The Bullhearted Brain Leading the Charge for Smart Restaurant Evolution—Joseph Szala, Founder, Vigor Branding

Do you remember the story about Ferdinand the Bull? Or how about Babe the Blue Ox, the companion of Paul Bunyan? These characters have made for great stories, but have you ever thought about how they can teach you lessons for your business? If you’re like me, you probably have not, but our guest today, Joseph Szala shares with us his concept that he calls The Bullhearted Brain and how it can help you lead your business better. 

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Joseph Szala is the Managing director of Vigor, a restaurant branding and marketing agency. Founder and critic at Grits and Grids. Host of the Forktales podcast, and author of The Bullhearted Brand: Building Bullish Restaurant Brands That Charge Ahead of the Herd.


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Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:00):

You’ve worked hard to build your business and now it’s time to grow. Welcome to the Multiply Your Success Podcast. I’m your host, Tom DuFore CEO of Big Sky Franchise Team and a serial entrepreneur. And the purpose of our podcast is to give you a weekly dose of inspiration and education to help you multiply your success. And as we open today, I’m wondering if you remember the story about Ferdinand the Bull or how about that story of Babe the Blue Ox, the companion of Paul Bunyan. And these characters have made for great stories over the years.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (00:32):

But if you ever thought about how they can teach you lessons for your business? And if you’re like me, you probably haven’t. But our guest today, Joseph Szala shares with us his concept that he calls the Bullhearted Brain and how it can help you lead your business better. So let’s go ahead and jump into my interview with Joseph Szala.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (00:53):

My name is Joseph Szala. I’m the Managing Director of Vigor, a restaurant branding and marketing agency based in Atlanta with locations in Philly, New York, Harrisburg and Chicago.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (01:05):

Maybe as just an entry point to you, I’d love to get a little background in how you get into this whole business you’re involved with.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (01:14):

Yeah, it’s it started by realizing that I should practice what I preach. And what I mean by that is early on in starting Vigor, we were general practitioners branding, web digital strategy, stuff like that for any company out there. We were working with everything from pharmaceutical companies to manufacturers and of course, a couple of restaurants. And we were saying things to clients, we were advising clients, but I realized that we weren’t really doing it. And that’s seems to be something in the advertising and creative world that I see a lot of.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (01:47):

So when we really took ourselves through our own process, where we landed was there is a love for the restaurant industry in all of its madness, in all of its wonder. And I think that they’re relatively underserved by many, many, many agencies out there. Not that they can’t design pretty things, but it lacks the meat and the soul that I think is required to create restaurant brands that charge ahead of the herd as we say. Yeah, so we started there. We really niched into restaurants. Some of the more objective reasons too, was this industry isn’t like another industry. And so what do you find in the agency world? Kind of a blanket statement, but in the creative agency whether it’s branding, design, advertising so on and so forth is when they’re general practitioners, the first order of business is to immerse in that industry as well as the client.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (02:40):

And so while you may be able to do that with industries like say CNC machining manufacturers. You’re not going to be able to get a full, deep understanding of the nuances and details of this industry in a month or two for that matter. It’s just way more nuanced, way more detailed, way more intricate and complicated. The buying behaviors are faster than any industry out there. You’re vying for a share of mouth every minute of every day. And it’s just you can’t do it. And so you probably say that if you’re the leader of a brand large or small. When you hire an agency that doesn’t have deep insights and deep experience in restaurants, when they come back to you with research, what they normally say is, “Oh, parents have a hectic lifestyle and they choose to eat to save time.”

Joseph Szala, , Vigor Branding (03:37):

And it’s like, “Yeah, wow, you really nailed that.” Instead, we already know that stuff. It’s not that we rest on our laurels, but we at least know the basics of what P&L looks like for a restaurant, what makes them tick and why people choose one restaurant over another when they have arguably very similar food offerings. So for all those reasons, we really niched Vigor in solely restaurants with a little bit of sprinkling of other companies that want to talk to restaurants better. But I would say that’s 5% of our business.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (04:16):

Wow, what a way to focus in and go deep with your client base. And I’m sure, I know from our previous conversations that your clients get this great value of you not only being a branding expert, but really understanding the restaurant business. I guess, talk a little bit about that and the value that, that you have found by kind of being this very niche provider and being focused on this specific customer base and how that’s even helped your own business and provide better service.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (04:51):

