‘Innovation Is a Cultural Imperative’

This month’s ‘The Big Question’ features Blackie Wills, COO of the Wills Group.

April 17, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In this month’s NACS Magazine column “The Big Question,” we spoke with Julian B. (Blackie) Wills III, president and COO of the Wills Group, the parent company of Dash In.

Sprockets-Logo-220.jpgWhat does innovation mean for Dash In and the Wills Group?

Innovation is a cultural imperative for the Wills Group and Dash In. It’s one of our pillars. Innovation is not just the responsibility of the senior leadership team or a specific functional area. It’s an objective for the entire organization, and we ask all of our employees to think about innovation as part of their day-to-day jobs.

Oftentimes people think innovation is looking for the next million- or billion-dollar idea. I’ve told our team, don’t get caught up in that, just focus on continuous improvement. What can you do daily that can be innovative, that can help propel the company forward?

Wills Group has seven core values, and one of our values is courage. We define courage as saying we trust that our employees are going to take intelligent risks, rewarding them for positive results and not penalizing them for negative outcomes. We recognize not everything is going to work out, but if we’re not pushing ourselves to do something different and to take some risks, then we’re never going to move forward.

We built a new store in Richmond, Virginia, in 2018, and it was one of our first neighborhood store concepts. Richmond is a big craft beer market, and so, we said, ‘Why don’t we sell craft beer and partner with local breweries?’ We developed a growler and crowler program. Fast forward five years later, and we’ve kept it, but we haven’t taken it further. This test showed us there’s not enough consumer demand to take this across all of our Virginia stores. I’m the first to raise my hand and say, ‘Hey, that was my idea, it didn’t work out as planned,’ and we move on.

I think that helps from an authenticity perspective, just to let the rest of the organization know that if we don’t push ourselves, we’re not really pursuing innovation, and along the way, we’re going to make some mistakes. But as long as we mitigate the impact of those mistakes, then things are good.

Next on the horizon for us is our new Dash In concept in Chantilly, Virginia. It is very much an elevated offering, elevated in terms of the design and architecture and the environment of the store, along with the food and beverage program.

We’re making a big step forward with this concept. We’re going to be bringing in raw proteins and making craft burgers in-house. We’re going to have plant-based options, which is pushing the envelope for the convenience channel. We’ve got an Impossible Burger and a plant-based sausage product for breakfast sandwiches.

This new store concept is going to be the North Star for the Dash In brand. It’s also the launch of our new visual identity for Dash In and Splash In—new logos, new design aesthetic. It looks completely different from what we’ve done up until now.

Our team is really excited about this Chantilly store and the 16 ones coming behind it. Over time, we’ll rebrand all of our locations and bring in the new menu. We want to test and learn some things first in these new concepts.

Innovation is a cultural imperative, and among the things we’re doing internally is to invest in examining our diversity, equity and inclusion commitment. We’ve done a lot of internal surveys and interviews with employees to think about, ‘What are the things that we need to do to move the organization forward?’

Innovation has to be a part of everything we do, and not just from a technology perspective or from a product development perspective. It’s really an integral part of the culture here at the Wills Group.

Read more from this issue at NACSMagazine.com.