Sky-high employee turnover is the bane of the restaurant industry, but some owners have invented strategies to overcome the problem. One of them is Tom Jednorowicz, c.e.o. and founder of Meatheads Burgers & Fries, a Chicago-based fast-casual concept that has expanded to 11 units in the last five years, with plans for five more this year. He recently shared the approach that has kept Meatheads’ turnover rate below 30 percent.
RH: Most restaurants struggle to retain workers. What’s your secret?
Jednorowicz: I think the fact that we are a growing concept helps, because that growth brings opportunity. But we really do focus on turnover.
Typically, by the time people have interviewed with me they have had three or four interviews with other people and had a realistic job preview. They spend time in a restaurant watching and overseeing a shift so they can get a realistic understanding of what the expectations and realities are. We do that with corporate positions as well. Retention starts with hiring the right people, zeroing in and understanding the skills and attributes a person needs to be successful in that position. We can train people to do pretty much anything we need them to do, but we can’t train them to be friendly. Often we look at prior restaurant experience as a negative.
At our restaurants, guests order at the register, and from that point we want it to feel like a full-service restaurant. But we don’t want them to feel like they need to tip. We train our employees not to upsell our customers. If you hire someone who has a lot of experience working the cash register at another restaurant, they are trained to do that. Then people sit down and think, “That’s really expensive and we can’t come here as frequently,” which doesn’t serve our best long-term interests.
RH: So you hire carefully. What next?
Jednorowicz: I’m always reluctant to use the term “culture” because it’s become such a cliché in business. But I think a lot of our success has to do with the culture and the fact that we provide an environment where people can be successful. Fun is important, but fun should come as a result of success. So we try to develop a culture by creating an environment where people can be successful.
I grew up playing sports and being active in athletics, and through that experience I learned that there’s a lot of intrinsic satisfaction that you can gain out of winning. The reality is that a lot of people working in restaurants are making $10-12 an hour, and there are a lot of ways they can do that. So it can’t just be the paycheck that you motivate people with. With our culture we try to define what success looks like, and what you need to do to succeed. We try to make it as simple as possible. You can say we are going to operate clean restaurants. But if don’t go in every day and zero in on cleanliness, the culture lacks integrity. You need to zero in and hold people accountable to achieve at those levels.
When you realize that a lot of people have never experienced intrinsic satisfaction from being successful, once you create that environment in which they feel like they are achieving or accomplishing something, people feel like they can play or show up in rarefied air. We attract high achievers who attract more high achievers.
We tell people, “We’re going to define parameters for what makes you successful, but we can’t make you succeed.”
For example, if you see a mother walking through the door with a child, I want you tripping over tables to help her and ask if she needs a baby chair. We teach people to take advantage of opportunities that are presented by every customer who walks through the door.
We always say we look for people who crave a busy restaurant. Someone who doesn’t want that is the wrong person. We want them to be active, engaged and looking for opportunities, asking what comes next, what can I do now?
Teamwork, company culture are key
RH: It sounds like teamwork is important in this kind of system.
Jednorowicz: When you are executing at a high level, it’s a successful environment that is more active, fun and vibrant, and you’re working with people who have the same characteristics. You need to make a commitment to keep the team strong. Few things can negatively impact morale more than weak team members who don’t care yet are allowed to manifest themselves in the system. We need to be conscious of people who don’t fit our mold and give them a wakeup call or tell them they need to leave.
RH: Are there rules that define your culture?
1. Take care of the customer. The customer is not always right, but we are not in the business of being right. Take care of the customer and accept responsibility for what happened. People are so accustomed to dealing with defensiveness that they are already ramped up and ready for a fight.
2. Take care of the restaurant. Run a clean restaurant; if something is on the floor, pick it up; if it’s broken, fix it.
3. Take care of each other. We are here to take care of our employees, not just when they are within the four walls of our restaurant. All of our employees have access to insurance, but we’re still small and don’t have a 401(k) plan. I think people recognize that if they come to work here and they shine, with our growth there is a higher probability that they will be able to move up.
The consensus is that it takes six months for a manager from the outside to come into our system and embrace the culture. That’s because we mean it. If somebody orders coffee, even though we don’t serve it in our restaurants, if there is a Starbucks next to us, a staffer should be willing to run down and bring back a cup of coffee.
None of this is a secret sauce; it’s common sense.