the restaurant business. She offered some advice for the hospitality administration and food, nutrition and dietetics students who are learning the restaurant business through their work on Lumberjack Express.
“The food truck is a mobile billboard, so obviously the vehicle alone is valuable,” she said. “People want to identify with a brand, so finding a way to do something unique that makes a difference in your community and gets the word out is key.”
Taking the Lumberjack Express to an office building and offering to cater lunch for a donation or putting a dollar of every meal sold toward a scholarship for students in need can generate word-of-mouth marketing, Bythewood said.
She’s also considering offering the Lumberjack Express some healthy competition. “A Salata location in the student center would be a great choice for college students to eat healthy. I’ll work on that!”