The battle to hire and keep the best people starts with the first time you have contact with prospective employees. Customers of the best fast-casual operators expect more in terms of food and service than what they get from competitors in other segments. 

This poses a great challenge for us in the segment, as employees have the opportunity to make more money working for mediocre casual-dining chains because of the tipping model. But we can beat that.

Most importantly, starting with the first interview, you must have and communicate a compelling value proposition to both current and prospective employees. While pay and benefits are part of this equation, effective communication of your operation’s story and uniqueness can be a great equalizer. The best people want to work with other great people in a company where communication is frequent and open and where their contributions are valued. Everyone gives lip service to statements like this, but here is how you make this type of corporate culture thrive.

Communicate your standards, expectations, and uniqueness from the very beginning. When I started working for Ralph and Cindy Brennan under Randy Stein at Mr. B’s in New Orleans, the first thing my orientation leader did was show me a large collection of awards the restaurant had won. She told me this is what they expected each and every danbspy.&;

As my tour continued, we made our way to the front door. She told me that any host that ever had his back to the door would be fired. While this probably was a bit of an exaggeration, I never forgot that statement during my time with the company or in the years afterwards. 

We were also told that we were all one team and working together was more important than anything else, but not to do anything that we had not been trained to do. I knew on my first day that this award-winning restaurant expected more from me and that I would be rewarded for being a team player and doing my job well.

At Bread & Company, our greatest people success with front-line and management employees came when we did one simple thing: We told new team members why they should work for us and why we were special. 

We started orientation by showing the complete set of ServSafe videos. Right away, the team knew how important food safety was to us. Afterwards, they went to lunch at other restaurants and would frequently see staff who obviously didn’t worry about food safety, which reinforced our point. Of course, we are biased, but we have always passionately believed (and made sure) that our food was as good or better than that offered by any competitor. After lunch, we would introduce our new team members to more than a dozen of our products, and they would get to taste why this was true, and find out how we made sure this was always the case.

Finally, to create a sustainable culture of excellence, banish statements like “we can’t” from your operation. You can easily do this by not hiring or retaining “can’t thinkers.” Excellence and long-term success come to those who focus on overcoming barriers rather than complaining about them. Unfortunately, this “can’t thinking” is very prevalent in our industry, especially among publicly traded companies that often focus on keeping analysts and shortsighted stockholders happy. 

“The people who try to make a difference outside of work are also the ones who make the biggest difference at work.”

Almost every day, I hear how companies can’t afford better pay, offer or match 401k plans, or provide good benefits. Funny thing is the best companies are able to do these things and have lower turnover. Plus, they do all of this while operating in the same environment and under the same financial constraints we all do. 

Quite simply, the most successful restaurant operators view people as an investment, not as a cost. And they hire people who have a “can” (abundance) versus a “can’t” (scarcity) mindset. The greatest companies, inventions, and charities all came about from people doing things others said couldn’t be done. Sustained growth requires a stable and motivated workforce to both meet operational goals and provide the staff for new stores. 

While no company is perfect, the people and operational results achieved by quick-serve companies like Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out, Pal’s Sudden Service, White Castle, and the Restaurant Company (VA) prove that above-average results can be achieved in the most competitive environments. 

Fast-casual customers and employees expect even more from us. When it comes to hiring, I will hire a kid with no restaurant experience who started a charity or even a club over a candidate with five years experience working in the casual segment. The people who try to make a difference outside of work are also the ones who make the biggest difference at work.

The grizzled old veterans and cynics among my readers may still be skeptical and think this is just wishful thinking. However, people who are “can’t thinkers” have basically given up before they even confront a problem. Are these the type of people you want preparing and serving your food, talking with your customers, or running a shift? 

Other cynics may say that they don’t have the resources or that their operations are too small to offer the perks I mentioned earlier. The recession has not been fun for many of us in Nashville. However, according to The Tennessean, a concept called the Puffy Muffin, with two locations, decided not to let the recession beat it and instead set challenging sales goals for its employees. 

The team rose to the occasion and met these goals. Now the owners are closing for 10 days and taking 48 employees on an Alaskan cruise. Other companies here cut salaries and eliminated positions during the same time frame. It should be easy to guess who I predict will thrive in the long term. Other companies who hire “can thinkers” while communicating their standards and uniqueness early and often can have similar results.

Fast Casual, Story, Bread & Company, Chick-fil-A, In-N-Out Burger, White Castle