You only have so much marketing money or at least we do. Maybe you’re sitting on a goldmine. I don’t know. But for us, when you’re talking about being everything to everyone, or at least a large amount of services to everyone, marketing becomes a really tricky ask. When you write an article for thought leadership, where does it go? When you’re looking to foster expertise, where do you start? And these questions are really hard to answer when you’re a general practitioner. So for us, the niche was a means to smarter marketing and messaging.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (05:28):

So now when we knew that we wanted to focus on restaurants, when we write an article that’s thought leadership-based, we know it’s going to go in QSR magazine, FSR, fast casual restaurant business, and all the ones that all familiar with rather than everywhere, anywhere. So the sell becomes easier. The pitch becomes easier. The topic becomes easier and less generic which results in for the people that will read it a much more useful source of information and expertise. So for us, it made a ton of sense. For the client, what they see is one very pointed expertise not just in branding and marketing theory and activation, but how that applies to the restaurant world and what that for results.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (06:19):

I think naive leaders in the creative field that work with restaurants will tell you things that like a redesigned logo is somehow going to change the world and it’s not. A logo’s important of course, but it’s not going to create some major lift in sales without the marketing messaging and media buy and plan behind it. It’s actually get the look out there. And so I think by understanding the full gamut of what marketing communications means from branding the whole way through, as well as what real branding means and how it gets activated throughout the organization has very measurable, positive effects for the brands in which we are honored to work with.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (07:02):

So case in point or just more clarity, when we talk about brand we’re talking about company strategy not just pretty pictures and marketing and advertising. Brand strategy is company strategy. And when it is approached that way, when it’s adopted that way by the top-down leadership, what you start to see is extremely strong brands that are impenetrable by competition. You start to see them fire on all cylinders and you get essentially what some may call the Chipotle effect where Chipotle was the golden child of the industry for a very long time.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (07:39):

What was the magic? You talk to an operations person, they would say, “Oh, it’s that line. It’s that process of beginning to end,” but that’s not true. We’ve seen many, many, many different types of cuisine that tried to do the same thing and failed. So what is it? It is this fully baked brand as a business strategy adopted and proliferated throughout the organization from ops to finance, to HR, well, maybe not from Chipotle, they have their issues there. To franchising, to finding franchisees which as you know is a huge ask. Folks who get into this part of game thinking that anyone with a checkbook is a potential franchisee is going down a very dangerous path. And you can speak to that probably a lot more than I could.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (08:32):

Sure. Yeah, and your spot on. Yeah, we want to make sure as with any brand. Whether you’re bringing in a new hire or a new franchisee, you want to make sure that this person or the people involved they’re representing your company, they’re representing your brand. And that’s a great segue here to be talking about The Bullhearted Brand. And that’s the name of your new book that you have out, and I’d love for you to talk about it. I think you’ve given a little background here, but I’d love for you to talk about the book. What led you to writing the book and some of the key takeaways out of it?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (09:12):

Yeah. So I think the impetus behind the book is really anyone’s book. I end up answering a lot of questions, whether it’s in the business development process, the ongoing consulting with current clients, and then just general open discussions with industry leaders that I’m in contact with. There ends up being a lot of discussion and a lot of misinformation flying around. And so I think the spark that really lit the fire was that combined with we can’t always help people because they don’t always have the capital to invest in the brand. And that breaks my heart. I really want to be able to help everyone from the mom and pop who is struggling or maybe has a dream to open a restaurant, to the Fortune 100 brands out there in the restaurant sector. We want to be effective for all of them.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (10:02):

So the book ticks that box for me, it’s like, “Hey, if you can’t afford us at least read this. It’s going to point you in some really strong directions.” But two, also getting that brain trust into the world where people if they read the book I think they’ll find inspiration and at least lessons that they can adopt immediately. So Bullhearted to me is kind of a thumbing the nose at the idea of being bullheaded, bullheaded being very bad, being stubborn and not listening to inside or outside. But I say bullhearted is the way to be because bulls have lot of not allegory, but a lot of metaphors tie to the human condition. Everything from being clever and changing as the reality changes, to being passionate as displayed by the famous story of Ferdinand the Bull.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (10:56):

And so I use those as a jumping off point to deliver much deeper and richer insights, expert advice, and direction. And then I shore it up with real life examples either experienced firsthand or secondhand. So for instance, I mentioned I took a little jab at Chipotle in there their issues with their team, with their staffing and HR. I see that as an in real life secondhand experience of what it means when a brand is not fully activated. When you care about sustainability everywhere else, but not sustainability of your labor and the team that matters most.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (11:37):

