Executive Insights | June 2010 | By Sam Oches

The Secret Recipe

Biscuitville CEO Burney Jennings built a quick-service system around a great biscuit and an even better corporate culture. What can he teach your brand about employee morale?

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How important is crew culture to Biscuitville’s success?

It’s huge. They’re the contact point for the customer. For us it’s about making the day better. And that really starts from the top down. Our feedback from our customers is that we have very friendly and personable crew, and it really starts when you hire that person. If you hire somebody that is happy and smiles, you’re probably going to get a happy customer. It’s crucial to our success.

What does Biscuitville do to ensure a good first point of contact with the customer?

We like to say we have a fun place to work. It is hard work, especially being in breakfast, we have a short period of time when we’re doing a lot of business. So it can be stressful, but we try to keep it a fun place to work. Part of that is that interaction with the customers, where they know the customers—we have regular customers they see every day, and they learn their names and know what they order usually before they walk in the door.

Is there a special creed the company uses to guide its employees?

A guy named Phil Johnston wrote a book, [Biscuitville: The Secret Recipe for Building a Sustainable Competitive Advantage] … and he talks about the fact that we don’t have a written ethics policy. Really, we talk about the Golden Rule and living by the Golden Rule. It’s “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That is a part of it. We also have our values of respect, integrity—values that you would find in many other companies. But for us, focusing on the Golden Rule is a point of difference.

How does crew treatment differ between store and corporate employees?

We do our best to make it similar across the board. About a year and a half ago we had a company theme that was called “One Company, One Team,” to help all of our people to understand that it’s not “you’re in corporate, you’re in the restaurants,” but we’re all one company and one team. You need initiatives like that to remind people that it’s all about making the customer’s day better. For somebody who’s working in corporate, their customer may be one of the stores, or maybe another department. But it all gets back to the final customer, who’s paying to buy the biscuits.

According to the book, Biscuitville, you lead with a “soft power” leadership style. What is that?

I call it “trying to make decisions by consensus.” We have quite a few committee meetings and management meetings where we discuss issues, and rather than me say, “It’s going to be this way,” we try to use people’s talents and advice, and come to a consensus as a group on decisions. I still reserve the right to make the final decision, but it’s more of a group decision-making.

How does the tradition of the stores translate to the customers?

Our restaurants are set up on a profit-share system. For our store operators, it’s like being an entrepreneur, because they’re paid based on the profitability of their restaurant. And I think that is quite different than a lot of our competition in the restaurant industry, unless they’re a franchisee and they have one restaurant. So that seems to make a difference, at least on our culture of how we operate the restaurants. It translates into higher income for our operators. Last year, that number was around $88,000 a year for their income. And that’s significantly higher than our competition.

What is employee turnover like at Biscuitville?

We are told that our turnover is lower than the industry average. Our operator turnover, what people would call general managers in our industry, is somewhere around 15 percent. Last year our turnover was 5 percent. I think that’s an unusual number because we were in a recession, so before that it’s been 18 percent for two years. On the crew side, we were 71 percent in ’09, and I think that’s still unfair to take that number and say that’s what it normally is, because a year before it was 117 percent. Obviously, the economy has an affect. Management, which really is the foundation of the company, having that low of a number helps us maintain the culture of Biscuitville.

How does Biscuitville’s crew culture give it a competitive advantage in the industry?

When we look at the Golden Rule and making the day better, we feel like we are more of a family, and the folks who have worked with us have told us that sometimes they get confused between their own personal family and the Biscuitville family. And we think that that gives us a competitive advantage.

It’s loyalty to the company, it’s loyalty to your fellow employees. But we’re all about taking care of each other, which translates into, how can we continue this and be successful? It gets right back down to why we’re in business, and it’s we’re in business to provide a service to our customer, and that’s the biscuits. What is that competitive advantage ultimately? That’s making the day better for our customer.

Is the people-first method a risky move for a business?

You can have the best ingredients in the world, but if you don’t have the people who can execute it, you have nothing. When we think about people first, it’s the people that make us successful. You can have the best ingredients, you can have the best process, but if your folks don’t understand that and are able to execute that, you really have nothing. So for us, it is absolutely people first.