Restaurants that emphasize culture are winning the labor war *

Emphasize Culture and Win the Labor War

How MOD Pizza, Jersey Mike’s and others developed their proposition based on people.

The term “workplace culture” might conjure up images of themed dress-up days, employee of the month plaques or a pizza lunch on the company’s dime.But what it really boils down to is people and how they treat each other.

To put it simply: “Nobody wants to work with folks that they don’t like,” said Chad Troutman, CMO of Sprockets, a tech company focused on worker retention, during a September webinar hosted by the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurants that emphasize culture say they’ve had an easier time hiring and keeping workers amid a labor crunch that has left the industry short about 1 million jobs. Some argue that a good work environment is even more important than pay to today’s workers (though some research says otherwise).

Regardless, culture is clearly important to job seekers—albeit more abstract than a paycheck. So how exactly does a restaurant build a good culture?

Here’s a look at how a handful of brands are doing it. 

Hire for fit

The labor pool might be shallow, but some restaurants are still being picky about who they hire.

“We don’t just fill positions,” said Jeremy Edmonds, director of people for Snooze A.M. Eatery, which refers to its workers as “Snoozers.” “We make sure each Snoozer aligns with our mission and culture, even in this tight labor market.”

That has contributed to very high employee engagement and retention at the breakfast chain. Post-pandemic, there was a 90% return rate of Snoozers, about 10 points above the industry average, Edmonds said.

For Snooze, the creation of a good culture begins with the interview process. When meeting potential candidates, the leadership tries to make a real connection and bring in positive people who will contribute to a positive culture, Edmonds said.

Chad Langston, a district manager for the Zaxby’s fried chicken chain, also focuses on hiring people that will be a good fit on the team above all else. A strong workplace culture will flow naturally from that, he said during the National Restaurant Association webinar.

To identify good fits, Langston tries to make interviews more of a conversation than a bulleted list of questions. This brings out prospective hires’ true personalities.

“I let them tell on themselves in a good way by getting them comfortable to where they open up and you get to see who they really are,” he said.

As a result, he said, his teams are more tight-knit than the average restaurant crew.

“You would think you were at a family reunion almost every day,” Langston said. 

Fit those hires in

MOD Pizza hasn’t been able to be quite as selective in hiring as it would like to be recently, but that has actually suited the fast-casual pizza brand well.

“We’ve always considered ourselves to be a very inclusive employer, a place that would hire people that otherwise face barriers to employment,” said CEO Scott Svenson.

The chain has found that those workers often end up being some of the most impactful once they’ve been immersed in MOD’s culture, which is built around support and acceptance.

Svenson emphasized the important role GMs play in fostering that culture, which itself has to be passed down from above.

“In our industry … the success of a restaurant is down to the GM and how are they treated, and did we believe in them and did we have their back?”

Darden Restaurants, the parent of Olive Garden and other casual chains, also views the development of restaurant-level leaders as the key to good culture.

“It gets down to the restaurant manager, the GM, and inside that box, can they create an environment where people want to work?” said CEO Gene Lee on the company’s first quarter earnings call in September. “Where we have our best leadership, we do not have people problems.”

Invest in the best

Jersey Mike’s culture filters down to each of its 2,000 locations directly from founder and CEO Peter Cancro, who projects caring, generosity and a strong work ethic in a very visible way—he appears in most of the chain’s ads.

That helps the chain attract workers with similar values. Then, Mike’s offers an even stronger proposition to get the best of them to stay: by offering them their own franchise. 

Employees work their way up the assembly line, with the most experienced slicing meat or grilling subs while the less experienced add the toppings. If a restaurant’s assistant manager proves their worth, the company will push them to open their own store and keep them around. Jersey Mike’s will provide financing and will sign the lease on the location. This is how the chain can keep its culture intact from store to store. 

Dutch Bros, the coffee chain that went public last month with a $484 million IPO, has a similar strategy of putting stores into the hands of people who were raised within the system.

Its early franchisees, for instance, came from their employee ranks. It has since stopped franchising, instead promoting employees to become store operators for new locations. But company President Joth Ricci said there’s relatively little difference between the groups. 

“The franchisees, and we have about 45 of them in the system, are all former employees,” Ricci said. “Technically, they’re just a different version of the operator.”

Like at Jersey Mike’s, this grow-from-within mindset keeps the culture consistent from one store to the next. They learn the system and understand the importance of service at the chain.

At MOD, reinvesting in its best workers is a basic tenet of the “flywheel” that keeps the whole apparatus running. Good culture, in other words, begets good culture. And getting that flywheel spinning starts in a very human place.

“It’s how you treat your people.  How do you treat them and how do they feel?” Svenson said. “It ultimately manifests itself in what you do.”

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