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Twenty-year-old Alec Vela and 22-year-old Emily Allworth, both employees in the foodservice industry, drastically turned their lives around. Vela and Allworth each recently lost about 50 pounds due to changes in their diet and exercise habits. While Vela’s and Allworth’s achievements are admirable, the two say they wouldn’t have been able to make such big changes without encouragement from their colleagues and employers.
Vela is a shift manager at a Smoothie King in Frisco, Texas, while Allworth works at Wok Box’s corporate location as a general manager and part of the brand’s corporate training team in British Columbia. Through their jobs, the two realized they needed to make changes in their personal habits—not only to improve their lives, but also to match the health-conscious images of the companies they represent.
Last October, QSR looked at industry leaders who exercise, eat right, and strive to lead healthy, balanced lives. But as associates like Vela and Allworth demonstrate, another piece of the health puzzle involves that mentality being shared with all employees. Healthy and active workers are part of a strong, sustainable business model, says Wok Box CEO Lawrence Eade.
“I think it’s a really important corporate responsibility, especially to employees, to promote healthy living, to promote a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “It pays back in droves through less sick days or just a better, engaged staff.”
Some experts say restaurant brands that encourage or even incentivize their employees to get healthy will see great returns in productivity.
According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults (some 78.6 million) are obese, and the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the U.S. was $147 billion in 2008 (the most recent data available).
Allworth says the support of her coworkers helped her usher in an improved lifestyle during a tumultuous time in her life. She was just a year out of high school when her parents were in the middle of a difficult separation, and she felt her life was in a downward spiral in part because of unhealthy habits. Around the same time, she was offered a general manager position at Wok Box, which proved to be a catalyst for bettering her life.
“I remember sitting at my kitchen table and I was like, ‘Do I want to continue doing what I’ve been doing, by partying too much and eating unhealthily?’” Allworth says. “[The job] gave me a schedule. It gave me so much responsibility.”
After she took the job, Allworth started working out regularly and got her diet in check, cutting out foods loaded with fats. She also took advantage of being able to eat her brand’s food for free (a perk of working at Wok Box’s corporate location). She says she lived off the brand’s low-in-fat Kung Pao dish for six months. Within five months of beginning her new position, Allworth had lost 45 pounds.
Smoothie King became a regular part of Vela’s diet after he became frustrated with his unhealthy habits. He says he would eat foods with high sugar content and little nutritional value and then feel sluggish. Eventually, he decided to take Smoothie King’s “Change a Meal” challenge.
Brooke Alpert, a nutrition consultant with Smoothie King, explains the challenge this way: “You switch up one of your regular meals and replace it with one of our smoothies,” she says. “Let’s see the type of impact we can have on your diet, your weight, and your health by changing one meal for a delicious smoothie.”
Vela weighed 259 pounds when he applied for the job at Smoothie King in October 2014. Back then, he decided to ring in the New Year by practicing what he was preaching to customers; he took advantage of the free smoothie employees get daily and the other discounts they receive. On top of that, Vela switched to a low-carb, high-protein diet and started working out. He now works out for about an hour five or six days a week, and he’s managed to lose 67 pounds as of December.
Vela says encouragement from his coworkers, boss, and regular customers helped him. “Inspiring a healthy and active lifestyle is something we encourage our team members to communicate to our guests, not just in their interactions in the store, but also by ‘walking the walk,’” Smoothie King CEO Wan Kim says in an email. “Smoothies are a staple in all of our team members’ diets, from the front line to the support team at the home office.”
Wok Box’s Eade says his company has a partnership with a gym franchise in Canada, through which Wok Box provides food and discounts to its employees and the gym offers membership incentives for Wok Box staffers. Allworth also says the brand has a great reputation among “gym rats.”
This sort of trickle-down effect is well illustrated by another anecdote. Eade says a professional body builder swore by Wok Box’s Mongolian beef and broccoli so much that he ended up buying a franchise store and growing it significantly.
Kim says Smoothie King encourages its employees to participate in annual running and biking events and says the brand even hosts a daily walk along Lake Pontchartrain, just outside its main offices near New Orleans. The brand also hosts a “Biggest Loser” contest each January with prizes.
Vela and Allworth both say they have enjoyed their jobs more, had greater energy, and been more productive on the clock following the weight loss. They also express gratitude for their employers’ support.
“Before, when I tried to give anybody advice [about nutrition, customers] would just look at me,” Vela says. “I would compare it to a poor person trying to give somebody financial advice, that type of thing.”