One of the lesser-publicized elements of Noodles & Company’s turnaround occurred inside HQ. Dave Boennighausen, who was named permanent CEO in June 2017, had spent much of his early months (he was named to the interim post the previous summer) addressing turnover north of 200 percent in restaurants. Perhaps equally pressing, it was 50 percent at the manager level.
Boennighausen previously told QSR the company had to become more ops-focused in its strategy and quicker to make “tough decisions we knew would maybe not be the most popular decisions, but would pay out in the long term in terms of helping our operations execute better.”
This would involve a significant menu overhaul, including the removal of sandwiches and flatbreads, as well as the introduction of Zoodles. After swinging a net loss of $37.5 million in fiscal 2017, as well as the closure of 55 stores that Q1, the brand’s trajectory flipped upward. By July 2018, Noodles reported its first positive comp quarter since Q1 of 2015. Traffic posted its best climb in six years and AUVs rose close to $30,000 (to $1.092 million).
Accelerate to the present and Noodles’ six straight quarters of year-over-year declines, which preceded winter 2017, are old news. Noodles opened its largest count of stores (seven) in a quarter since 2016 this past period. AUVs in March were $1.35 million, $170,000 above pre-COVID levels. And the 453-unit brand expects to secure 35 openings this year, or 8 percent growth, as it tracks toward an ultimate goal of 1,500 locations.
But along this run, Noodles didn’t lose sight of the employee proposition or the culture it wanted to build. It was named a Best Place to Work by the Denver Business Journal in 2019 and recognized in Forbes’ 2021 Best Employers for Women.
In September 2020, Noodles formed a “Inclusion & Diversity Advisory Council” comprised of 15 members (seven women, nine people of color, and four members that represent the LGBTQ+ community), which led to the creation of a dedicated I&D function and inclusion and diversity role. Also, monthly inclusion and diversity newsletters; an internal resource library; and mandatory unconscious bias education and training company-wide.
Tips included, Noodles boasts average hourly team member pay today of $15 ($13.88 for employees under the age of 18). Assistant GMs average about $50,000 per year; GMs north of $65,000; and area managers more than $100,000.
Some other benefits include a weight loss program; student loan debt assistance; six weeks of paid paternity or maternity leave; surrogacy coverage up to $10,000; adoption assistance (also up to $10,000); floating holidays; paid health days free in-person and virtual mental health counseling; pet insurance; tuition assistance; English and Spanish courses; and 401k with company match. More on this suite of options here.
And the numbers followed:
Hourly employee turnover
- 2017: 155 percent
- 2021: 128 percent
- 2018: 43 percent
- 2021: 35 percent
Average general manager tenure
- 2018: 4.3 years
- 2021: 5.5 years
Noodles’ next act
On Wednesday, the 1995-founded fast casual launched fresh brand positioning, “Uncommon Goodness.” It’s a moniker, the company said, that extends from employee care to guest experience to sourcing.
“Uncommon Goodness has truly been at the core of Noodles & Company for the past 25 years,” CMO Stacey Pool says in an interview with QSR. “From our menu innovations to guest rewards and team member benefits, Noodles has sought to inspire every person who walks into our restaurants. Uncommon Goodness embodies our values-centric mission and goals for the future of the brand. Overall Uncommon Goodness is who we are from the inside out and we have created this brand platform to showcase how we infuse Uncommon Goodness into everything we do.”
The platform will unfurl in coming weeks across a new exclusive offering for rewards members, added employee benefits, and a campaign that “embodies Uncommon Goodness through Noodles’ Biggest Fan.”
To start, Noodles began by launching a new proprietary noodle, LEANguini, nationwide. It has 56 fewer net carbs and 44 percent more protein than traditional wheat pasta, the company said. It’s available to rewards members through May 18, when it will go live to all customers.
The product was tested in select markets in January and will debut alongside a new dish, LEANguini Lemon Parmesan. Guests can also substitute LEANguini into any noodle option on the menu for a $1 upcharge.
With the employee care changes, Pool says they’re “truly industry-leading benefits that show how much Noodles & Company is dedicated to being the best place to work in the industry and how much we value our team members.”
“In 2020, we revamped our LifeAtNoodles program, expanding our already comprehensive and industry-leading team member benefits,” she adds “We began offering team members unique benefits that lead with mental health and inclusion and diversity in mind. A few of these benefits include surrogacy and adoption assistance, student loan debt reimbursements, and six weeks of paid paternity leave. At Noodles, we are committed to showing we care which is why we invested more than $7.5 million into our team members to broaden our offerings and continue our commitment to putting our people first.”
Immigration reimbursement: To assist team members in renewing, obtaining, or supporting work authorization, citizenship, or immigration status, Noodles & Company will reimburse team members up to $500 every two years to aid them with fees associated with their immigration or work status journey.
Pool elaborated on this update in particular. “At Noodles, we aim to foster an inclusive and diverse environment, so we are especially proud of our immigration reimbursement program as it is an uncommon benefit that can truly make a difference in team members’ lives,” she says. “… As we know some of our team members could highly benefit from this program, we’ve been in talks for some time now about adding it to our list of benefits and are thrilled it will be rolling out this May.”
General Manager Equity Partner Program: Noodles general managers now have the opportunity to enter a General Manager Equity Partner Program. Based on meeting specific short and long-term performance objectives, those who qualify will receive $50,000 of restricted stock units upon three years from entry into the program.
Noodles Balance Bucks: Noodles incentivizes assistant general managers and above to invest in their mental, financial, and physical health through Balance Bucks, an annual reimbursement for qualifying expenses (up to $625). Team members can receive reimbursement for expenses that directly tie to their mental, financial, and physical wellbeing. Examples of covered expenses include gym membership, pet adoption, cleaning services, and more.
2022 quarterly mental health series: Noodles will host quarterly live virtual and in-person mental health workshops focused on equipping leaders with the tools they need to take care of themselves and their teams.
Noodles Resource Groups (NRGs): Noodles will introduce its version of Employee Resource Groups or Affinity Groups, called Noodles Resource Groups (NRGs), with two new NRGs: PROUD and THRIVE. PROUD is focused on the LGBTQIA+ community and allies, and THRIVE is centered on providing a platform for BIPOC team members and allies.
Uncommon Goodness Ambassadors: Noodles is hiring a team of Uncommon Goodness Ambassadors who are tasked with doing uncommonly good things for Noodles guests in-restaurant, digitally on social media, and through in-person activations within their communities.
Pool says Noodles will hire two “Uncommon Goodness ambassadors” to kick it off. “[They’ll] be tasked with doing uncommonly good things for our guests in-restaurant, on social media, and in other in-person activations throughout the communities we serve,” she says.
With the “Noodles Biggest Fan Campaign,” Pool says the overall premise is a customer who loves the brand so much they never want to leave. The chain will roll videos and social content to convey “how the great variety, freshness, service, and good people are a bit uncommon in the fast-casual category—and the rest of the world—and it’s this kind of goodness that Noodles wants to share,” she says.
“The launch of Uncommon Goodness is just the beginning for Noodles & Company in the coming months our guests, team members, and communities will see how the new platform unfolds and how we truly infuse Uncommon Goodness into everything we do,” Pool adds.