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Female Disruptors: Kim McBee and Carron Harris of Papa Murphy’s On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Another piece of advice that’s influenced my journey is “It’s the little things that make us big.” Mike Snyder was the CEO and president of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers when I worked for a franchisee and then subsequently at the corporate office. He constantly said that it was us along with a collection of the little things — caring for one another, caring for our guests, going the extra mile without looking for recognition, etc. — that built the Red Robin culture. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, digging in and being part of a team that crosses all levels of the organization. I’m all about removing titles and barriers in the organization. We have goals and objectives — developing a high performing team to get the job done is where I feel my teams thrive. I have taken those things forward in how I approach my career’s work, the team and the culture to make a fun, collaborative and motivating environment.

As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim McBee and Carron Harris, Papa Murphy’s.

Kim McBee: With a marketing career spanning more than 30 years, McBee joined Papa Murphy’s in October of 2019. She has been a senior executive working across all disciplines of marketing and communications in corporate, agency and franchisee organizations. Her extensive experience in creating impactful, integrated and effective marketing programs have help develop and position major restaurant, retail and consumer brands. Her results-based performance stems from leveraging high-performing teams to grow sales and profits for brands such as Applebee’s Restaurants, Red Robin Restaurants and Big O Tires, just to name a few. McBee received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Public Relations from The Ohio State University.

Carron Harris: As the Senior Director of Culinary, Harris oversees Papa Murphy’s product development team responsible for new product ideation, creation, testing and implementation, as well as ensuring product quality and consistency with the vendor partners. She also leads product creation and implementation for our international partners in Canada and the Middle East.

Prior to her position at Papa Murphy’s, Harris was Vice President of Food & Beverage for Buca di Beppo and was responsible for overseeing food and beverage menu strategy, development and execution. The 39-year restaurant and foodservice veteran joined Buca di Beppo in 1995 and went on to become Divisional Vice President of Operations overseeing the daily operations of six markets the Midwest and Southeast before returning to focus on food creation.

Harris was recognized by Restaurants and Institutions magazine as a chef to watch in 2006. She has also been featured in Nation’s Restaurant News and is a member of the International Corporate Chefs Association.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Carron: I went to college to get a computer science degree and ended up working in the food service to earn some money. I loved it so much that, while I went on to get my degree, I’ve never programmed a computer in my life. One night while working at my food service job, I was assigned to make the chili and ended up making a few seasoning adjustments on my own. The woman who was in charge came back and asked what I did to it, so I panicked and stammered, “Nothing!” When she asked again, I fessed up to what I’d done. Then she asked me to write it down because the kids were coming back for seconds and that didn’t usually happen. It was at that point that I realized I had a knack for food, and I’ve been a full-fledged practitioner of food experimentation ever since!

Kim: Meanwhile, I started my career working for a public relations agency in New York City — “small town Ohio girl moves to the Big Apple for first job!” I had no intention to move to New York, not even a thought, but a friend I met at Ohio State University was working for that same agency at the time and said that if I came to visit the city for spring break, he would set me up with some colleagues for practice interviews. So I did it. I interviewed one day and they asked me to come back the next day to interview with some more folks. I panicked because I had only brought one professional outfit and needed to borrow clothes from my friend’s girlfriend! After the second interview, I thanked everyone for the incredible experience and spent the rest of the week enjoying New York. I went back to start my spring quarter of classes the next week and they called and offered me a job for when I graduated in June. I ended up packing up three days after graduation and made the move!

In the agency world, one thing leads to another and after working at two agencies, a client hired me to do marketing for their Applebee’s franchise, which launched decades of working with brands on both the franchisee and franchisor sides of the fence.

Carron: So, both of our backstories contain turning points built on a moment of panic!

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Kim: As the leader in Take ’n’ Bake on a mission to “Change the Way You Pizza,” Papa Murphy’s model is an innovation designed to create unconventional moments. This past summer, we collaborated with Frito-Lay on the first-of-its-kind Fritos Outlaw Pizza — an unexpected (but welcome) clash of Fritos corn chips, Texas-style brisket and sweet BBQ sauce that customers were encouraged to cook on the grill. We were uniquely positioned to include Fritos as an ingredient because of our Take ’n’ Bake model. Our approach allowed us to guarantee that the chip maintains its iconic flavor, texture and integrity — something no one else has been able to do.

Carron: Interestingly enough, Frito-Lay wasn’t even involved in the project at the beginning. It all started in Papa Murphy’s kitchen with me and the rest of our culinary research team. We constantly drive for unconventional flavor and texture mash-ups that encourage curiosity and adventure. We approach the kitchen as innovators, constantly seeking unexpected ingredient combinations that make you ask “What?” before you try it and say “Whoa!” after that first bite. The team locked in the concept through product-forward, data-driven innovation, and plenty of trial and error. Only then did we bring the idea to Frito-Lay — and they were blown away. Since no one else has ever nailed it like this, they championed it as our partner and are already asking “What’s next?”

