Lessons from a Burger Joint

March 1, 2009
If you want to create excitement and loyalty among customers, start with your employees and your mission.

Imagine opening 500 new locations in 2009. Imagine taking a low-skilled work environment and having employees committed to customer service and product quality. A pipe dream?

I found such a company by chance. I was meeting a group of business contacts at a lunch meeting set up at a Five Guys burger place. I'd heard one friend brag on Five Guys food, but it wasn't enough to inspire me to break my “no fast food” mindset. Did one lunch meeting change my mindset? In the two months since my first visit, I've been to Five Guys restaurants in four states! I tell my clients about them. I talk to my audiences about them. What can your business learn from a burger joint? The five ingredients of Five Guys success.

I was so impressed with the food quality, the dining room cleanliness and the attitude of the young employees working there, I asked to sit down with a local franchisee to pick his brain. He gave me a full 90 minutes of his time. Here is what I learned.

  1. Employee Buy-In

    Managers frequently tell me they just can't get the younger generation employees to work or even care about working, yet at Five Guys I am always greeted with a smile, the orders are right an exceptionally high number of times, and as soon as the rush is over, cleaning is every employee's focus without being prompted. How do you get this to happen with a minimum wage employee? Easy. You check behind them and offer a monetary reward. At this point, Five Guys has 400 locations and every location is mystery shopped twice a week! (Where do I sign up?!) If your store is rated in the top 10 percent of locations on the 46-item checklist your store receives a check for $700. When you score a perfect 100 rating, your store automatically gets $100. If your location is shopped after 9:30 p.m. and your store shows no signs of closing (they close at 10 p.m.) and your rating is above a 95, you get a check for $500.

    The franchisee I talked to told me he distributed the “bonuses” every six weeks to those who were working on the shift that got shopped. He told me some of his employees get bonus checks of hundreds of dollars every six weeks! No wonder they have buy-in. Their work is being audited regularly and in detail. The feedback is swift and any errors have a chance to be corrected and rechecked quickly for improvement. The feedback is detailed and scored on consistent measurements. The ratings are king when the financial rewards are attached directly to performance.

    Paying for performance and customer satisfaction is the best way to get employee buy-in. In this case, the team has to work together at the same time each member takes care of his or her individual responsibilities. Whether a sales force, back office group or frontline employees in a burger place - pay for performance based on consistent measurement works for buy-in.

  2. Keep it Simple

    Five Guys sells burgers, fries, hot dogs and drinks. There ends the menu. Not forty-seven items to choose from, although they do offer 16 burger toppings you can add at no additional fee. It's simple. It's clean. And the best part is no science experiments are involved. The burgers are 100 percent beef, never frozen and hand pattied. The fries are potatoes hand cut and deep fried in peanut oil … period.

    In the quest to be all things to all people, businesses overcomplicate matters. In the constant effort to grab market share, businesses overextend themselves trying to be the one-stop shop for everything. Stop the insanity and focus! The new economy calls for a focused approach and niche targeting. Do what you do best. Keep your offerings to just those and dominate a niche. You want a good burger and fries? Five Guys is your stop. You want subs, salads, pizzas, ice cream, chicken, fish or soup? Go to the guys who think they can deliver a good product in all of those items at once.

  3. Over-Deliver

    Last month I told a Louisville, Ky., client about Five Guys and how they do such a great job. Three days after my program, a write-up appeared in the local paper about a new Five Guys opening in the region. On my most recent visit with my client they insisted on taking me to lunch to a “new place” and dodged my questions on the name or menu of this “new place,” which turned out to be in Indiana!!! Yes, we drove 30 minutes to go visit the newly opened Five Guys. It was their first experience, and they enjoyed a good giggle seeing the look on my face when we arrived.

    Seven of us ordered our burgers with our various toppings of choice, and five of us ordered fries. Not only did our burgers arrive with exactly the toppings we requested, but the five fry orders were laughable in the amount of food that came to our table. We took pictures because not only did seven of us have our fill, but we carried back what felt like three pounds of fries to share with the rest of the office.

    Do your customers look at you with awe when you deliver your products? Are they blown away with the service and attention to detail you deliver on a daily basis? Most companies today are looking for ways to raise prices, reduce quantity and give the minimum for the dollar to their customers. Now is the time to over-deliver, impress your customers and make a statement that you always put the customer's needs first.

  4. Hire the Right People

    I asked the franchisee what he looks for when he hires managerial and front-line employees. The first thing he said was they need to talk more than he does in the interview process. If they are good communicators, they will fit well into the system because the staff has to work together and communicate clearly to get orders done right. The people working the register have to be personable with customers as they greet them and take their orders.

    He has learned most applicants with experience from certain chains wash out; he no longer even interviews them if those chains are in their work history. “It's not about the experience; it's about their ability to learn the right way - our way,” he said. “I don't have to hire ‘warm bodies’ because we have a system that rewards good performance and exposes bad performance.” The good performers expect to be paid for their performance; the bad performers are not looking to be mystery shopped with that much frequency.”

    What hiring selection criteria are you using? What role does previous experience play in your hiring decision? Can you determine whether someone is a good communicator or how positive their attitude is from reading a resume? Then why bother asking for one? Having hiring standards and predictability of success based on interview actions will save time, money and customers and pass that savings directly to the bottom line.

  5. Let the Products Speak for Themselves

    Five Guys spends no money on advertising. They are not worried about the cost of print media or radio or TV or billboards. They have no cutesy icons or gimmicks, unless you count the bins of roasted peanuts in the shells free for the munching while you wait on your food to be prepared. They let their products and service speak for themselves. Their only marketing is the word of mouth of not just satisfied customers but Five Guys Fans. Think every burger place has to have a drive-thru? Not these guys. They have no drive-thru because that isn't the experience they want for their customers. Their freshly cooked food isn't intended for drive-thru eaters; it's to be enjoyed sitting down at a table.

    Five Guys plans to double the number of restaurants they have within the next 12 months. I'd say their products are speaking loudly. Are your products so amazing that your customers have to tell others about them? How about your customer service? How well would you be able to grow your business if you had no outbound sales or marketing?

    It's time to put these five ingredients into the mix in your operation to raise the level of success you are experiencing. Now is the time to create fans out of your customers by overwhelming the competition with your attention to the customer, delivery schedules, and positive attitude. Everyone knows the economic climate is challenging — show them you know how to win in all times!

Russell J. White is president of Pinnacle Solutions Inc., Lake Wylie, S.C. He is an author, trainer and international speaker with 25 years of experience as a Fortune 500 manager and consultant. White is the author of “Debunking the Designated Decoy: Get to the Truth in Your Organization!” and “Little White Truths: Lessons for Leadership.” You can contact him at (877) 275-9468 or [email protected]. His website is www.PinnacleSolutions.org.