People Are The Killer App

It’s not brand. It’s not bricks and mortar. It’s not e-mail. It’s not even your new company Intranet. It’s people, dangit.

By Jim Sullivan

Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.

It’s not brand. It’s not bricks and mortar. It’s not e-mail. It’s not even your new company Intranet. It’s people, dangit.

People are the Killer App.

But as we rush about our busy lives in our multi-unit or independent operations searching for the trendiest management theory, sexiest promotion, coolest software, and jazziest new equipment, we inadvertently stride headlong past the “application” we need most: our waiters, waitresses, kitchen crew, dishwashers, managers. (For those of you who prefer to focus first on managing margins instead of energizing people, well, just think of them as “Human Capital”.)

I deliver employee retention seminars to dozens of restaurant and hotel companies’ conferences every year. At these meetings I get to hear a lot of platform time dedicated to annual reviews of strategies and tactics focused on improving “same store sales”, “shareholder equity”, “procurement gains”, etcetera. But when it comes to addressing strategies that focus on people as an asset, too many marketing, operations, and financial foodservice executives embrace the topic with all the bravura of someone forced to pet a snake.

Sure, we all know the importance of taking care of our guests, but how many of us truly run our businesses with the understanding and conviction that our employee is our first market? The way we treat our employees determines how they’ll treat our guests, so doesn’t it make sense that we first have a management service strategy for our internal customers? It bears repeating: if you’re not serving the customer directly, you’d better be serving someone who is.

With everyone howling about the labor challenge in our industry, it’s important to remember that our best recruiting strategy is, in fact, employee retention. And as we head into what is shaping up to be a very good summer season for foodservice, why not focus the next 3 months on making the people we’ve got better in addition to recruiting new blood? And here’s a few ideas to bear in mind when it comes to investing in and cultivating your Human Capital as appreciating assets:

  • Measure what matters. If employee longevity is truly important to you and your company, are you measuring it daily and sharing the turnover numbers with your managers each week along with your P&L? Are you including employee churn as part of your manager’s bonus criteria? Maybe it’s time you should. What gets inspected gets improved.
  • Rethink what marketing is. It never ceases to amaze me how many operators will invest tens of thousands of dollars in an aggressive food and/or beverage marketing promotion only to see it fail because the staff was never educated, informed, or excited about the program. One successful Miami based restaurant company I know budgets Training as a line item Marketing expense, so managers are always prompted to budget training dollars for their team against any marketing promotion.
  • Manage Energy before margins. Come to work everyday carrying a blowtorch, not a candle. Brighten the workplace. Be a fountain, not a drain. Come in focused and pumped up. Channel that energy to every other human being that’s dining or working in your joint. All the warm bodies in the world are no substitute for real fire. Like Julie Carruthers, VP of Training for California Pizza Kitchen says, “Every employee deserves a mentor as well as a boss.”
  • Strategy Will Beat Complacency. If you don’t have one, you will become part of someone else’s. Having a strategy for employee appreciation/retention is as critical as having one for marketing, sales building, and site selection. Could you (and every one of your managers) tell me in two minutes or less five specific things you’re doing system-wide to minimize employee churn and maximize employee retention? If they cannot, then you do not have a strategy.
  • Discover whom the hourly employees are that everyone turns to when a manager isn’t right there. Watch what they’re doing. And what they’re not doing. Look closely. That’s your rank and file leader. What behavior can you learn from her/him? Should this person be providing input and perspective on key operating issues? Should they be helping review old training materials and develop new ones? Only if they want to. And if you pay them enough for it.
  • Find your best people a job somewhere else. Mike Hurst, industry icon and owner of Ft Lauderdale’s 15th Street Fisheries, used to tell the story of how he helped find his best sous chef a job at a competitor’s restaurant. Mike knew the sous chef was ready for advancing, but Mike didn’t have the position available at his own restaurant. What he lost in a good employee he tripled in good will with the sous chef and all his other employees who understand clearly by his actions that the owners have the employee’s best interest at heart.
  • Take advantage of coachable moments. Teach everyone something new every shift. And catch them using what you taught them. Celebrate Employees of the Moment, instead of waiting for the “Employee of the Month.”
  • Experience is the worst teacher. It gives the test before presenting the lesson. Ask your team members today what they value most about working with you, don’t wait to figure it out “experientially” over the next year or so. Besides, if you’re over 35 and supervising servers and cooks in their early twenties, your experience is both an asset and a liability relative to motivating them. Culinary Institute of America professor Craig Goldstein recently collected some keen insight from his young 20-something Supervisory Development classes. He asked them to fill in the blank of the following question: “I’ve done some of my best work for a boss who…
    • Taught me something new everyday.
    • Praised me for good work and explained how I could do even better.
    • Appreciates the efforts of the employees who made work interesting and fun.
    • Respected me and encouraged me.
    • Brought positive energy and ideas to the shift every day.
    • Let me voice my opinion and didn’t talk down to me.
    • Gave me responsibility.
    • Was understanding and made me push myself.
    • Cared about me as an individual.
    • Treated employees equally.

Their responses form a virtual supervisory roadmap of needs for the savvy reader.

A happy employee makes a happy guest. A happy guest buys more and comes back more often with her or his friends. Improving your internal customer service doesn’t cost…it pays. I’ve seen it over and over again in our own restaurants and the chains I’ve had the pleasure to work with, and internal service pays off big. How big? As my buddy Jim Buelt says, “I never was very good at math, but I do understand numbers with a bunch of zeros at the end.”

Focus first on the internal customer and your guest service will dramatically improve while your turnover significantly dips. What have we got to lose? It takes just as much time to do it wrong as it does to do it right.