Kim: Without the research and the data mining we did, we might not have tried to push the envelope quite as much. We’ve found that trusting the numbers as much as our gut gives us a different lens on our audience and what they’re looking for. Thanks to the research team’s dedication and ingenuity, the Fritos Outlaw Pizza was a top selling product since its June launch throughout the month of August, ranking in the top 10 every week.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Carron: The funniest “mistake” was probably the chili seasoning incident I mentioned before — I learned that it’s okay to take a chance and trust your instincts. It doesn’t always turn out okay, but at the end of the day it’s food. As long as we don’t make people sick, sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut.

Kim: During my first job at the public relations agency in New York, I worked on an account where one of our initiatives was to work with nutritionists and chefs on developing new recipes. We were launching a cookbook and were preparing to send our media kit and the book to food writers across the country. As the entry level agency representative, I was tasked with creating all the pitch materials, as well as printing and assembling the media kits we were mailing. I stayed late into the night stuffing and sealing the packages to hundreds of media contacts. After working for hours in the conference room to put everything together, I wheeled the cart of packages toward the mailroom only to pass by my cubicle to see the boxes of cookbooks stacked there…I never put them in the kits! Luckily I didn’t actually mail them without the cookbook (how horrifying!), I just had to open and reassemble the kits until the wee hours of the night.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Carron: I had a couple of early mentors in grade and high school in my basketball and softball coaches. In particular, my fifth grade gym teacher was also the basketball coach. Title IX had just passed a year before he added two of us to the boys team (we didn’t have a girls team then). The boys didn’t like it much, but Mr. Gornick kept standing behind us and not only created a community of acceptance for us, but some darn good fun. His lessons continue to shape my thinking about people, acceptance and doing the right thing, even when it is hard.

My grandma was also a mentor to me — she was always willing to try something, even if it challenged her or pushed her comfort zone. We went on a trip to St. Louis and in an effort to do everything, wanted to go to the top of the Gateway Arch. She was afraid of heights, but said, “I have to go, I’m here and there’s nothing else like it.” She taught me to savor life and not miss a moment even if I’m afraid.

Kim: One of my mentors was my college public relations professor and PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) advisor, Llyle Barke. He was an incredible human being with a great career as a general in the Army and was an advisor to former presidents, politicians and corporate executives in communications and public relations. He encouraged us to get involved in PRSSA, internships and community service. I was apprehensive at first, but dove right in after attending a PRSSA meeting my freshman year — I ran for PRSSA board positions, did internships and we also started our own student-run agency that made money doing work for clients. All of this experience gave me a resume that helped launch my career immediately after graduating. Llyle’s calm demeanor and life lessons were paramount in developing my confidence and tenacity to just “do things,” all of which culminates in my personal mantra: every experience is a learning experience.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Kim: As a 40-year old brand, while we certainly have “withstood the test of time,” it’s due to the fact that we are consistently innovating and disrupting our own brand to meet consumers where they’re at. The people who grew up with us are Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers and empty nesters, but we ask ourselves every day how we can be relevant to the next generation of families — Millennials with kids and soon enough Gen Z as well — because they will sustain our brand and inform how it develops for the next 40 years.

Carron: Kids in the past couple of decades have grown up with a much more of a global perspective thanks to things like the Internet, Netflix and all of the food shows and blogs out there. We strive to understand what those kids and families have grown up with and how our brand can change with them. That can also mean making sure we’re taking a forward-looking approach when it comes to consumers’ dietary needs and preferences, whether that means gluten free, vegan or otherwise. We’ve had gluten-free crust for years in the store, and our regular fresh-made dough is vegan. We even have a Keto-friendly crustless pizza. However, disrupting isn’t always good, especially when it isn’t profitable no matter which way you try to bring it to life. At the end of the day, it is about ensuring our franchisees have all of the resources they need to grow, which in turn helps our brand grow.

Kim: Disruption and innovation are a balance. We ask ourselves how we can use ingredients and flavors to make sure that we’re not alienating our current customer while still providing something new and interesting for folks to say “Oh, wow, you know, Papa Murphy’s is really doing something interesting.” There is a lot of thought and research that goes into the development of new menu items, so when we try to disrupt the market with a new offering, we usually feel pretty good about it. We also loop our vendors and franchise owners into those conversations early on given that they’re the ones on the ground driving the business and connecting with our customers on a daily basis. And there is a fine balance to also ensure you are not only providing new and innovative products, but also preserving the heritage of your core items as well as your core values that put you on the map. Providing the highest quality of ingredients, prepared fresh daily, customized to your liking is the soul of our brand.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Carron: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” I can hear my Mom in my head asking if it will matter in one month, or one year? If not, then don’t stew on your mistake or decision — save that for the really big stuff. When I was chosen as the senior captain for my college softball team, I worried about whether I would be the right role model or lead well enough. I remember a long conversation where Mom talked me off the ledge and told me to just make a decision or do the right thing in my mind and heart. Even if my decision wasn’t the correct thing the coach wanted to learn, whatever it was wouldn’t likely be relevant over time. She told me to relax and enjoy the moment, and not to let life’s moments be filled with worry. My grandma also told me to always “be kind” because you never know what the other person’s day was like.

