"Regardless of your industry or company size, if you don't put people first, you're missing it."​


This interview with Melody Nelson of Burger Lounge is part of Inspirations, a regular series from Helen Lao and ClearPath that asks extraordinary founders, executives, and rising stars in the growth-oriented food industry about their why.

Melody has recently celebrated her 3-year anniversary at Burger Lounge as the VP of Employee Experience with Burger Lounge. She is a humble and private individual, so I am glad we convinced her to share her story. We hope you find her story as wonderful as we did.


Who or what inspires you and why?

My 22-yr old son, Milo. He is intelligent, a free-thinker, goal-oriented and so good at what he does.

My mother, Charmaine, who grew up in foster homes, had four daughters by age twenty-five, and who is simply the best mother anyone could hope for.

One of my best friends, Stefanie. She works full-time while raising her beautiful daughter, Lilly, who happens to be autistic. The amount of pure love, work and optimism she exhibits daily is inspiring. At times, I wish I could pause the world around her so she could have more time for herself. To me, she embodies selflessness.  

Lastly, anyone who overcomes extreme circumstances (abuse, poverty, discrimination, etc.) and goes on to create an amazing life for themselves and helps others––"I love that."

What types of people do you work best with and why?

I work best with people that are passionate and humble learners. They aren't afraid to say, "I'm not sure, let's find out!" Regardless of your industry or company size, if you don't put people first, you're missing it. Work is about people and relationships.

At Burger Lounge, our CEO and founder, J. Dean Loring, takes the time to check-in and seeks to gain an authentic understanding of how we're doing. He regularly thanks employees. He's been known to walk into the kitchen after a great meal (not just at Burger Lounge) to shake the cook's hand and thank him or her for the food. It's fantastic.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far and why?

Like most organizations, we are challenged by the current labor market, increasing labor costs and the ability to truly differentiate Burger Lounge in a market that is becoming more saturated every day.

It often comes back to the basics, or what we refer to as “Restaurant 101”: delivering responsibly sourced, high quality food you can feel good about eating and empowering our Loungers to create amazing guest experiences. At Burger Lounge, we aspire to get better every day at making people feel great and leave happier than when they arrived. That includes our employees and guests. 

We know the success of each restaurant comes down to one thing… the leadership in that location. If our leaders drive results, get better every day and make it fun, that restaurant is going to accomplish great things. At the end of the day, the better we get at taking care of our people- the ones “in the trenches”, the easier everything else becomes.  

What’s something you’ve worked on that you’re proud of and why?

Prior to me joining Burger Lounge in 2016, Burger Lounge was a start-up from an HR perspective. I am proud of our people strategy and the many accomplishments of my team and I have achieved over the past 3 years. I no longer hear “we are a guest-first organization”. You can’t achieve organizational excellence and financial success if you don’t have the right people in the right places. It starts with our employees, or “Loungers”- in our 25 restaurants and Home Office. 

I recently re-named our department "Employee Experience" because to me, that's what it’s about. We are thoughtfully designing each step in the employee journey with Burger Lounge. We aspire to be the best-in-class employer. We are not perfect and still have a lot of work to do... but we are well on our way. 

I also love when I can shift a person’s view/ opinion about what HR “is” or what HR “does”. We are thought partners. We exist to support and guide both the organization and its employees. We are here to help our operators anyway we can. When that "light bulb goes on” for them, I know we're doing it right.

On the personal front, as I get older, I’ve realized how valuable my friendships are. It takes effort on both ends to make time to talk, catch-up and spend time together. It’s sad to me how common it is for friends to “grow apart”.  It has to be a priority and you have to make the effort. I have a fabulous group of ladies (East Coast to West Coast) that commit each October to a trip. We’ve met in Chicago, Cabo, Portland, Boston and this year will be Nashville. Each year on the last night of our trip (during dinner) we each write a desired destination on a piece of paper and usually have a stranger pick. It’s how we determine our destination for the next year. 

It’s one time a year we can take a break from being “wife”, “girlfriend”, “mother”, “executive”, etc. and just be women together. I always leave with sore abs (from laughing) and a renewed connection with my girls. It fills my tank.  

What’s been one of your greatest rewards in business and why?

