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Yesterday, I accepted an invitation from the Senior Leadership team of White Castle to work in one of their restaurants to celebrate their National Hamburger Month. White Castle uses this promotion each year to have all home office staff work in the restaurants, celebrating not only the hamburger, but the teams in the restaurants. They also invite all their suppliers and community leaders to join in the work and fun of being on the front lines.
Most of you know White Castle as the originator of the slider. You may also know they are a 90+ year family business with over 400 restaurants. Like all products, the slider can be imitated from the very price sensitive competitors of White Castle to the fine dining world. You may know they continue to evolve their core product by adding chicken and veggie sliders with a range of flavors.
Here is what few people know. White Castle breaks the mold for employee retention and commitment. As I read my friend Jim Sullivan’s recent blog about turnover, I felt as I have many times. We are kindred spirits in appreciating how the best companies grow and prosper through a caring culture of balancing people, profit, purpose and the community.
So what is the big deal about White Castle? I knew they were exceptional; we see it in their Workforce Intelligence (formerly People Report) results where their retention breaks all bias about higher check averages and lower turnover. They have some of the lowest turnover in the industry. I also know they excel in their financial results as we see their Financial Intelligence (formerly Black Box Intelligence) data. They have exceptional results in sales and traffic not only for their segment, but the 20,000+ units we track overall. In recognition of these objective measures we awarded White Castle our 2015 Diamond Catalyst Award this past January.
So objectively, as a researcher, I knew the “what” in their results. But what I discovered and experienced yesterday as a restaurant guy, working the grill with restaurant people, was the special “why”.
I have often said leadership in our business is a noble profession. Let me tell you about two examples of this noble work done exceptionally well. My opportunity was to work in South Chicago at the 2140 South Wabash Ave. White Castle. I was greeted, trained and worked alongside Darrin, the area manager of 11 White Castles in Chicago. At the age of 18, Darrin was the youngest general manager ever at White Castle. He progressed to Area Manager to reach the distinction to be the youngest in that position. He has been with White Castle for 16 years, starting at the age of 15.
Richard the impressive general manager (a young Charles Barkley look a like) of this restaurant has been with White Castle for 13 years, again starting as a young employee. These two leaders and the staff I met with tenure of one year to 24 years was amazing. So you ask why? They are great at what they do. They know every detail of how to execute a quality product, make raving fans, having fun while working really hard to make their business successful. Every employee is on a profit sharing plan. They have the utmost respect for “The Family” (typically known as corporate). They know so many of their guest and they continue the mission of making customer “craving fans”. They work almost effortlessly as a team filling orders coming in from the web, walk-up and drive thru.
By the way, they are up in sales and traffic for two years running by a huge percent. (Note to family and exec’s; they are creatively promoting an expansion so they can continue to aggressively grow the business). When I asked Richard about schedule he said there is no set manager schedule. He has the freedom to set his and his manager’s schedule to balance the needs of the business and their lives with kids and family. Richard knows his business and loves his restaurant and his team. As I left, I witnessed another example of how they work the community. I turned over my position on the grill to the local Alderwoman of Chicago so she would learn more about how they employ and care for the community. They give and invest in their community from national to local; it is in their DNA.
It reminded me of why I loved this business from the beginning. The restaurant business is a team sport with real people as employees and guests. They live, work and participate in the community. They have a positive effect on the people in that community and as the National Restaurant Association has said for a long while, restaurants are the cornerstone of our communities.
So why do the people of White Castle stay? In riding back to my hotel I asked Darrin that question. Number one is he loves (not likes) what he does and he has from every position he has had beginning as a hamburger grill guy!
I will leave you with this.
Every company has a Darrin and Richard in their ranks. But, why do some companies lose them in the high turnover of our industry? Is it the industry or the employer?
Should we continue to pay for the sins of high turnover as we let ourselves believe the points Jim Sullivan made on Millennials? Is the age old argument, we are an industry of people just passing through really true? We are the second largest private sector employer in the country. What would the impact on our economy, our industry and shareholder returns be as the result of a dramatic reduction of turnover? The answers are becoming more compelling in the supply and demand for talent to compete in this share of stomach game we play in today.
Thank you to the White Castle family and organization for allowing me to remember why we have such a great industry of opportunity for companies willing to break the molds. Darrin and Richard thank you for reminding me the nobility of leadership is alive and well! Note to competitors needing great people, Darrin and Richard aren’t going anywhere! Stop by and have a great slider with them at White Castle, but don’t even try! Note to family, if you need an investor in expanding their restaurant, count me in!