Kim: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received is “You may find the thing you fear the most is something you are the best at.” Public Relations degrees were part of the Journalism curriculum at Ohio State, but I had no desire to get a journalism degree. I panicked thinking about all of the courses, writing for the newspaper, etc. My first journalism class was a trainwreck and I did not do well on my first writing assignment. Then, I talked to the instructor. She was a gem and helped me reframe my thoughts about writing. I ended up with an A in that class, and for the next four years I embraced working at the school newspaper, writing stories, headlines and captions for photos, etc. The newspaper had a circulation of 44,000 due to the size of the campus. The professor that was the advisor for the paper told me I was the best headline and caption writer he had in many years. I laughed thinking how petrified I was at the start.

Another piece of advice that’s influenced my journey is “It’s the little things that make us big.” Mike Snyder was the CEO and president of Red Robin Gourmet Burgers when I worked for a franchisee and then subsequently at the corporate office. He constantly said that it was us along with a collection of the little things — caring for one another, caring for our guests, going the extra mile without looking for recognition, etc. — that built the Red Robin culture. It’s about rolling up your sleeves, digging in and being part of a team that crosses all levels of the organization. I’m all about removing titles and barriers in the organization. We have goals and objectives — developing a high performing team to get the job done is where I feel my teams thrive. I have taken those things forward in how I approach my career’s work, the team and the culture to make a fun, collaborative and motivating environment.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Kim: Papa Murphy’s introduces new products several times a year, aimed at attracting new customers and reminding current ones that we have something new. There is always a great amount of research and development that goes behind the products we introduce, which is one of our biggest differentiators.

We want to be innovative and we want to continue to drive our relevancy with the consumers because they are ever changing — you have to look at what they want to eat. We have to understand what kids and families have grown up with and how our brand can change with them. For example, we’re currently testing plant-based proteins and dairy-free cheeses in the market which are both currently resonating with consumers.

Carron: Yes, and we’re also trying to get a bit more adventurous with the flavors we use. Right now we’re testing a pizza that integrates international spices in a way we never previously imagined for pizza. It came about as a result of conversations with our vendors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. We did 12 different virtual vendor ideations last year, asking them to bring ideas to the table that aligned with specific parameters we provided around what we’re trying to develop. This seasoning blend came out of one of those discussions. Not only was there a sales person there, but they brought in their corporate chef or their marketing data analyst if they had one and really said, “This is why we think this flavor is important to you.” When we screened the idea with our consumers, it was a top performer, so we said “Alright, let’s give it a whirl and a market test and see what happens.”

Kim: We’re also exploring what more we can do from a grab-and-go perspective for lunch time. We currently have a three-year road map for innovation, testing things today that will be in store next year and the following year. We have really revved up the rigor to make sure that we’re constantly introducing something.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Carron: Men have historically been seen as risk takers and therefore it has become more acceptable to disrupt — win or fail. It feels like women have to fail less to be seen as winners more often than men. This also puts women in a place where we think we need to be more sure of the outcome to take the risk. For example, men may take the risk with 50% surety because usually, it’s okay if they fail. With women, it often seems we take the risk with a much higher rate of success.

Kim: The very framing of the broader conversation — “women disruptors” vs. simply “disruptors” — is what I would someday love to see removed from our story-telling as a whole. We should all be able to just do the work, tell the story and be the change without having to call out those accomplishments as being specifically male or female driven. To me, that is the higher order challenge, though it’s of course important to continue to celebrate those milestones given where the world is currently at in the gender equality journey. Papa Murphy’s own leadership team is comprised of four females and one male.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Kim: I personally love documentaries, whether they’re on historical figures, pop culture, musicians, sports figures, etc. I love to hear people’s backstory and how and what they went through in life. It is truly fascinating and provides insight and perspective on different cultures, opportunities, challenges, injustices, etc. that shaped our world. People’s stories are amazing!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Carron: Start with kindness and use that as a foundation for bridging our nation’s current political divide. Doing that gives us a better chance at making the world a better place for everyone.

Kim: Continue to celebrate and tell stories of great perseverance, accomplishment, kindness and world changers by focusing on the how and why. While I understand the disparity in equal pay, opportunities, etc., I’d love a day when we don’t have to call out things like the first female president of “X Company.” They are the president of the company. Yes, it needs to be celebrated because there has been so much injustice and inequality throughout history, but I look forward to the day where we don’t necessarily have to celebrate those things anymore because we’ve done the work to shift toward a clearer picture of equality.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Carron: “Don’t sweat the small stuff” has translated in my 50’s to “it will be fine!” People say I’m so calm under pressure, I guess I learned that from a young age.

Kim: “Dig deep and finish strong.” This can be with anything in your life, and strong doesn’t have to mean “mighty” and aggressive — it’s what it means to you. When there are multiple priorities professionally and personally, balance and perspective are paramount in navigating your day. I not only remind myself to dig deep and finish each day strong, I share it with my family and my team so they know. Nothing we do is more important than taking care of yourself and your family first. Enjoy what you do, life is meant to be lived!

How can our readers follow you online?

Carron: Via my Instagram — @chefcar.

Kim: Via my LinkedIn, which can be found here.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis

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Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.