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Last week the Baker Program was honored to have entrepreneur, philanthropist and restaurateur, Dennis Kessler, on campus to meet with students in the Distinguished Speaker Series.
Dennis co-founded Kessler Restaurants LLC in 1975 with his brother and is a passionate philanthropist and business leader the greater Rochester community. Over the last 30 years, Kessler Restaurants grew to own and operate nearly 70 Friendly’s and Burger King restaurants in the Upstate New York area. Kessler Restaurants was the largest franchisee in the Friendly’s Restaurant chain, owning 48 restaurants in addition to 21 Burger King Restaurants. In total, Kessler Restaurants employed 3,000 employees in the Rochester area. In 2015, Dennis and his brother partitioned the real estate interests from the restaurant operating company and sold off the restaurant franchise portfolio to an investment group.
Today, Dennis is focused on managing his real estate portfolio and is a Professor of Entrepreneurship in the Simon Business School at the University of Rochester. He serves on the Board of Directors of Excellus BlueCross BlueShield and is President of the Rochester Police Foundation.
Dennis inspired the Baker students by talking about his early days as an entrepreneur in the franchising business. Starting off with limited financial support from a family member and no real operating experience, Dennis and his brother built their company with hard work, creativity and by treating customers as if they were family.
In one anecdote, he spoke about how he first learned of the opportunity to join the restaurant business. The idea to start a franchising company came from Dennis’ older brother Laurence. In his first year at Yale Law School, Dennis received a call from Laurence Kessler, about starting a Burger King franchise, and as an astute future businessman, his first question was, “What’s a Burger King?”
During the presentation Dennis pointed out how it wasn’t just his background in law that gave him an edge but it was his passion for serving the community and his work ethic that made the difference early in his career. He urged students to be relentless in pursuit of success but stressed the importance of the community and customer relationships.
Essentially, the community of Rochester controlled the success or failure of many restaurants. Building brand loyalty with an up and coming restaurant new to the area was paramount so treating each customer as if they were family and maintaining high standards of care and quality were primary goals. The sense of loyalty and family even extended beyond customers to how Dennis treated his employees. He told the students of a recent visit he had at a former franchise location and how he still has personal relationships with former employees in those restaurants.
Beyond the public citizens of Rochester, another relationship proved to be extremely impactful to the success of the organization. Aspects of Zoning, permitting, traffic corridors and inspections all impacted the ability for Kessler Restaurants to operate and scale their business. In one instance, Dennis talked about giving discounts to police officers. Not only did he feel like he was serving the very people that ensure safety for the citizens of Rochester but having their presence at his franchise locations deterred unwanted criminal or suspicious activity. Understanding the political relationships within the area that he was operating in and becoming an asset to the community positively impacted his ability to grow along with his reputation. Being able to call the local officials in charge of zoning or meet personally with a city leader looking to help grow a part of the local economy only happened after he gained trust and a reputation for caring about the people in the broader Rochester community.
This reputation continues today in Rochester, as Dennis is now the namesake for the Kessler Burn & Trauma Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The center treats over 3,000 people every year with severe injuries and serves as a testament to Dennis Kessler’s philosophy of what’s important, serving others.
The students and faculty of the Baker Program in Real Estate thank Dennis for coming to Cornell and sharing his wisdom with us.