The fast food restaurant is a signature of American society. Historically, these institutions have been both reviled and revered, but their staying power is based on one simple truth: In this country, convenience is key. However, providing hot fast food to a clientele that’s constantly on the move isn’t as easy as it might seem. A well-trained workforce is required to deliver the quality, accuracy and speedy service fast food customers have come to expect.
The learning challenges fast food, or quick-service, restaurants face are similar to those found in many other industries. Most organizations strive to reduce turnover rates, train inexperienced workers and meet high quality standards, but the quick-service environment can make it especially difficult to address these issues. The searing heat from the fryers, the blinking drive-thru timers and the throngs of hungry people lined up during lunch and dinner rushes easily can intimidate new employees.
This high-speed environment can be especially overwhelming for young workers, many of whom choose fast food restaurants as their first place of employment. To help these inexperienced team members adjust to the professional realities of a workplace, Andy Lorenzen, manager of human resources at chicken restaurant chain Chick-fil-A, said it’s important to teach them a wide range of basic skills, many of which can be used elsewhere.
“When people come to Chick-fil-A as a brand new team member, they know it’s a job, but they don’t necessarily know what happens inside of a job,” he said. “We try to equip them with a full toolbox, so when they leave Chick-fil-A, they can take the things they’ve learned here and apply them to other jobs they might have in the future.”
Regardless of their level of experience, keeping workers productive and content in this fast-paced industry is necessary for quick-service restaurants to stay profitable. Turnover is a major concern for fast food companies, with hourly employees leaving at an average rate of 136 percent. Manager retention is also crucial, with their turnover rate hovering just under 40 percent.
In the past, hamburger chain White Castle has had an especially difficult time retaining employees. At one point, turnover rates for hourly workers climbed to more than 250 percent. Using a combination of satisfaction surveys and new training techniques, however, the company has reduced those rates to about 108 percent.
John Kelley, White Castle’s assistant vice president of training and human resources, said offering comprehensive training and a positive corporate culture made workers more comfortable and successful in their jobs, and it ultimately encouraged them to stay longer with the company.
“White Castles where the training is rated higher have lower turnover rates and also are more likely to have a higher percentage of satisfied team members,” Kelley said. “In addition to the quality of our training, one of our big drivers of satisfaction is our caring and supportive culture. We want team members to feel like they’re part of something bigger, not just somebody standing there, dropping fries when a customer asks.”
Mike Sutter, director of training for Wingstop Restaurants Inc., a chain of chicken wing restaurants, said reducing turnover starts with bringing the right people through the door.
He also said the company’s new three-tiered interviewing system, which has potential hires meet with three different company representatives, has helped managers identify ideal Wingstop workers, cut down on crew member turnover and increased the success of its learning program.
“Before, people said, ‘As long as you bring a hot body to me, I can train them to do their job.’ We’ve found that’s not a very successful pattern,” he said. “It’s important to find somebody that wows you and won’t just be a heartbeat in a position. Anybody can be trained to do a position, but hiring right is the key to this whole successful pattern.”
The company uses an interview guide that outlines 17 different qualities, that would be found in the ideal candidate. Although managers don’t expect good hires to excel in every area, this process ensures new workers have many of the desired characteristics and helps supervisors identify where they will need the most help.
“By doing it this way, we know where we have to work with the individual,” Sutter said. “If they’re shy on leadership skills, it’s very easy to work with someone once you know they are lacking that skill.”
Lorenzen agreed a good selection process plays a crucial part in retaining Chick-fil-A employees. The company’s selection, however, starts with the owners and operators of Chick-fil-A restaurants. The company’s low turnover rates, which float around 90 percent, primarily are maintained because of the business practices and cultural norms embraced by its franchisees.
“We spend an inordinate amount of time selecting the franchisees that run a Chick-fil-A restaurant and helping them understand the kind of culture that team members appreciate,” Lorenzon said. “If you can build a great culture, you’re probably going to keep people.”
Once quality team members have been brought onboard, fast food establishments must address the learning needs of their new employees. Most quick-service restaurants are broken up into stations or positions (such as fryer, grill, cashier and food prep), with each job requiring specific training.
Some companies teach workers all the positions at once, giving them a holistic view of the store’s operations, while others have a stratified system that requires testing and certification before an employee can move on. Whatever their training strategy, the learning leaders from many fast food organizations agree complete cross-functionality increases productivity and encourages the teamwork their stores rely on to succeed.
