Competition | June 2010 | By Deborah L. Cohen

A Cultural Difference

By developing a distinct brand culture, chief executives encourage creativity and consistency throughout their companies.

Well-prepared food by itself has never been enough to propel a fast food name to stardom. Today more than ever, a recognized personality and set of beliefs and customs is essential to set successful quick serves apart from the competition, according to industry experts and top management.

“Culture is being able to stop anyone who works in the company, ask them what the company is about, and get the same answer,” says Mathew Mabel, a Dallas-based management consultant specializing in the hospitality industry.

“Management has to exemplify the culture,” Mabel says. “They have to make it and they have to spend time measuring it.”

Mabel says it’s up to top leaders to ensure that cultural values are clearly communicated throughout the organization to operators, crew, and customers—regardless of company size.

At Canyons Burger Co., an Atlanta-based hamburger chain with two restaurants and more on the way, it’s evident the culture is centered on an active lifestyle. A menu featuring fresh-made burgers, premium white-meat chicken, and salads is complimented by relaxed restaurants that partner with local outdoor groups to promote recreational activities such as hiking and mountain biking.

The company’s Web site, peppered with photos of sporting enthusiasts, implores customers to “play hard—eat well.”

“We try to live and breathe the part,” says Canyons cofounder and president Sonny Crumpton, himself an outdoorsman who enjoys downhill skiing, mountain biking, and hiking whenever time permits. “Ideally, this is who we are. What we’re really trying to do is create an active lifestyle.”

Enthusiasm for the outdoors is communicated to restaurant management as well. Last year, Canyons designed a management retreat around a white-water rafting trip. Crumpton also looks for high-energy personnel, including managers who are comfortable spending most of their time in the front of the store supporting a counter service system, which he says “closes the gap between fast food and full service.”

Canyons was acquired last September by an investment group led by the CEO of the Mexican-style Baja Fresh chain, but remains committed to preserving its foundational values, Crumpton says. For instance, the first franchised store is planned to open in Bozeman, Montana, a town that embodies the outdoor lifestyle.

Understanding the values a company stands for and following through during a growth trajectory or slowdown in a difficult economy is not easy. But experts such as Mabel say those challenges are all the more reason quick serves must be vigilant about defining and adhering to mores that promote loyalty from customers and employees.

“Everybody has a culture—it may not be the culture they want,” says Mabel, who helps clients identify existing cultural attributes and determine whether they put the best foot forward. Top management should keep their ears to the ground with daily visits to stores, he says. It’s also important to establish methods for proper training and reinforcement, such as preshift meetings with crew.

Of course, culture goes well beyond service, restaurant ambience, and food presentation. It is defined by behavior modeled at the executive suite, says Paul Damico, brand president of Moe’s Southwest Grill, a division of Focus Brands Inc., another Atlanta-based company.

Moe’s has long been a deft promoter of a pop-culture-inspired restaurant experience characterized by its enthusiastic “Welcome to Moe’s” greeting, musical selections highlighting classic recording artists such as Barry White and Johnny Cash, and menu items like the Funk Meister taco.

The quirky environment encourages customers “to be different and to come as they are,” says Damico, noting that it’s OK for kids to eat their cookies first before they dive into their burritos.

Behind the scenes, creative expression is also the backbone of the 400-store chain’s operations. Damico supports an open-door policy where personnel are encouraged to speak up and voice their opinions. A sign on his office door reads: “This wooden barrier may look closed, but really it’s open—come on in.”

“It’s really OK to talk about things freely in this organization,” he says. “I set that tone. That’s a cultural thing.”

That’s one reason Moe’s franchisee leaders felt comfortable enough to raise their hands earlier this year and call for delaying the introduction of a new line of rice bowls, concerned that existing containers wouldn’t do justice to food presentation. Moe’s subsequently held off the launch for several weeks until a new vendor could be identified and its products patched into the supply chain, a move Damico concedes led to higher costs for the roll out.

“We act with respect, do the right thing; that’s an example of doing the right thing,” he says, adding that Moe’s follows a set of guiding principles. “Our franchisees see that behavior, and that the right decision is not always in the franchisor’s favor.”

Maintaining a strong culture sometimes means being prepared to turn away would-be operators who don’t mesh with the company’s goals, says Hans Hess, founder and CEO of Elevation Burger, a growing Arlington, Virginia–based organic burger chain of seven restaurants that promotes the tagline “ingredients matter.”

“When we hear somebody that is just focused on money, that’s a problem,” says Hess, whose culture revolves around the triple-bottom-line values of “people, profit, and planet.”

“What I’m interested in is people who want to make money and do good,” he says.

Elevation Burger tries to practice what it preaches. Moving beyond organic hamburger meat, the chain made menu changes that reflect its mission of sustainability, switching to milk without growth hormones and cookies made with organic eggs and butter.

“We’re not perfect, we’re not 100 percent organic,” Hess says, pointing out that costs sometimes override the best of intentions.

Elevation Burger has plans to add up to 15 more restaurants in 2010. As franchisee prospects increase, Hess says he has become more adamant about promoting core values, an effort that has helped attract and retain enthusiastic workers.

“Working in a restaurant like ours isn’t necessarily the most exciting thing in the world,” he says. “We recognize it, but on the other hand we do everything we can to make it an interesting and meaningful work environment for them.”