What The Home Depot can teach restaurateurs

Peter Romeo

Director of Digital Content

View more articles by Peter Romeo

The co-founder of The Home Depot volunteered some home-maintenance advice after my phone went dead three times during an interview last week.

"You have to pay your phone bill," Bernie Marcus said with obvious merriment when we reconnected. "Now you can do it online or through e-mail. It's really easy."

So was interviewing one of the best-known entrepreneurs in American retailing, even if I'm a restaurant writer who doesn't know more about The Home Depot than what I've experienced as a customer. Hearing Marcus recount his late-‘70s vision for the category killer, I could've been listening to any restaurateur reliving a start-up. Still, the details were different enough to provide a unique perspective to chain builders in foodservice, which is why we've booked Marcus as a keynote speaker at our Restaurant Leadership Conference.

Consider, for instance, how Marcus and partner Art Blank tried to differentiate The Home Depot through its style of service. They wanted their associates on the floor to be teachers who could guide customers through a project, not drones who'd merely fetch a product or take down orders to fill. If there are restaurateurs still in business who don't want their wait staff to know the menu inside and out, I've yet to meet them. And if the server can enhance the experience with recommendations or insights, isn't that preferable, if not ideal?

Restaurateurs want servers with those capabilities, but few can boast having built a service team like that. Marcus will share how he and Blank succeeded by cultivating the appropriate culture. Through communication and the right sort of training, he says, The Home Depot put teacher-associates on the floor without paying more than the prevailing wage.

He'll also talk about how The Home Depot fended off a withering challenge from a concept that looked and operated exactly like it. Apparently the restaurant business isn't the only one where newcomers are "inspired" by successful predecessors.

But I bet Marcus will really get rolling after voicing his fear that a day may come when dreamers can't create another The Home Depot, Chipotle, or Red Lobster. He's convinced that entrepreneurship, and possibly even capitalism itself, is threatened in the United States by off-kilter perceptions of business and the division that's allowed to stand between employer and employees.

That'll be when you wonder, Is this guy really 84 years old, with enough money to never leave the golf course? It's been 40 years since he took a bet on a big box hardware store that brought every sort of home-improvement supply under one roof, yet the entrepreneurial fire still burns.

Marcus is an evangelist for a form of free enterprise that every successful restaurateur has savored. I'm sure his message at the Restaurant Leadership Conference will resonate with chain-restaurant executives. I'd bet my next month's phone bill on it.

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