Business Q & A

Five questions with David Rolph, president and CEO of Sasnak Management

David Rolph is the president and CEO of Sasnak Management, which through its restaurant and other holdings employs more than 4,500 people in Wichita and nearly a dozen states.

The company is one of several local companies that will be recognized Tuesday at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce's Honors Night.

Sasnak, which is Kansas spelled backwards, is receiving the Chamber's Over the Years Award. The award is given to a company the chamber says has a long record of being a good corporate citizen and a major contributor to the area's economic well-being.

Sasnak is perhaps best known as the company that owns the Carlos O'Kelly's Mexican Cafe food chain.

Rolph, 61, said the first Carlos O'Kelly's restaurant opened in 1981 in Iowa, in a restaurant that was previously an Applegate's Landing, a former Italian restaurant concept developed by Pizza Hut. Rolph and his brother, Darrel, started out as Pizza Hut franchisees and formed Sasnak in 1975.

Wichita was the fifth location for the Carlos chain, which now has 47 restaurants in 10 states.

What is the key to keeping Sasnak as a continuing and growing concern?

"Our people. I know it's cliche to say people are our most important asset, but it is indisputably true of Sasnak. We are a management company. People managing people who are managing processes. Tapping into the talents and capacities of our key people is our chief obsession and the key to whether we can scale ourselves up or down to take advantage of opportunities as they appear."

What do you do to anticipate changes in the market, such as diners' tastes in foods, revamping your concepts?

"In the restaurant business you either lead or lag the economic forces that bear on your relationships with your customers. Whether it's demographic waves or social fads. You must skate to where the puck is going to be."

What is Sasnak's greatest challenge today?

"I tell our people that we are like a sailing ship crossing an ocean. We can't change the weather; all we can do is trim our sails to master the conditions we encounter. Our industry and the economy in general have been traveling through some rough seas. We are now working to position our company for best advantage when the economy comes back around."

And how is the company addressing that challenge?

"You have to know the business you are in — inside and out. You can't spend all your time looking at what your competitors are doing. You have to look at what your customers are doing. We make small deliberate and intentional changes and watch how our customers react."

What was the genesis for Sasnak?

"Sasnak does more than manage Carlos O'Kelly's and Applebee's restaurants. We manage real estate, cattle ranches, a fishing lodge, oil and gas investments, and a number of other types of financial investments. Sasnak was born out of the need to actively manage our investments and the income they generate, and it has grown because we kept putting a good percentage of that income back into the investments. We have had to build the capacity in advance of the need for it. Not at all easy to do."