My first job in hospitality was getting the opportunity to open the Ivy Hotel in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego back in 2007 (now the Hyatt Andaz) as HR Director. I was educated and had solid HR experience, but opening a high-end, luxury and entertainment hotel was no easy feat.  We needed to hire about 450 employees (from Housekeepers to Butlers to Cocktail Servers who had bottle-service experience). I had never done anything like this before in my life. I knew I needed the experience for all applicants to be enjoyable, different and leave them feeling excited. I rented-out the entire Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego. I was able to choreograph the “stages” of the interview process by utilizing the different spaces (even the actual theatre), each with different themed music playing. 

If a candidate didn’t make it past the 10+ minute screening interview, they were thanked for their time and escorted out a side door, right onto the street. Many of them didn’t realize there were 2-3 additional steps in the interview process for those that made it through. We committed to meet with everyone who arrived. We interviewed approximately 750 people in two (2) days. It was exhausting, amazing and rewarding.  

That beautiful, boutique hotel did $31MM in revenue in 2008- $19MM in F&B. It hosted tons of celebrities, famous athletes, etc. It was INSANE. I’ve often joked I should write a book about the experiences at Ivy...names would be changed, of course, to protect the innocent. 

Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self and why? 

Listen to your inner voice and intuition, and don't waste time in relationships that don't serve you––personally or professionally. If they aren't bringing you joy, helping you grow, or serving you, move on. The right person and opportunity are out there for you. Go find them.

What's the one word that describes you and why?

I'd say, GRIT. I am the oldest of 4 girls and was the first in my family to go to college. I was a single mother at 24 years old with a 2-year old, working full-time and going to school. I just knew I had to keep g- o- i- n- g. It wasn’t easy, but I have an amazing family that supported me. One of my sisters and I lived together when I was in Grad School, so she helped me with my son when I was in class.  

I received my MA in Organizational Behavior while working full-time in Human Resources and raising my son. He was 5 when I graduated. I have the cutest picture of him holding flowers for me at my graduation ceremony. Someone once said, "If it were easy, everyone would do it.” and “when something is difficult to accomplish - it means so much more when you do." I believe that.  

What is one thing you’d like to accomplish this year and why?

On the personal front, I have been working towards becoming 100% debt-free. I’m a Dave Ramsey fan-read his books and sometimes listen to his podcasts when I’m driving. His methodology is simple (to understand) and it works. He’s helped millions of people get out of debt and live their best lives or “change their family tree” as he likes to say. As a young single mother with student loans, I didn’t always make the best decisions with my money. I am more focused on my financial goals and can’t wait to make my last payment on my home and have that feeling. My boyfriend is a very successful wealth manager/ financial advisor… so I’m sure he’ll help keep me on track.

My first job was at Rubio’s Fish Tacos when I was 16 years old. I didn’t have my driver’s license yet, so I took the bus to and from work after High School. I made $4.25 an hour. I remember getting my first paycheck- I’m sure I blew it all on clothes. I would’ve benefitted from having someone teach me then about making good decisions with money.  

Professionally, I would like to standardize our interview and selection process! Sounds so easy, but it's not. Selecting the right people is the most important "people thing" our restaurant managers do. The first interview sets the tone––it's the first impression. Since our restaurant footprint is pretty small, losing a Grill Cook, for example, can be detrimental to the team and to operations. Human nature kicks in and we often hire out of desperation, which we all know is a recipe for disaster. Therefore, it is critical we get it right. The goal is to create a process that helps hiring managers make better-informed decisions and ensure all applicants feel important and respected, regardless if we hire them or not.

What is one book that you think everyone should read and why?

I like to read and often skim leadership books... there are a lot of good ones out there. However, the book I recommend everyone to read is The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. The message is simple yet powerful. It put so many personal and professional challenges or situations into perspective for me.

Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best. I like to read it once a year.


About ClearPath

At ClearPath, we value relationships over everything because we know that great people are the #secretsauce to success. We serve as ambassadors for our growth brands--connecting them with leaders they need to build their businesses. Our focused and modern approach to executive search empowers us to match the right candidates--faster. 

Our clients do not hire us to search for the right candidate, but to find the perfect match. So we call what we do, executive matching. #executivematching

Helen Lao