Dear smart people who run restaurant chains:
I hope you won’t mind me telling you how to do your jobs. I know you have many years of experience running hamburger joints and chicken chains and sandwich shops. I’m sure you’re smart folks. Honest. But I constantly have one question when I go to your restaurants.
Are you people out of your minds?
I ask that will as much respect as I can muster, because I actually want you to succeed. I don’t want to assume you’re a bunch of idiots. I don’t want to assume you want your companies to fail. I actually want you to succeed, because when you do your jobs well, I have a better experience eating out.
So will you tolerate some advice from a customer?
Until you get the basics of your operations right, will you stop it with the “innovations”? Yes, throwing some new menu item is a sure-fire way to get some people to order that item to see whether they like it, but you’re hurting yourself in the long run.
I’m sitting in a hamburger joint in Birmingham which has something like 150 locations, mostly in Alabama. Although the chain has added menu items over the years — mostly chicken — it’s still essentially a burger joint. That’s the chain’s identity and it always will be.
But the big promotion lately has been for a new item. It’s corn dogs. (Yes, I’m serious.) I’m sure management thinks it’s brilliant. I’m sure test results showed that somebody somewhere liked the products. I’m sure you’re even selling some. I know all that.
But it’s a terrible, horrible, stupid and lousy idea.
You see, almost everybody around here knows that going to Jack’s is a horrible experience. (Send it some secret shoppers to spend extended time if you don’t believe me.) Many of us tolerate that horrible experience because it’s convenient for one reason or another.
For some of us, it’s because we’ve been coming in for a long time and we actually like employees. At this particular location, I like many of the managers and crew. Some of them really want to do good jobs, but the experience is still terrible. Why?
It’s because something is horribly broken in your management system. Do you realize that?
If you talk candidly with anybody in this store — or any of the others in your chain — you would hear how screwed up everything is. Lousy people can’t be fired. Good people are treated badly enough that they leave.
Crew quickly learn just how low expectations are. They can not show up for shifts and nothing happens. They can act almost any way they want — to customers and managers — and nobody bats an eye. Crew members find out how little is expected, so they don’t hold themselves to higher standards.
Your shift managers are miserable. They’re held accountable for things they can’t control — with crew members who are poorly trained and have terrible attitudes. They have schedules that make no sense — closing a late-night shift and then opening an early-morning shift just a few hours later. They quickly learn they can’t do what they were hired to do, so they soon just start surviving their shifts — because they need the money.
Your stores are nasty. The dining rooms are frequently littered with paper and the tables sticky with food, even when there’s almost nobody here. That’s constant — and nobody really cares.
Your restrooms are pathetic. On Friday, I noticed some obvious dried drops of human waste near a toilet. This is Sunday — two days later — and they’re still there. Does it occur to anybody to really clean these restrooms? Do you realize this is what happens when you demoralize your crew and managers — and nobody cares if you’re going to let them get away with this madness?
I quit reporting things I saw which were wrong because nobody cared. The last time I tried to report to an employee that the men’s restroom was out of toilet paper — and had been out of it since the day before — I was told, “I don’t care — ’cause that’s not my job.” The guy wasn’t angry. He seemed happy to be paid by a place where he could so flagrantly ignore customer issues.
Don’t think he was a rare bad apple who you’ve weeded out. He’s working on the shift right now. I’m looking at him.
I could say the same things at lots of other restaurant chains, so it’s not just this one place. Burger King locations around here are so bad that I won’t bother to go in there anymore. The last time I stopped at the location a mile or so from here, a manager and a crew member got into a shouting match over how to ring something up. Everybody else just acted as though this was normal.
I could go on. Krystal stores are notorious for much of what I’m talking about. Hardee’s stores around here are mostly jokes. KFC? Please, it’s not worth the trouble. Some McDonald’s here are decent and others seem to be staffed by surly folks who I wouldn’t hire for anything. I could go on.
You probably want to complain that I’m not being fair. Right?
This is all a product of a modern society where people don’t want to work and nobody any good applies for jobs, right?
No, that’s not the truth. Some chains do a superb job. Chick-fil-A comes to mind. Some locations are better than others and none of them are perfect, either, but their worst is better than the best of most companies.
I used to assume Chick-fil-A and the few who get customer service right paid more to get better employees, but I’ve talked with enough employees about their pay — in the good places and the bad places — to find out that’s not true.
The good companies simply have different standards.
It’s all about management, which means this is your problem, not the problems of the low-level crew or the managers running the shifts. Management at Chick-fil-A and similar chains have higher standards in their hiring, higher standards in their training — and they’re fast to get rid of people who don’t or can’t do their jobs.
When you hire lousy people, good people don’t want to work with them. Did you know that? When good people do get hired and realize that lousy employees aren’t doing their jobs, do you know what that means? It means that you quickly teach them not to do their jobs well, either.
Good employees either quickly because lousy, surly and unhappy people — or else they get out before your terrible management system can destroy them.
Look, it’s not rocket science to run a restaurant chain. There’s plenty of research and plenty of management talent out there to show the way. It’s hard work to get it right, but the rewards — both financial and in satisfaction — are high.
Please, make a commitment to fixing your management system. If you have to bring in new people from the top down and rebuild your organization, do it. Yes, that would be expensive and time-consuming, but is it any worse than the horrible waste that comes from the constant churning of new products and the ridiculous amount of money you have to spend begging people to come try it?
Why do you think people love Chick-fil-A? Is it because they can’t get good chicken anywhere else? Of course not. The food is good and their advertising has tended to be good, but the biggest reason to go to Chick-fil-A is the consistently good customer experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s so far above most restaurant experiences that it seems great.
This is what we want today.
Yes, we want food that tastes good and is convenient, but we want a good experience above all. Your product-focused marketing isn’t going to tell you that — and you are determined not to believe management could be the problem anyway.
So please stop it with the corn dogs and the Memphis-style barbecue sauce on cheese biscuits — or whatever the heck you’re working on right now. Please.
Operations and people management isn’t sexy. It’s not as much fun as new product development or new advertising. But if your company is in trouble — as many of your companies are — you will find your salvation in operations and managing your people well.
McDonald’s company-builder Ray Kroc was famous for his QSCV concept, which stood for quality, service, cleanliness and value. His company eventually stumbled on delivering those, but he built the biggest fast food chain in his world on those principles.
They still apply today. If you will return to that philosophy — revamp your management system to make those the cornerstone — you will be successful and people will think you’re a genius.
Will you try it? I’m sick of being disgusted by my experiences in your stores — and your employees aren’t going to magically change things without you fixing things from the top.
Please fix your operations. I’m begging you.