So all that is baked into this book as a way to deliver a multifaceted approach to what branding really is and what effective marketing really looks like. And then I finish it off with talking about evolution, which is an inevitability in all of our lives as humans, not just brands. I mean, we are always constantly moving forward and evolving.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (12:01):

Yeah. And I know the book is really tailored to the restaurant space or focused with that person, that reader in mind. However, when we’re talking about branding and the company branding, I’m sure I’m certain principles apply across industries. So maybe share two or three of some of those key takeaway or key talking points that you share as maybe some kind of high-level lessons learned to give a little free sample to get someone interested in maybe diving into the whole thing.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (12:38):

Yeah, absolutely. So I think the three off the top of my head out the three lessons, the first one is going to be about having a purpose. That is derived from the story of Ferdinand the Bull for those that don’t know, Ferdinand as the story goes was the biggest bull in the community, but he loved to just smell flowers. That’s all he wanted. He didn’t want to fight. He didn’t want to go to the bull fights. And so when the townspeople came to the field to look for a prize bull to fight Ferdinand caught their eye, but they didn’t really see him as aggressive enough. It just so happens at that moment he sits on a bee and starts jumping and bucking around. And so they bring him to the fight, he ends up just sitting there smelling flowers and never fights. They laugh at him and throw him back to the pasture, but he gets to live happily ever after not having been killed in the fights.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (13:29):

So for me, that’s about living a purpose even if it seems against trend or against maybe what people want you to do. And when you do that, I think the benefits are really strong as a brand. And so that’s not just for restaurants, it’s for everyone. So back when I was talking about Vigor needing to find that path, it starts by having a purpose. And our purpose really is to accentuate and uplift most memorable moments through remarkable experiences. And that happens by helping our clients find that purpose, find that path forward, that distinction and that relevance that really helps brands take hold. Because we spend our lives, our most memorable moments in life I should say in or around restaurants and food and beverage specifically.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (14:19):

And so the question becomes, do you want to be and provide an experience that also adds to that memory or just a beige backdrop that everyone forgets? And so that’s our purpose as a brand. One of the second lessons I think I mentioned is the clever bull. I believe this one comes from or hails from Africa as a folktale. I’ll try to make this one fast, but essentially there’s a bull who’s living in a cave. A lion comes trotting along and he’s like, “Oh, look a bull.” Well, so the bull sees a lion and says, “Hey honey, heat up the oven. We’re going eat well tonight.” Here comes a lion and a lion gets scared, runs away. He’s like, “Oh my God.” A jackal sees the lion. He’s like, “Whoa, what’s going on?”

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (15:03):

He tells him a story. The jackal’s like, “You’re being an idiot. Come with me.” So rather than seeing the jackal and the lion, and then saying the same thing because that’s not going to work twice. The bull changes the story. And instead he says, “Hey, jackal I told you to bring me two lions, we’re really hungry.” And so the lion goes running off. So for us, that’s about evolution. It’s about what is happening today and what is influencing the business today. It will change literally tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. Evolution is not a decision to make. It’s a reality that you need to accept and embrace it and be ready for it. And when you do, you can go far.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (15:46):

And you said three, right? So final one is Babe the Blue Ox, a nice Americana folktale. For those that don’t know, Babe the Blue Ox was Paul Bunyan’s sidekick and they traveled across America chopping down trees when that wasn’t a bad thing and fueling essentially the industry that was the American backbone. For us, that directly connects with the need to find really good partners that you can trust; and trusting them, not just having at the table to do stuff, but having them at the table to consult and be good partners. And I forget who said it, but the truest sense of hire smarter people and let them tell you what to do kind of thing.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (16:31):

What great lessons. The applicability can certainly stretch across many industries. Anyone listening in right now, certainly it’s a great way to reflect upon and use these stories and how you can use it to change your own business or make decisions for your own company. And that that’s exciting with what you’ve done.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (16:53):

And Joseph, what I’d love to do right now as we do for all of our guests is take an opportunity to jump into asking every guest before they go an opportunity to answer the same four questions. And so the first question we always ask, every guest is about a miss or two that maybe has come along in your career or purse, professional life and something you’ve learned from it.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (17:17):

