Monday, November 12, 2012

Food for thought from the Best Practices confab

After a night of trick or treating, my usual M.O. as a kid was to empty the bag on my bed and stare at the contents for a while, dazed by the abundance of what was mine to savor for days, even weeks. It was almost too much to comprehend.
I’m feeling sort of that way about the People Report Best Practices Conference now that I’m back in my office. There’s just so much to digest and act upon.
To mine it all, I’m reverting to the proven post-Halloween method of sorting the take by delectability.
Whole Candy Bars
--If you think the cultivation of a higher business purpose for your employees and organization is a lot of kumbaya for latent hippies, consider how often the topic was cited during the conference as the new key to differentiation. If your employees feel they’re working for more than just a wage, if they can be proud of what they’re doing because they’re contributing to more than just the owner’s bottom line, they’ll care and feel good about what they’re doing.
You’d have snapped the automaton syndrome, where carbon life forms go through the motions to get a check until they can find something with meaning or more zeroes in their checks. That theme was sounded repeatedly, not just from the podium but in casual conversations during meals, breaks, receptions and unofficial bar time.
--Stories are the new mission statement. Companies once tried to capture their essence in lofty declarations of purpose and style, the all-important mission statements that hung prominently in headquarters. The new method of illustrating the soul of a business is through stories—narratives from real people about their experiences as employees or guests. Stories about the uniqueness of Chili’s were a big part of the turnaround effort of that chain, as COO Kelli Valade emphasized in her presentation at PRBPC. Anecdotes about guests’ experiences are the basis for Chili’s current ad campaign, More Life Happens Here.
Red Robin’s Bill Streitberger used the story of how employees reacted to the shooting of seven colleagues at the Batman premier this summer to illustrate the franchisor’s caring culture (see the delectable on higher purposes, above).
Kent Taylor’s account of how he founded Texas Roadhouse gave a hologram-grade depiction of what that concept is all about, as did George McKerrow’s recollection of the early days of Ted’s Montana Grill.
Twizzlers, candied apples and Goobers
--Male white Republicans no longer rule. Because the conference convened on Election Day, there was considerable talk about the results. The tenor would have surprised any longtime member of the industry. When politics typically come up at a restaurant gathering, the rhetoric can sound like the cheers of a Tea Party rally.  Usually the moderates are Republicans who’ve finally come to terms with the direct election of senators.
Not at this conference. Attendees spoke with relief that sanity had prevailed in the voter’s booths about women’s health and choice, and rabid Capitol Hill obstructionists were resoundingly blasted, regardless of party affiliation. A video gently poked fun at both presidential candidates for claiming that God, history and justice were on their side.
There was talk about working with the Obama Administration, not demonizing it, and comments that the industry had to shape Obamacare, not resist it at all costs.
Clearly there was more diversity in political orientation than any conference I can remember. Or maybe attendees just felt more comfortable this time around at letting their divergent views be known.
Candy corn and bite-size Tootsie Rolls
Here, in completely random order, are pearls that I heard during the two-plus days of the conference. I identify the source here if I knew it and the attribution wouldn’t land them in trouble, or probably wouldn’t
--Places that sell more than ready-to-eat food could have an advantage over conventional grab-and-go or sit-down establishments because consumers have another reason to stop. Hudson Riehle, the head of research for the National Restaurant Association, cited such possibilities as retailers promoting their foodservice offerings through discounts on other products they sell, like gasoline.
--“ For those under age 45, their expectation of a restaurant experience involves technology. That will be another point of engagement for them.”—the NRA’s Riehle again.
--“One out of every 5 restaurateurs regards government as the biggest issue facing the business.”—Riehle once again.
--“Pro Start,” the National Restaurant Association’s program for steering disaffected high school students into a foodservice career path, “is the way our industry can change its image.”
--“This financial collapse, it has changed us.” –People Report’s Joni Doolin.
--On the industry’s handwringing over Obamacare: “Are we creating a panic within our own industry? Are we raising fears that we’re going to cut hours?”—Tina Hebert, senior director of HR for Le Madeleine. 
 For more information on the conference, scroll down to the live posts from last week.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Our national shame

