It was 1968 and I’d been at the Leo Burnett Company for about a year. There was a coffee shop on the ground floor of the Prudential Building where Leo had its offices. I was treating myself to a coffee at the counter when a gentleman asked me if the stool next to me was vacant. He sat down and ordered coffee and asked me how it was going.
He assumed I worked for Burnett since I had that advertising look. I told him my job was great, some of the most fun I have had. I had just been promoted to time buyer on Allstate Insurance and I explained my job. He seemed very interested and the time flew.
I realized I needed to get upstairs and he picked up his briefcase and came along. At the elevators, people kept saying good morning to him, and finally someone said, “Good morning, Mr. Burnett.” Yep, I had just had coffee and a conversation with the man himself. That was when I became a Leo groupie. And I was at the famous 1967 Christmas speech when he threatened to throw all the apples down the elevator shaft.
The quick-serve business is tough and getting tougher. I decided to dig out a little book I have called 100 Leo’s and take a look at how it was then compared to a conversation I had recently with a few restaurant folks whose collective experience predates the Bible. I’ve changed a few words here and there, but not the ideas.
To get started, here’s a Leo statement that defines how we as restaurant people should be thinking: “When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud, either.” It’s easy to say, but tough to do when you are fighting for your life to stay in business. But maybe if we could start thinking like this, our plans wouldn’t be so short term and nasty. We could start planning the future of our restaurants past tomorrow. And we wouldn’t get caught up in so much marketingese. Someone lately asked me for my business plan. My reply? “More sales, more profit, more stores.” That’s my reach for the stars.
Boy, I have never seen so much caution in the industry. No one is taking a chance. The discount and the special are king. Leo once said, “To swear off making mistakes is very easy. All you have to do is swear off having ideas.” I sure hope we never get to that point. I would rather hear, “Make mistakes. Just never make the same one twice.”
We have to keep working at it. The food is never the best it could be. The service could always be a little faster and friendlier. And the store can always use a little more mop and pail. Leo’s words were, “There’s no such thing as a permanent success.” Every day we can figure out one way to make it better. In fact, maybe that should be our challenge. What is one thing I can do to be just a little more successful?
As a member of our calling, no matter what your job, there is one thing that matters the most: It’s personal satisfaction, the absolute knowledge that you have done your best. I sincerely hope that the passion we have for this business will not be overshadowed by the quest for money. The key word is passion. There’s no passion fulfilled like seeing a restaurant work well. A good friend and life-long restaurant man said that. In the words of Leo: “Personal satisfaction comes in the day-to-day feeling that one has earned his or her pay.”
Leo also said, “Fun without working hard gets nowhere, but working hard without fun tends to become obnoxious.” Why am I in this business? Because it is fun and I love it. I have watched the well-orchestrated dance of a great crew as they handle order after order. It looks so easy, and they are smiling. They’re working hard and having fun. One without the other doesn’t work.
In my conversation with those restaurant folks, we were talking about how complicated everything seems now. Equipment, procedures, food safety, green initiatives, and human resources problems all lead to a feeling of frustration that we must combat. Back in the day, Leo said, “Keep it simple. Let’s do the obvious thing—the common thing—but let’s do it uncommonly well.”
As it gets harder to make ends meet, people get more desperate. The restaurant folks and I talked about theft reduction out the front and back. Various solutions were discussed. Maybe it’s simply about making people understand the ramifications of what they are doing to their jobs and their lives. Leo said it best when he said, “Regardless of the moral issue, dishonesty has proved very unprofitable.” One person can cost lots of people their livelihood.
Here’s one we have to keep in mind today: We get so deeply into the workings of the restaurant that we forget what it is like to be a customer. It becomes almost adversarial. It’s, “What does he want from me now?” rather than, “What can I do for that customer to make him happier?” Leo was very pronounced on this one. “If you can’t turn yourself into your customer, you probably shouldn’t be in the business at all,” he said. Get a wig and some dark glasses and a Columbo trench coat and go be a customer at your restaurant, if that’s what it takes.
We may continue this conversation again some day, but in the meantime, I will end with this thought: Work is not work if it is passionate. If you truly want to do what you are doing and do it, the money will follow. Passion is rewarded. In Leo’s words: “In a world where nobody seems to know what’s going to happen next, the only thing to do to keep from going completely nuts from frustration is plain old-fashioned work.” And that, boys and girls, is what kept the apples out of the elevator shaft.
A Peaceful Life, Happy Trails, and remember the goblins at the end of this month in your restaurants.