Kelley said teaching workers multiple positions demonstrates that every role is required for a White Castle to run smoothly. Cross-training also has business advantages because it enables crew members to pick up the slack when someone calls in sick. Kelley said this strategy works so well, the company has begun to cross-train workers in its meat plants, bakeries, manufacturing factories and even in its training department.
“We’ve got a training department of eight, and we’ve found we’re better able to serve our customers — which is the restaurant division and the team members that work at the company — if everybody knows a little bit about everything,” he said.
Many restaurants provide incentives to encourage workers to learn new positions. Some offer pay increases when employees are trained on a new station, while others take a more fun-focused approach. At drive-in restaurant chain Sonic, Diane Prem, vice president of operation services, said cross-training workers helps them serve customers faster and build camaraderie within the drive-ins. To emphasize this focus on teamwork, Sonic has developed the Dr Pepper Sonic Games.
This elaborate, Olympics-style competition combines time trials, mystery shops, knowledge bowls and a dramatic final round at Sonic’s national convention to determine the nation’s top three drive-ins each year. This year, 2,600 of the chain’s roughly 3,000 restaurants have signed up to participate.
“The Sonic Games help promote teamwork and set goals for the drive-ins to achieve,” Prem said. “What we find is that crew members get very excited about achieving those goals. It gets a whole team of people, management and crew members, really striving to get to the final round of the Sonic Games.”
Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, which runs both Checkers and Rally’s Hamburgers, also focuses on incentives to promote teamwork and high performance. The company’s most coveted prize, a space on its annual incentive cruise, is awarded to the top 100 managers from 275 corporate stores. The managers primarily are judged on their store’s financial growth over the previous year, and the winners and their spouses meet in Florida each March for a five-day Caribbean cruise.
Steven Cohen, senior vice president of human resources, said offering this prize to managers and their families encourages them to stick with the company, even when the work gets rough.
“The restaurant business is tough — it’s seven days a week, it’s long, long hours, and many times a restaurant manager can say, ‘I don’t feel like going to work today,’” Cohen said. “But they get the taste of that success once, and they don’t want to give it up. We have quite a few people who have been with us on all seven cruises. So, we’re taking stores that were already the cream of the crop, and they’re becoming even better the following year to get back on that ship.”
Even though money and prizes make workers happy, there’s a limit to the satisfaction these items can bring, Sutter said. To supplement the impact of monetary pay increases, Wingstop offers pins that distinguish employee achievements. When employees get a pin, their name is published in the corporate newsletter and on the Web site to give high-performing employees their “15 minutes of fame,” he said.
“When we went out and did research on how to make our people as happy as possible, it came back that public recognition was the No. 1 impact for people,” Sutter explained. “Public recognition, knowing that you’re actually doing a good job and that your peers are looking up to you, is a great thing.”
Showing workers opportunities for advancement exist within in an organization also can encourage them to commit their time and effort to actively advancing their careers. Chick-fil-A’s “Seasoned Professionals” program helps long-term team members develop their leadership skills and meet their own personal goals.
The program teaches experienced employees how to interview people and supervise a crew, but it also offers lessons on business education and career management. Last year, the company even offered $1.2 million in college scholarships.
“It’s about creating confidence and unlocking potential,” Lorenzen said. “One of the great things about Chick-fil-A is we try to help people understand that they can be much more than they think they can be. We teach our operators to coach toward someone’s strengths and to develop for their own uniqueness and their individual goals as team members.”
Other fast food companies design stratified learning programs that offer long-term internal career development options. At Sonic, each new position builds on the competencies learned in the previous roles, so workers can see how far they’ve come and identify the new skills they need to take the next step.
Sonic’s managerial program, “Passport to Success,” allows individuals to track their own performance in a “passport” that resembles the official document. After each training session, students receive a stamp to prove they have completed the course.
“Carrying around that little passport really gets people engaged,” Prem explained. “It’s a simple way to market and build awareness for training.”
“Passport to Success” also helps Sonic remind its employees that training doesn’t have to be a chore.
“Learning is fun,” Prem said. “If you can build your training programs so there’s a fun element to it, then people get engaged.”
– Tegan Jones, firstname.lastname@example.org