Many operators claim that their people come first, but few really walk the walk. Food quality is definitely the most important focus for the best fast-casual operators, but it is our people who actually make and deliver excellent food. 

I have seen many operations with great written procedures and standards that fail to deliver consistently great food because of the people they have in place. On the other hand, some fast-casual restaurants don’t have ops manuals, but they consistently outperform the competition because of their people and culture. People act like it’s rocket science to fix problems in these areas, but it isn’t. You just start at the beginning during the hiring process.

First of all, hiring the right people is a combination of both art and science. The science part comes to play at the very beginning, when the prospective employee applies. I am a big believer in online applications, and we use one at our company. This allows candidates to apply whenever they want and wherever they are. The system we use also has a great hospitality-focused assessment that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff. More importantly, it rates applicants with green, yellow, or red tags and flags potential problem areas. The system also spouts out suggested interview questions based on responses.  

Like most companies in the industry, many of our managers are young and have little experience picking candidates to interview or interviewing them, so we made the process much easier.  In addition, I encourage them to interview every green-rated applicant and some yellow-rated ones even when their stores are fully staffed or they have large numbers of applications so that they get lots of experience in conducting interviews.

This wonderful technology, however, does not take the art or human element out of hiring great people. Any technology is only as good as the people that use it. In our system, the ones reading the applications can label a candidate with the tag “not interested.” This is useful so managers don’t look at the same candidates’ information over and over again. Unfortunately, I have seen managers label dozens of candidates as “not interested” simply because the applicants would be hard to schedule or are in college. This shortsighted laziness ruled out a huge percentage of the most qualified and best people in our applicant pool. 

Now let me explain the art element. There have been thousands of books written on the art of hiring great people, but the art side of things is actually pretty easy. First of all, hire nice and happy people. Look for smiles during the interview and things like charity work and community service on applications. These show that candidates care about others and have a high level of engagement with the people and community around them. This engagement tends to carry over into everything they do. 

Second, with the exception of certain kitchen positions, completely disregard any restaurant experience. This is much less important than a good attitude or happy demeanor. Compared to fine dining, most of what our team members do is pretty simple and easy to teach. A positive outlook and happiness, however, cannot be taught. Call me crazy, but I’d also rather have a rookie I can teach than someone who learned the wrong way.

The best intro to an interview I ever heard was, “We’re looking for cool, fun people. We can teach you everything else.”

The hospitality HR consultants at People Report, Gallup, and others provide proof that companies with the best people practices and most engaged employees also perform well in other areas like sales and profits. To me, this is a no-brainer.  

The best intro to an interview I ever heard was when I applied at the House of Blues. My interviewers Uly and Brennan said, “We’re looking for cool, fun people. We can teach you everything else.” More than 10 years later, I am still in contact with dozens of my coworkers from that company and consider my time there among my best work experiences. We worked very hard, but we always had fun while putting each other and the guests first. Working with great people created a memorable experience for me and many others.

Third, consciously focus on diversity in all of its many forms. Unfortunately, people tend to associate and bond with people like themselves when it comes to age, gender, and class. This concept is called homophily and has been extensively studied. While we want a common culture and common values, similarity in other areas stifles creativity by limiting the exchange of different ideas and the communication of different viewpoints. It’s no accident that the best places I’ve worked have also been the most diverse. 

The one nonculinary goal that is more important to me than anything else is creating a workplace of diverse and caring people. While all this people talk may be too touchy feely for some, it’s in your own best interest because it creates a competitive business advantage that is hard to beat.

Story, House of Blues