Now that Mrs. Obama can shoo away the moving van, supporters of the First Lady’s efforts to curb childhood obesity don’t have to fear a backslide into broader backsides. The problem of over-eating will continue to get the spotlight.
Too bad some of the attention couldn’t be redirected to the other nutrition crisis threatening our children. Sure, many youngsters suffer from a gross imbalance in how much they eat and how many calories they burn. More disturbing is the huge but little-noticed issue of kids not getting enough calories in the first place.
We’re not talking about too many empty calories or not enough solid nutrition. We’re talking about children going hungry, period. They can’t eat because there’s insufficient money within their families to buy food..
In January, my editorial duties were expanded to include oversight of FoodService Director, a publication for the managers of high-volume feeding operations in colleges, hospitals, office buildings and schools. Speaking to readers from the latter sector, I’ve heard story after story about youngsters virtually living off the free or reduced-cost meals they’re served at school.
The accounts are heartbreaking: A young boy who’d eat half his meal, then wrap up the other half to bring home to his pre-school-aged sister.
The parent who asked a teacher to wrap up anything her child didn’t finish at lunch, so the kid would have something for that night.
The countless stories of teachers who’d call a student up to their desk, then open a drawer so the child could take a packaged snack home for dinner.
Share our Strength, the charity devoted to ending childhood hunger, surveyed teachers to see how often they dip into their own pockets to get food into their students’ mouths. The average contribution: Just over $26 per teacher.
Worst of all, the new school-feeding regulations that were put in place by the Obama Administration are aimed at curbing obesity. Toward that end, they put a cap on how many calories a youngster can be given in a free or reduced-price meal.
That’s a painful reality to teachers who know a student may at best get a meal or two over a weekend—and often won’t get anything.
Then there’s the wallop of the regulations’ requirement that student be served a piece of fresh fruit. The kids have to put the orange or two kiwis on their trays, whether they’re going to eat it or not. And often, that’s a not; a fairly costly item ends up in the trash.
It’s a national disgrace, a shame that should mobilize us all to put Share our Strength out of business.
Michelle Obama deserves high praise for underscoring the problem of childhood obesity and trying to turn that heightened awareness into action. She used the White House publicity machine well.
But all of us, from houses of all colors, have to work right now, with all we’ve got, to ensure our next generation doesn’t go to bed hungry.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Red Robin talks about the Colo. shootings

Here at People Report Best Practices Conference, Red Robin's Bill Streitberger is talking about the culture of the resurging casual dining chain. The vice president of HR offered up the illustration of how the chain responded to the shootings at the Batman screening in Aurora, at a movie theater in the same shopping mall that houses a Red Robin.

"We had 17, 18 [crew members] who went to that premier," Streitberger exlained. "We had seven of our team members who were hit, who were shot. Sully, the one who had the birthday, didn’t make it out."
Streitberger said he got a call at 4 a.m. that morning about the shooting. One of the victims was a British woman, Christine, and he tried to track down her family in the U.K. to let them know she was alive.
In the days afterward, he continued, the rest of the system rallied around the crew members from the unit. "The team members wanted to be at the hospitals, checking on their friends. So we had bartenders coming in from other restaurants...They were able to raise a little over three hundred grand to help those individuals with their bills."
Afterward, "we had a first-responder night to thank all the EMTs, firefighters, the police, the people who were at the scene. And all the kids [who'd been shot and survived] were there to say thank you. Christine was there to give a rose to the guy who carried her out. He saved her life.
"It’s a tragic story, but it also has its silver lining on how everyone pulled together," Streitberger observes.

Live from the People Report Best Practices Conference

That crash you may be hearing from Dallas is the sound of a long-taboo topic finally breaking into sunlight. One of the most respected and principled men to ever grace foodservice, Lou Kaucic, is talking from the stage about the personal cost he paid as a closeted gay man in the chain restaurant business.

"I had to face my reality," he said. "I had three things I could do about it. I could outright lie, making up stories about fictional females. I could avoid the issue--'oh, I'm just going to be hanging out with some friends.' Or I could tell the truth. Not an option. I knew I could be fired for being gay."

"I decided I would withhold any information about my personal life," he continued. "I just wanted my closet door shut."

Once, Kaucic recalled, he went to the only gay bar in Wichita, Kan., and bumped into a director from another department of the company where he was working at the time. Both looked at the other in sheer panic. Then they both ran away and never said a word about it afterward.

