Confessions of an ‘Undercover Boss’

Now in its fifth season, CBS’s “Undercover Boss” gives executives a first-hand look at what is really going on in their respective companies. About a dozen restaurateurs have appeared on the show, working in disguise side by side with employees. Several of them spoke to us about what they learned and how they were able to connect with their workers in a new way.

Boss: Anthony Wedo, CEO
Location: Buffets, Inc.
Headquarters: Eagan, Minn.
Episode aired: Oct. 18, 2013

What were some of the highlights of the workday?
I enjoyed seeing how our employees—with all their life struggles—engaged with our guests. I see the potential for growth for some of these employees, and it’s exciting to know that we have people who can grow with our company.

I really enjoyed talking to [guests], welcoming them to the restaurant, thanking them for visiting and serving them. I don’t have the opportunity to engage with guests often, so it was a pleasure to thank people for their support.

What were some of the low points of the workday?
Seeing some of the inefficiencies, like the register system. It was frustrating that these inefficiencies slowed down our ability to serve our guests. Customers pay for the best experience possible, and when something as simple as purchasing a meal is delayed by an old register system or a broken credit-card reader, then the quality of that experience diminishes.

Have you made any operational changes since the show?
When I worked with [employee] Joey Parrish at the Country Buffet, in Arvada, Colo., he shared with me the way he demonstrates the temperature [doneness] of steaks to our guests. He slices the steak on the grill and shows the interior temperature [pinkness] to the customer while they stand by. This is a great idea that significantly cuts down on waste, and it’s easy to execute. We are developing a rollout schedule to implement the same procedure systemwide for restaurants with display grills.

Also, we are going to spend over $3 million to update our register system throughout all our stores. This will allow cashiers to process transactions more quickly, and results in shorter lines for guests.

Any advice for other operators?
I knew that some of our restaurants had issues, but I didn’t realize how serious some were until I had the opportunity to get a real look at what was happening. Check in with your employees and get their input. But, most importantly, realize that you are serving not only guests but your employees too. 

Boss: Jane Grote Abell, Chairman
Location: Donatos Pizza
Headquarters: Gahanna, Ohio
Episode aired: Oct. 11, 2013

What were the biggest lessons you learned being on the show?
I was amazed at how much our people go through in their lives, and yet, they come to work every day with a sense of pride and passion. Their fortitude inspired me to learn all that I can so we can make a difference in their lives mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally. We need to make sure we have the communication channels open so all our family members know they can have a voice.

Have you made any operational changes since the show?
One employee pointed out how old the computer system was at her location, so we are implementing better computer systems in the stores and a better online ordering system. Another pointed out how unflattering our uniforms were for our female employees, so we are implementing better unisex uniforms.

We’ve always tried to help employees through donations of [paid time off], collecting monies to offset medical costs or help with funeral expenses. Our associates inquired as to whether we could set up a fund to have monies available at any time. We are launching the Donatos Family Promise Fund to meet this demand. Associates can contribute to the fund via a payroll deduction, and the company plans to contribute to the fund too.

Any advice for other operators?
Be authentic, and be present in the restaurants. Don’t put on a dog and pony show with a scheduled visit—just stop in and say hello. It is easy to think that strategy is something different than actually being out in the restaurants. But honestly, being side by side with the people serving the customers is where strategy should be formed.

Boss: Andy Wiederhorn, CEO
Location: Fatburger
Headquarters: Beverly Hills, Calif.
Episode aired: April 5, 2013

What were some of the highlights of the workday?
The highlight of my day would be hearing the employees’ life stories and understanding what led them to choosing to join the Fatburger family. Being undercover gave me the opportunity to connect with the employees in a different way than if I walked in without my disguise.

What were some of the low points of the workday?
I think my low point would be cooking and assembling burgers incorrectly. I am all about providing quality, custom-made burgers at a fast pace, so I was frustrated that I couldn’t keep up. The last thing I want is customers waiting longer than they have to.

What were the biggest lessons you learned?
Since becoming 99 percent franchisee-operated, a lot of our franchisees were not recognizing employees as we wished. Since “Undercover Boss,” we have instituted an employee recognition program so everyone in the Fatburger family is properly honored and acknowledged for their efforts. Also, we have an email exchange program where employees can send feedback to corporate. I think it’s important to not only commend employees for their hard work, but involve them in the brand as they often will have some of the best ideas from first-hand experience.

Have any advice for restaurant employees?
Put things into perspective and realize the situation of the franchisee. At the end of the day, those folks are trying to run a restaurant to sustain a livelihood ... and create and maintain jobs for people in their communities.


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