When Tony Milazzo started with Culver’s, he was 16 years old and the brand had only four units. Working through high school and on college summer breaks, Milazzo climbed to a managerial position in his hometown store, as well as at the unit close to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, campus.

Milazzo decided to operate his own Culver’s unit after college graduation, despite having obtained a political science degree. With the assistance of his parents, he opened his first Culver’s in Port Washington, Wisconsin, in 1999. Flash forward 17 years, and Milazzo owns and operates eight locations across Wisconsin and Illinois, with two others in the works.

In February, Milazzo won the 2015 GM Culver Award, designed to reward teamwork and exceptional customer service. Of the 500-plus restaurants involved in the Culver’s Crew Challenge, Milazzo’s system stood out for its commitment to quality, service, cleanliness, hospitality, and member training. The award is the highest honor in the organization.

Milazzo explains how franchisees should empower their employees if they wish to achieve exceptional customer service.

1. Remember it’s a people business

When I started with the brand, Culver’s was already known for its customer service; it had a great reputation in that department. I was taught from the very beginning that this wasn’t a food business, but a people business. Franchisees across all brands and concepts are familiar with the phrase, but the “people” mention is usually in reference to the customer.

In my case, I wanted it to be about my staff first. Empowering them and giving them the ability to take ownership of their job was something that was very important to me from day one. The brand history has been built on a family business extension rather than an owner-operator model, so I instilled that same mentality to my staff: They were family and treated the business as if they had a financial stake in its success. To do that, I knew it had to come from me in the beginning, and that’s why I spent every waking hour at the first location after opening. For the employees to see a living, breathing, working example of the attitude and culture you’d like for them to emulate is invaluable.

From the initial start of my franchising career to today, I’ve always made it a point to be heavily involved in our mentorship program. Our established program takes long-time managers and provides them the same training as owners would get from the brand. Then we have an opportunity to partner with them on additional restaurants. Empowering people so they can act the role of an owner and take care of the business is a huge benefit in offering brand-wide exceptional customer service.

2. Create the culture

I’ve always strived to create the culture of providing great service from the top down to the bottom. It includes everything that encompasses your business besides the actual food. Our team members are institutionalized with a friendly attitude, and every customer that comes through our doors gets a welcome. That’s always been important to me, especially at the locations where we built from the ground up.

Every customer has the potential to see a difference in Culver’s as soon as they step foot in the door. We can differentiate ourselves right away compared to other concepts since we aim to change the culture right away. Our offerings span a wide variety, and because of our customer service elements, we feel we compete with quick-serve concepts as well as casual-dining restaurants, and I love being in that space.

We’re more than a quick burger, and that comes by providing a differentiating experience. With that, though, the employees will only buy in when they see it from you. Your customer service will only go so far as you take it. Because of my experience starting out mopping floors, employees can identify and provide great customer service, no matter their role. It’s also a huge motivating factor when they have an example like other managers who have moved up in the ranks, and they can possibly mirror that journey down the road. That’s where great customer service comes from: It starts with a culture.

3. Turn off auto-fill

Because customer service starts with the culture of the staff, you have to make certain of the leadership you’ve put in place. Franchisees run into situations where they need to fill a managerial role and simply slap the title on the next one in the ranks. While sometimes that can work, you’re expecting someone who has no management training to perform managerial duties. When a manager gets the title at our locations, they’re fully trained and vetted before their duty starts.

Good leadership needs to be there for great customer service to thrive. The biggest thing I’ve noticed when I’m out at other restaurants is seeing poor leadership and a lack of empowerment. If there’s a mistake, they have to go and check with a manager and get someone else to help. That’s a big detriment to how a chain can be perceived. When there’s fear and restriction of mistake, it can hold leadership opportunities back. You’re going to make mistakes along the way, and it hurts when someone you’ve invested a lot of time in leaves for another venture, but that shouldn’t stop the process.

Burgers, Employee Management, Franchising, Restaurant Operations, Story, Culver's