Another time, Kaucic was driving with his partner of eight years, Bill, when they saw someone from his company in a nearby car. Kaucic shoved his significant-other down in  his seat so the co-worker would remain oblivious to the situation. "Billy forgave me," said Kaucic. "But I haven't forgiven myself."

Another time, Kaucic and his partner were at a B&B in the Northeast, sitting in a hot tub. Lou spied the CFO of his then-employer walking toward the tub with his wife. Kaucic sank down into the water and held his breath for as long as he could. When he re-emerged, the CFO had passed.

"Just another vacation day for a man in the closet," remarked Kaucic.

Ten years ago, Kaucic decided to "out myself" as a gay man at a meeting of Applebee's GMs. Afterward, he received a note from a colleague who was there for the revelation. The writer explained that he'd been maintaining the same painful secrecy about his orientation, but no longer. The communication was the man's way of coming out.

There are undoubtedly a slew of executives who are still in the closet, fearful that they could lose their jobs despite their abilities because they don't have the same protections as a hetero job holder.

"I want to introduce you to a term that I don't think many of you know: heterosexual privelege," said Kaucic. "There are privileges you take for granted that aren't shared with my gay brothers and lesbian sisters. I want to give you a few examples:

"Putting photos of our spouses or significant other on our desks at work. Freely embracing our partners or significant others. Freely talking about our musical preferences or cultural interests without fearing ridicule."

In 30 years of attending industry conferences, I've never seen anything as courageous as this. Lou has opened the audience's eyes to a problem that it might not have even noticed. It's there, he suggested. He's aired his personal and obviously painful recollections to raise the industry's sensitivity. Talk about being heroic.

But Lou is not just complaining. As I write this, Kaucic is giving the audience practical suggestions about how to counter hostility toward gay and lesbian associates.

He even painted scenarios and worked out solutions with the audience. In one, a prized customer or key franchisee has just made a disparaging remark about a same-sex couple.

"So what do you do?" asked Kaucic. "Anybody?"

"You tell them, 'it's a shame you feel that way.'"

"Good, good," said Kaucic.

If that doesn't feel comfortable, and you're loath to go that far when you hear a disparaging remark, "just say 'ouch,'" advised Kaucic. "It sends a clear signal."

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Live from the People Report Best Practices Conference

I'm blogging live today from the People Report Best Practices Conference in Dallas. It's best to read the thread from the bottom up.

4:58: There are those of us who believe casual dining's biggest problem is the loss of rock and roll. A segment that rose to prominence by taking the starch out of full-service dining has settled into a mayonnaise-on-white-bread blandness. Add in the lack of differentiation and you have a pretty good diagnosis of what's wrong with the sector.

Every CEO in that sector should be tied to one of their concept's bar stool and forced to watch the videos that Kent Taylor showed to illustrate the culture he's cultivated at Texas Roadhouse. How often do you see a promotional clip that features an executive giving the competition the finger? Of execs doing some serious damage at the bar? Of using air horns and joke recordings a la Howard Stern at a meeting with the concept's main bank?

Rock on, Kent.

4:17: Three issues keep arising here at the conference: Obamacare, usually mentioned with pronounced disgust; fears of our economy falling off the fiscal cliff, which one speaker noted is already dampening traffic at Burger King and McDonald's, but not Wendy's (no reason was given); and, most surprising, the business importance of serving a purpose higher than the profit motive.

If you're puzzled by the latter, see the story we ran last May about Panera Bread's commitment to conscious capitalism. Here at the conference, a similar philosophy, Changers of Commerce, will be the subject of a session on Friday.

But those well-developed, comprehensive philosophies aren't the only higher purposes getting talk time. There seems to be an agreement among attendees that what engages recruits and employees is pursuing an end that's loftier than mere profits. That objective can be striving to be a better environmental steward, helping co-workers in need of help, or trying to combat social ills like childhood hunger.

If the Old Guard doubts that a new sensitivity to social issues is taking hold, they should book now for next year's PRBPC.

4:06: George McKerrow, the founder of LongHorn Steakhouse and head of the Ted's Montana Grill bison burger chain, is talking about what's next for restaurants that want to be green. For instance, he's talking about a building's co-mingled garbage being turned into clean water and energy in a system being tested in Green Bay, Wisc. He also mentioned disposable coffee cups that consist 40% of recycled fiber.