Yeah, yeah. So I think the biggest miss was derivative of not really focusing and then practicing what we preach. So inevitably when you’re starting out, you kind of clamor for anything that comes down the path. And we were working with pharma. And I got to say although the money was good, the heart was not. And we were definitely not living I would say our purpose and our passion. Even though it hadn’t been defined yet, that really caused a lot of heartache within the four walls. So it was a huge miss.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (17:49):

Yes, we were putting money in the bank, but at what cost and what were we building? And I would say nothing. We weren’t building anything. That work, I don’t even remember what we did. That’s how unimportant it really was to the bigger picture. So not living our purpose was definitely the biggest. And looking back, if I could tell young Joseph what to do, that would be the first thing, figure out what it is that you need to do in this world.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (18:17):

Yeah, yeah. Thanks for sharing that. And what about a make? On the other side, you’ve had a decorated career, you’ve done and accomplished a lot, worked with some great brands over the years. What stands out to you that you’d like to share for a make?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (18:33):

Yeah, I think the make is a kind of a general one, but a really important one which is just the adoption of selflessness. And knowing that that actually does benefit you so maybe it is a little bit selfish too at the same time. But when I turned the table business development away from a means to bring money in the door and turned it on its side as a way to help people. And when I did that, it was because I understood our purpose very strongly. That was the biggest make. That was the home run because it made sense of lot of things that I thought I wanted to do. And it also helped peel apart things that I thought were good ideas, but inevitably weren’t the right idea for us.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (19:19):

Case in point, if I told you in our number one marketing strategy was to showcase, highlight, and critique all of our competitors’ work and bring it to the forefront, you probably think I was insane, but that is our number one momentum driver as far as marketing. We own a website that we created back in 2014 called Grits & Grids. And since then we have been curating, branding and advertising work for the restaurant industry from across the world, from other agencies and promoting it. So we promote our competitors every day. Why? Well, one, I don’t think competition is what other people think competition is. I think competition is we’re all part of honestly the same team and the same goal, which is to make this world a more beautiful place with experiences that are worth remembering like I said.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (20:11):

So it actually made sense. I was like, ‘No, why wouldn’t we do this? Why wouldn’t we share this and show people that we’re not the only people doing it? Here are good examples.” And in doing that, I’ve given our clients past, present, future a way to find inspiration and hopefully come to us and say, “We see you guys as the experts. We see you guys as having the courage, empathy, and principles to guide us ahead. We kind of like things like this, but what do we do?” And it just makes the conversation better.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (20:41):

Wow, what a really interesting approach. That’s definitely not something you hear every day of going with the website and promotion that you’re doing, and viewing it as a broad community and helping the restaurant space at large through what you’re doing. And what about this idea of a multiplier? This is where we get probably a very broad cross-section of answers, but interested in your perspective. What kind of a multiplier you used have as you’ve grown personally and professionally?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (21:12):

Yeah, I think the multiplier is really about taking the time out of the week to create thought leadership and content that goes to that same end. And so I’ve had people reach out to me kind of laughing and kind of genuinely curious how do we put out so much content? How do you get it done? And I don’t really know the answer to that. We just do. So I’ve looked at other opportunities to get our expertise out there, whether it’s pending articles for industry magazines and media outlets, developing those relationships, to writing the book, to just creating other thought leadership opportunities all with the idea of helping. And so that has helped multiply the brand awareness around Vigor.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (22:03):

And of course, the brand awareness around me as an individual and as a professional. And I think, again, it all stems from knowing who we are and why we exist. It makes those decisions easier. And I think in order to make it a multiplier, how do I put this? You almost have to take away the things that would be an anchor to that multiplication. So what are the things is that are going to hold you back? When you have that clear understanding of your brand, it’s really easy to identify those things.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (22:34):

Someone might say, “Hey, you should sponsor this marathon. Get a logo on a T-shirt.” And you may think that that’s not a bad idea, but if it doesn’t really ladder up to the passion you’re putting in the world, then what that does is take away budget that could be allocated elsewhere and get more effect and have a stronger, positive impact. And also time that you could have been using to write a book or write an article. And so I think when you have a really strong idea of business as a brand and it’s bullhearted, it starts to make a lot of sense of what makes sense for you. How can you multiply that success and how can you get rid of the things that are holding it back?

