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.

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