At some point over the course of the last half-century, the American fast-food employee became a cliché. Between “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and Kevin Federline commercials, the image burned onto the collective pop-culture consciousness was one of an angst-ridden teen merely putting in his time, all the while secretly harboring fantasies of one day escaping the tedious clutches of his menial job.

But the modern-day archetype does a disservice to the importance of the quick-service employee experience, which is just as critical to the success of a business as any other component, perhaps even more so. And as merchants look for ways to streamline their operations during the tough economy, analysts caution that thoughtful employee training is an investment not to be taken lightly.

“Consumers have much less discretionary money to spend in this economy, so when you’re looking to attract someone into your restaurant, the employee is going to potentially make all the difference,” says Greg Hammond, vice president of operations for Ignite Technologies, which provides software-based employee-training solutions for various sectors of the retail industry. “You make a promise to the consumer, and the employees have to deliver on that promise.”

This means establishing an efficient and effective training program for everyone from new employees to long-time staff members. Thoughtful design, consistency, and accountability will all play a pivotal role in its success.

“I think most people don’t really understand employee training to begin with,” says TJ Schier, president and founder of Incentive Solutions, an employee-training company that provides keynote addresses and seminars on guest service and motivation for today’s workforce. “Operators focus on a brand new employee for the first few days and then forget about all the ongoing training that should be taking place.”

This, Schier says, is the first lesson to be learned in designing an effective training program. It has to be seen as a long-term investment that carries over well into a new employee’s tenure. Schier says this is often overlooked because many quick-service operators view employee training as an expense they can minimize by condensing the time spent on each worker. “But,” he says, “there is a big return on your investment. If you do it right.”

Employee training can also be one of the fastest ways to throw money away, says Kevin Moll, CEO of National Restaurant Consultants. According to him, one of the easiest ways to avoid that waste is by hiring more than one person at a time whenever possible. Moll recommends looking at the process in four steps: team hire, team orient, team train, and team retain.

“When it’s done properly, it costs the same amount of money to train one person as it does to train two or three or four,” Moll says. “Never hire just one person.”

Another significant concern for Moll is the piecemeal nature with which most quick-service employee-training programs are designed. Since most operators and managers don’t enjoy the training process, he says, it’s often designed on the fly, which means time and energy is being wasted without setting quantifiable goals. Instead, he says, training should be deliberate. It should be planned and executed in a well-thought-out manner.

One way to achieve that efficiency is through establishing a phase-based testing program for new hires. In such a system, employees must pass training tests before moving on to the next step of instruction.

“What you don’t measure you cannot gauge,” Moll says. “If there’s no testing, there’s no way to gauge the progress. Testing guarantees a certain minimum level of standards for the restaurant.”

“Operators focus on a brand new employee for the first few days and then forget about all the ongoing training that should be taking place.”

Tracy Yandow is president and founder of The Manual Solution, a Vermont-based company that offers instructional design and employee-training programs for several retail industries across the country, including quick service. She says another area of concern is that the person doing the training has no background or experience in the discipline. This can often lead to operators seeking broad, quick-fix tech solutions that are more costly than they are worth.

“I think people throw money away when they try to get one video or one software program that doesn’t fit their operation,” Yandow says. “They’re spending money on the quick fixes, but there’s nothing to replace hands-on training.”

To keep employee training relevant and consistent, as well as cost effective, Yandow recommends managers build occasional training reinforcement topics into regular weekly meetings. Pick a topic—something small, like how to greet customers when they walk through the door—then work it into a routine meeting that is already scheduled so you don’t have to set aside new time and energy.

Yandow also says that when designing that hands-on training experience, operators need to know their audience. A retiree, for example, is going to learn and respond differently than a high schooler.

“Part of being a good trainer is knowing your audience and knowing how to train different groups of people,” Yandow says. “A 45-year-old, for example, will want to understand the meaning behind the things he’s learning. He’ll want pats on the back. A 16-year-old just wants the information and wants it quickly.”

As one final bit of practical advice, Schier of Incentive Solutions says operators can save money on training materials by reaching out to their vendors, which means everyone from beverage to equipment suppliers. “They have tons of content they’d be happy to give people,” he says. “All you have to do is ask.”

In the end, Moll says, owners and operators should not neglect their employee training process, even during this recession.

“Quality HR is an investment in people that does pay off,” he says. “The owner or operator that feels he’s getting burned by investing in people is not properly or completely managing his HR program like he needs to.”

Employee Management, Story