I have to laugh — for years, many of the restaurateurs I deal with have made jokes about my ancient past in the fast food industry. Many years ago, I was a senior manager for one of the biggest American chains and people still make cracks about it as though I had prostituted myself and was in league with the devil. The irony now is that many of our restaurant clients are moving ‘down market’ and opening burger and fried chicken businesses. Deja Vue!
The truth is the very thorough training I received in the fast food industry as I progressed from assistant manager, to manager, to training manager, to area manager and beyond, set me up nicely for the career as a management consultant that I now enjoy. In retrospect, I have come to realise they spent a small fortune carefully preparing me for each step up the ladder; but they considered this a valuable investment in their company future — not a cost that could be dispensed with.
At the time, restaurants and café operators enjoyed profit margins most operators only dreamed about in their wine-fueled fantasies. The fast food sector made modest profits in comparison and functioned utilising mainly junior staff and quite young people in store management positions. This necessitated quite sophisticated systems of staff recruitment, training and leadership; together with very tight sales and cost control systems.
I started the journey as an assistant store manager. To facilitate this I was first trained to recruit, train and lead — the skills we now refer to as the ‘trilogy of basic team leadership’. While the title was ‘assistant manager’, the role was really a supervisory position and we were largely responsible for shift leadership, while the store manager was responsible for the management issues beyond day-to-day operation.
After a short time, once I had reached my initial performance goals, I was promoted to store manager, where the training proceeded into financial management: sales control, control of wages and cost of goods; stock control and local marketing. We were assigned to a smaller store for our first posting, and then we were transferred to larger and larger stores as we assimilated skills and experience. It was then made clear to us that we were expected to demonstrate training and development skills or our progression up the ladder would stop.
This paved the way for a stint as a training store manager, with the added responsibility of training newbie assistant managers on top of tightly running a store that was expected to run at the highest standard. To support this, I was given advanced training skills that underpinned a very structured management development system.
Again, when I had reached my performance goals, I was promoted to area operations manager and given oversight of 6 stores, which grew to 8 and then to 12 as my skills and experience grew. As the next stage of my development, I was taught the advanced management skills of multiple location management; which in retrospect are some of the most valuable skills I have ever learned. It’s one thing to run a single location as a micro-managing benevolent dictator, but quite another to tightly run a number of locations that you are not physically present at.
We were taught to set-up a system of statistical and other feedback mechanisms like mystery shoppers, which gave us a fairly thorough, ongoing picture of what was happening in each store. This would allow us to allocate our attention wherever it was needed. In addition, we had to perform specific ‘audits’ on each store in a bi-monthly calendar cycle. These audits were: financial performance; human resources; quality control; hygiene and sanitation, and repairs and maintenance. Managers’ bonuses and incentives were tied to achieving benchmarks in each area.
This kind of management control system meant that the senior manager (or owner) could bask on a tropical beach and receive a weekly summary report and know whether to jump on a plane and apply some remedial action, or to congratulate the manager and stay away.
The reason I’m laughing now is because those same skills are going to be necessary if the current proprietors of the new fast food businesses are going to expand into multiple locations — especially in today’s extremely difficult job market. It’s one thing to run a restaurant with reasonably experienced or qualified staff, and an entirely different thing to run a busy business with basic staff — which will be necessary for most of the new fast food businesses to maximise profitability.
Having run or overseen food businesses at both ends of the market, my observation is that bottom level businesses can be quite tricky to expand beyond single location and require very thorough management systems or they quickly descend into chaos, which manifests itself in poor customer service, product inconsistency, declining margins and quite a bit of stress for the owner.
From my perspective, history is repeating itself.