3:05: Hudson Riehle, the National Restaurant Association's master of statistics, offered this takeaway from his crystal ball: " What you’ll see is a much more rapid integration of technology into the front of the house and the back of the house. For those under age 45, their expectation of a restaurant experience involves technology. That will be another point of engagement for them."

2:55:  Lots of talk at the conference about the effects of Hurricane Sandy on dining out. The gist of it: Definitely a negative impact short term, but a prompt for consumers to treat themselves a few days down the road to the indulgence of dining out. As one speaker put it, we'll likely see a bump.

1:15: Let Harvard Business School keep its snooty reputation and blue-blood degrees. I’m listening to Kelli Valade, COO of Chili’s, and hifalutin educational systems have nothing on her.
She’s talking about what makes a successful employer. It’s not a coincidence that remaking Chili’s into a better employer led to a resurgence of the brand three years ago, as she’s proving with her riveting account of how the company changed its employment culture. That’s what made the difference to guests.
“It started with people and changing our culture,” she explained. “If you do focus on people, and you do focus on culture, you can make a remarkable difference.”

As Valade recounted, Chili's intensified that focus about three years ago, during what she termed a Perfect Storm: Declining traffic, declining sales, seemingly more dissatisfaction on the part of employees as well as guests.

Trying to pinpoint what went wrong, the chain decided to get back to the vision of its builder, the man who gave his name to the company, Normal Brinker. "'WWND"--What Would Norman Do?--"was what we talked about," recounted Valade.
 That approach led the chain to address its employees, affectionately known as Chiliheads. 
They were told, "We will get better at how we treat you. We will get better at what brought you here," she continued. 
That led to stories from the employees about why the brand was special and what they enjoyed about working at a Chili's. That, in turn, led to stories from customers about their experiences.
 The upshot was what's now Chili's marketing slogan, "More life happens here."
It's a restatement of the magic that made Chili's different at its start back in the mid-1970s.
Listening to Valade, you clearly got the sense that it's been recaptured.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Post-Sandy restaurant sensibilities

Here at Ground Zero, the most appreciated post-Sandy restaurant amenity has been the multi-socket power strip. Customers are bringing them into establishments so they can recharge a cell phone, tablet and laptop all at once.

If there’s no wall outlet available, the proper etiquette is to ask someone using a socket if the power strip can be plugged in place of whatever single device the occupant is charging. That phone or laptop gets a slot on the power strip, along with the phone, tablet or whatever of the strip’s owner. Strangers are also welcome to use any vacant socket on the strip.

Other behavioral mores are still forming. For instance, if you’re sitting at a table for hours in a Starbucks or Panera, pulling free electricity and Wi-Fi service, what’s a reasonable “rent” you should be paying? Is a coffee and bagel enough of a purchase? Are you obliged to buy breakfast and lunch if you’re there for both meals? If you’ve not bought anything in awhile, and a customer who just made a purchase is looking for a table, should you vacate yours?

Spending an inordinate amount of time in restaurants these last three days, I can attest that customers were clearly wrestling with those ethical matters. From what I could see, people more or less behaved themselves. There were some freeloaders here or there, but most would periodically buy something to eat or drink, if not a full meal.

Unbelievably, a whole party unplugged its phones and laptops to make way for us when we’d just purchased breakfast and were looking for a place to park. They vacated two wall sockets, which is kind of like giving someone an Eat Free pass.

I was going to brave the scene at gas station grab-and-go facilities, to see how the world of pre-made subs and roller dogs was faring. But the scenes outside were too ugly and obviously risky. I saw a gas line that was easily three miles long, extending from one town (East Quogue) all the way east to the next one (Hampton Bays).

I didn’t want to be around when the station ran out of gas, leaving perhaps 250 cars with nothing but the bad taste of wasted time.

You non-sufferers must be sick by now of hearing about the hardships and damage of Hurricane Sandy. But let me leave you with some perspective: The 20-plus story building that houses Restaurant Business’ editorial offices is located in southern Manhattan. It was filled with 35 feet of water, from the lobby through the basement and sub-basement.

The latter, which houses many of the building’s support features, is still under water.

The landlord says an assessment of the damage won’t be completed until a week from this writing at the earliest. Even if we wanted to go take a look, we couldn’t get in.

We’re not talking about a cabin next to a marina. This is a mid-rise building in Manhattan, not far from Wall Street.

So imagine what it was like for the hundreds of thousands of people who lived in one or two-story places along the coastlines.