Arby's reveals a secret ingredient to its turnaround

arbys employees

Restaurant chains in turnaround mode tend to follow a particular course, and Arby’s was no exception—at least for a stretch. It, too, changed ad agencies, sent executives on a listening tour of stores, and came up with a fresh, new look for the brand.

But that was where it took a major detour.

“It became apparent you could rearrange the physical look of the restaurant, but at the end of the day all you came away with was a new building if you couldn’t get the commitment of the people who run it,” recalls Rick Gestring, Arby’s vice president of brand and operations integration. What was missing was the engagement and buy-in of the crewmembers.

The chain took a gamble that it could update attitudes as well as the physical plant. In a six-month scramble, headquarters pulled together a three-hour timeout where leadership could explain how the brand was recasting itself, what its new mission would be, and how employees could use that moment to recalibrate their own aims, separate from their job. By design, the focus was as much on changing the workers’ lives as it was on altering the course of Arby’s.

“We wanted to make a statement about how we cared about them,” says Gestring, the architect of what’s known today as Brand Champ.

The results far surpassed a warm, fuzzy feeling at the start of Arby’s turnaround in 2014. The stores that participated in the Brand Champ program saw sales and traffic spike.

“Our transactions were significantly better at the restaurants where we did it,” Gestring notes. “It was so successful in its financial results, we immediately started to hurdle our [target] number for the return” on the redesigns.

The results prompted headquarters to make Brand Champ an annual event and expand it systemwide. “We cascaded it first to all Arby’s-operated restaurants, and then we cascaded it to our franchised restaurants,” says Gestring.

Some salesmanship was needed, since there is the cost to franchisees of paying employees to attend Brand Champ, he acknowledges. Yet “there’s one thing that really motivates franchisees, and that’s an increase in sales and transactions,” he jokes.

Last year, 85% of hourly employees systemwide participated in a Brand Champ session. The program is usually led by field-level leadership, using materials generated by the home office.

“We spend less than $100,000 on the content,” says Gestring. “It costs the franchisees less than $30.”

The toughest challenge, he says, is making sure the same message is delivered across 3,200 stores. The chain makes use of its trainers to train field personnel to be Brand Champ leaders. And much of the message is delivered in video form, with the session leaders following up and facilitating a conversation among the employees about what they’ve just seen.

The content remains a blend of explaining the chain’s mission and methods and encouraging employees to draft a strategic plan for their lives. Last year, half the program focused on personal goal setting, with no connection to Arby’s.

Gestring recalls one participant pledging to help his cousin with schoolwork so the relative wouldn’t end up in jail. Another team member decided during a break to propose to his girlfriend, an Arby’s employee who was also in the session, after thinking about his life plan.

“This year we made it specifically about making a difference in the lives of others,” says Gestring. “It’s one thing asking them to set goals about themselves. It’s completely different to ask them about doing something for someone else.”

Meanwhile, the brand continues to reap financial benefits from the program, which is now offered chainwide.

“It’s a really, really important story for us, and an important part of the Arby’s revitalization,” Gestring says.

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