Pop culture has not been kind to the quick-service industry.
From the lovable-but-dumb employees in Good Burger to the drug-addled protagonists of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, the industry is seen as a haven for dimwits, losers, and the vaguely criminal. Thousands of high school teachers threaten low-performing students by asking them, “Do you want to flip burgers for the rest of your life?”
Even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary gets in on the quick-serve bashing. Over the loud objections of McDonald’s, it added the word McJob to its dictionary in 2003. The definition? “A low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement.” But Merriam-Webster didn’t come up with the word, which first appeared in print back in 1986. They were just capturing the mood of a culture that was negative toward the industry.
Now, however, things may be changing. Earlier this year, Businessweek reported peak levels of youth unemployment. As of December 2010, 18 percent of 16–24 year olds looking for work were unable to find it. And 16–19-year-old employment hit a record low, with less than 26 percent working. In an environment where professionals with years of experience get laid off with little warning, steady work in any industry can look appealing.
But the quick-service industry isn’t just taking advantage of the recession. Both individually and collectively, quick-serve brands are making an effort to remove the stigma that once plagued their industry. Some brands, like Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, create a culture of youth. President Roland Dickey Jr. says that when he staffed his headquarters with the best employees he could find, he ended up with quite a few in their twenties and thirties.
“I’m 37 and I feel like I’m the babysitter sometimes,” Dickey says. “Our company is full of energy. It’s not so much about the depth of experience.”
Other concepts have appealed to youth through their philosophies. With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and marketing campaigns that exude “hip,” Chipotle and Pinkberry have become favorites among the college set. Even McDonalds, which occupies a special place in the heart of industry detractors, has struck back. New items like specialty coffee drinks and a well-placed ad campaign or two have given the chain increased traction among young people. This April, it hired 50,000 new employees in one day.
“If the industry continues to lead, we will see outstanding talent wanting ‘in’,” says Dean Small, founder of Synergy Restaurant Consultants. “We see it happening already.”
The successes of these companies in attracting this “outstanding talent” may look accidental. A young CEO here or humanely raised chicken there taps into current trends, sure. But is the quick-serve industry as a whole really having an easier time recruiting talented young people?
The answer is a qualified yes. Individual brand efforts and industry-wide educational programs have brought in a new crop of young people who have the potential to become the next generation of leaders.
Most brands have strategies for getting young people interested. Midori Cronky is in charge of human resources at HDOS Enterprises, the parent company of California-based Hot Dog on a Stick. She says that tapping good recruits starts with a simple rule: hire young.
“I think we get a lot of the teenagers coming to us because we do hire at 16 and some of the other places require them to be 18,” Cronky says. “Once they’re hired and they’re trained and they’ve worked for us, many people continue to stay when they’re going to college.”
Hot Dog on a Stick prides itself on a relaxed store-transfer policy, which makes it easy for students who go away to college to find work at another location. Combined with flexible work hours, it’s enough of a draw to keep talented college kids around summer after summer.
Furthermore, Hot Dog on a Stick is 100 percent employee-owned. Employees who work a sufficient number of hours start to accumulate company stock in a qualified retirement plan. Cronky says that since the young employees own the company, they feel more invested.
“We like to tell them, ‘You’re the manager in charge when you’re working, even though you may be 17 years old,’ ” Cronky says. “It makes people feel proud of what they’re doing. It’s the ownership culture.”
The company also provides upward mobility. One hundred percent of its regional managers started off as counter help, as did 99 percent of its store managers. Cronky says that creates more understanding between workers and management.
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