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (23:16):

Yeah, yeah. Brilliant. I love that. I love that anchor analogy too with the clarity. Well, in the final question we like to ask every guest is what does success mean to you?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (23:30):

Great question. And I love that you ask it because we have these conversations with our clients too, which is it’s easy to say the money in the bank and it’s just really not that at all. So success personally to me is when I see a client that we worked with received some sort of recognition, notoriety or an emotional overwhelm. That means the world to me. So when I see, for instance, a husband and wife team or best friends go into business and they cut that ribbon in the first time and they have their opening party and their eyes are welled up and they can barely get through the thank you speech. Man, that’s success and you can’t put a price tag on that.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (24:14):

As a company, I think it’s continuing to produce work that we’re proud of in work that makes us feel like we’ve had a positive impact in this world in some little tiny way. Because I think if everybody [stroved 00:24:28] strived, I don’t know what that word is [stroved 00:24:31] for it. It’s a new word, I made it up and I’m going to add it to the dictionary. If everybody worked towards that, then all those little tiny positive moments really ladder up to something pretty great.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (24:44):

Yeah, yeah. Well, and Joseph, as we bring this to a close here, first off, where can they find your book if they’re looking to get a copy and dive deeper into some of these stories and the information you’re sharing?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (24:58):

Yeah. Great. Yeah, so on the book is available, of course, on Amazon. It should be available on, which I do highly suggest people take a look at it. They’re very strong supporters of independent bookstores, which I have a little personal love for. I still read actual physical books. So take a look at If not, if you want the convenience, Amazon. It’s available on Kindle or at least will be here in the next few days. And I’m just finishing up the audiobook. Don’t worry, I’m not the one actually reading the book because I don’t think I could, but I found a great voice. You’re going to love it. And so if you’re the kind of person that likes to listen, that will be available on Audible and I’m not sure what other audiobook providers, but it’ll be available on most of them.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (25:48):

Great, great. As we kind of bring this to a close, is there anything you are hoping to share or get across maybe you haven’t had a chance to say yet?

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (25:59):

Yeah. Like I said, everyone grabbed the bull by the horns, find those good partners. You Tom and and Big Sky are one of them. I think out of all the franchise groups that I’ve spoken to and worked at least alongside or had interactions with, y’all seem to have the most level head. So I don’t mean to advertise on your own podcast, but I really do believe that and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come on.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:26):

Well, I appreciate that and comments like you can just keep coming right back so every six months.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (26:30):

That’s right. Flattery gets you everywhere, right?

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:33):

Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Joseph Szala, Vigor Branding (26:35):

Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (26:37):

Joseph, thank you so much for being a guest on the show and for sharing just some absolutely fantastic information. So let’s go ahead and jump into today’s three key takeaways. Takeaway number one is when Joseph shared about the story of Ferdinand the Bull and how Ferdinand had a purpose, and to make sure that you have a purpose. And he shared with us a story when he wasn’t living what his purpose and passion is because he was focused on just bringing cash in or working with clients that maybe didn’t quite fit in with his purpose and passion. And when he focused and reorganized that, there was a big change and a big shift.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (27:20):

Takeaway number two is when Joseph shared the story about the clever bull about the bull that was living in the cave and he sees a lion and how the bull changed his perspective on how he saw a challenge or an opportunity. And to me, it reminds me a lot of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur or a leader. And you’re just dealt the cards that you have sometimes and you have to figure out a way to see things differently to make the best of the situation. Kind of that old adage of turning chicken feathers into chicken soup.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (27:56):

And takeaway number three is when he shared about how he made a big shift in his own company marketing to create content and find ways to create thought leadership opportunities. And when he focused on his purpose and his passion and narrowed his focus, he was able to create extremely relevant content to his target audience. And just the takeaway there I think is how can you or I apply this to our own business?

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (28:23):

Now it’s time for days win-win. So today’s win-win is this idea that Joseph shared when he took on the adoption of selflessness. And he said he changed his focus from trying to bring people in the door and focused on helping people. And that fundamental change from looking at his customers maybe as dollars and cents or revenue coming into your business versus looking at being able to help someone first. And I thought that was a great lesson and a great change. And he said when he did that it fundamentally changed everything he did. The customer experience, his staff, his team, all parties involved. And so I thought there was a great highlight and just something maybe that you and I and we could all take away as a win-win for today’s episode.

Tom DuFore, Big Sky Franchise Team (29:19):

That’s the episode today, folks. Please make sure you subscribe to our podcast if you haven’t yet and leave us a review. And remember, if you or anyone might be ready to franchise their business or take your franchise company to the next level, please connect with us at Thanks for tuning in and we look forward to having you back next week.

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