If you’re on LinkedIn, you’ve likely seen this oft-repeated hypothetical exchange between two executives: A CFO asks a CEO, “What happens if we invest in developing our people, and they leave us?” The CEO responds, “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”
The CEO’s pithy reply has relevance at all levels of a business, from the C-suite down to the front lines. And at last Friday’s Fast Casual Trends & Directions Conference, presented by Technomic, the National Restaurant Association and Digital CoCo, one of the recurring themes brought up by our fast-casual operator panelists was the crucial role of staff training and development.
Marc Simon, president and CEO of Rubio’s, perhaps put it best: “We need to make sure we’re building for the future,” he said.
Carlsbad, CA-based Rubio’s (No. 156 on Technomic’s 2014 list of the Top 500 Chain Restaurants by U.S. systemwide sales) has in place a formal staff training program with a curriculum that’s available online. Any employee who wants to be promoted from shift leader to assistant manager must complete the coursework, Simon said, and Rubio’s spends “a lot of time and effort” managing the curriculum. The chain also offers scholarship opportunities for crew members and members of their family to help them attend community college or a four-year college/university. Last year, Rubio’s awarded a dozen $1,000 scholarships. The way Rubio’s sees it, “(We’re) making sure the next generation is ready to take over this brand,” Simon said.
Even during the recent recession, Simon noted, one area in which Rubio’s did not cut back was staff development. Added Rubio’s co-founder Ralph Rubio: “We’re very deliberate about establishing a culture where people want to stay working.”
An unwavering commitment to staff development isn’t easy, to be sure. Two years of minimum-wage increases and costs associated with healthcare reform mean that Rubio’s will “no question” take a financial hit, Simon acknowledged. But if anything, he said, the chain plans to add labor. It’s a matter of not compromising the guest experience, Simon said—as Rubio’s wisely recognizes that restaurant staff are a critical contributor to guests’ satisfaction with their dining experience and with the brand overall.
How important is service to fast-casual customers? Ninety-five percent of fast-casual restaurant patrons polled earlier this year through Technomic’s Consumer Brand Metrics program rated friendly service as an important or very important factor in their decisions of which fast-casual restaurants to patronize. (In comparison, 90% said the same about friendly service at quick-service restaurants.) Fast-casual consumers value staff knowledge, too: 87% rated it an important consideration (81% of quick-service patrons did).
One sentiment offered at the conference by McAlister’s Deli CEO Frank Paci backs that up nicely: As a franchisee once told him, Paci said: “All of the marketing money you spend gets them through the door the first time. It’s what you do after that that keeps them coming back.” At McAlister’s (No. 85 on the Top 500), this might translate to offering a free glass of the chain’s signature sweet tea to a really good customer—and, thus, giving unit-level staff the discretion to “surprise and delight” guests, as Paci put it.
My colleague Mary Chapman told me of a similarly impressive fast-casual experience she had at Chipotle Mexican Grill last week. She opted for the first time to try the chain’s vegetarian Sofritas protein, and the counter associate/burrito builder recommended that she pair the Sofritas with fajita vegetables (which, Mary reported, were indeed a great pairing). The associate also upsold her on guacamole and chips, after raving about them herself. These are little things, but think about it: When was the last time someone offered you a pairing suggestion at a fast-casual restaurant, or thoughtfully upsold you on a product? It’s this kind of staff effort that can leave an indelible impression on a customer and have a meaningful business impact on a brand.
From my perspective, on-boarding and developing staff in such a way that they not only execute their roles well but also embrace the company’s culture and character will be essential to fast-casual brands’ expansion success. As I discussed at the conference, the real-estate market is getting tighter for fast-casual operators. The playing field is headed to smaller urban, suburban and rural markets. Educating members of these communities—from which most of your staff as well as your customers will come—about your concept and fast casual’s promise of an elevated limited-service dining experience will be an imperative. Your people are your brand ambassadors. Create a culture in which they feel valued, respected and encouraged to reach their goals, and they’ll be more likely to take ownership of their role and the brand.