Revelations of an Ex-Burger Flipper

“We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.”

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Fast Food as a Training Ground for Future Executives?
In 1984, I nervously thumbed through Mark McCormack’s book, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School (WTDTYAHBS), because during that time, I worked about 25 hours/week for a national fast food chain (I won’t say which one but you can glean it from this article from the AMA) and had been working there since I was a 13 year old high school freshmen. Now that I was becoming a high school senior, I was ready for a management spot and I knew McCormack’s book would help me make that connection. Years later, Dr. Jerry Newman established a lucrative career for himself by confirming what I had learned at the ripe old age of 17.

What They Teach You at Burger Flipping School
Making fries, shakes, burgers and onion rings thousands of times a day for 4 years takes a certain set of skills. But transitioning from an ‘assembly line’ to the managerial front lines takes an entirely different set of skills. As I ventured into this strange new world of business management, I felt completely insecure and inept (I was judging myself by what I had felt capable of doing, which was NOTHING), but my fast food managers, judging that I had potential (based on what I have already done), were ready to prep me for the rest of my life.

I’d like to draw a few parallels between my fast food manager trainee program and Mark McCormack’s principles. What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School and the Fast Food Management Trainee Program (for my restaurant in Chicago) taught me valuable life/business lessons, 10 in fact. Let’s take a quick look at McCormack’s Top Ten, then I’ll plug in the principles I learned at the Fast Food Management Training session:

1) Never underestimate the importance of money:
Once again, there is nothing more valuable than OPM (Other People’s Money). Mess with it and you’re in the NFL club (Not For Long). Cherish OPM as if it was your own and you’ll go far.

Fast Food Principle #1: Balance Your Drawer. I can remember a night audit at my Fast Food Restaurant that caused us to stay 4 hours after closing just so we could find $9.21 that was missing from a drive-thru register. The night manager refused to use his own money to balance the drawer; instead, we had to search for it in over- charges from the 12 other registers. One employee was consistently short on his drawer— 10 cents here, 13 cents there…..he was fired after two weeks of this. That money he was “short” was someone else’s money, and to that “someone” every penny was critical.

2) Never overestimate the value of money:
This is usually measured by ‘slippage’ or waste of resources or time— all of which is immensely valuable.

Fast Food Principle #2: Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you bring in garbage (people who are dishonest) then stealing 50 lbs. boxes of burger patties for a family picnic is an example of how those employees contributed to the restaurant’s slippage (garbage out). Messing up on a sandwich order is poor performance by an inadequate employee (garbage in), and needing a new burger to start all over is an example of waste (garbage out). Leaving Mayo out all night, waste. Making yourself a Dodeca-Burger With Cheese (12 patties) for your break-time snack, slippage. Employees who figure out how to bring in extra money will be highly valued, but employees who figure out how to keep money from leaking out (gold and diamonds in) will catapult them and the company to the top (gold and diamonds out)— for they understand the VALUE of money.

3) You can never have too many friends in business:
This is self-explanatory. Business begins and ends with your network. On Main Street or Wall Street, you need friends. And not the kind that will trade baseball cards with you, the kind that will have your back when you need them most.

Fast Food Principle #3: Extend Yourself The Roman Maxim, “I give so you may give” was introduced to me by my 62-year-old high school educated late night manager. Even though we were scraping 8 inches of hamburger grease off of the broilers before we closed-up at 2am, old George taught us that we needed to treat every business activity (yes, even grease scraping) as a learning opportunity for yourself and for your customers, clients, etc. He used to say, “If you’re not adding value to someone’s experience, then what good are you?”

4) Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”:
Nobody likes a know it all. Even fewer like to be misled with bad information. If you are only 99% certain about something, say so and then hit the bricks to find that .01% so you can be absolutely positive that you have all the facts. Because 99% isn’t good enough and the one time you let that .01% slide, that will be the time it comes back to bite you. And if you are not trusted as someone who is COMPLETELY factual and reliable, you won’t get far.

Fast Food Principle #4: It Depends At my Fast Food Joint, our managers told us that we needed to study every issue or concern or problem on a case-by-case basis. Problems customers have “depend” on their perspectives, moods, personalities, etc. Issues with machinery “depend” on their histories of breaking down, the last time they were cleaned/repaired and a variety of other factors. So, when asked to assess a problem and prescribe a solution, we were forced to attack the issue from a multitude of angles and perspectives because the best solution really does depend.

5) Speak less:
This is a Lao Tzu and Zen philosophy concept. The average insecure person loves the sound of his own voice and will wax pathetic all day long. Speak less, listen more, enjoy a successful career. This explains how speaking less changed his life.

Fast Food Principle #5: Get Over Yourself In the Fast Food Biz, we take orders (literally) and when we speak, it’s to confirm the customer’s order or to confirm the orders the owner had barked at us. That was it. We were too busy to gossip or snipe at co-workers. We were all one team whose aim was to get the massive hoard of customers out the door as quickly and as satisfactorily as possible.

6) Keep your promises:
NEVER open your mouth unless you are sure you can not only do what you say you will do, but be certain you OVER DELIVER on all of your promises. Keeping promises is the foundation of building trust. No trust, no business, no career.

Fast Food Principle #6: 100% Quality, 100% Consistent Similar to keeping promises is staying consistent. If a customer orders a Whopper With Cheese for dinner on Monday, she wants and expects that Whopper and the purchasing and dining experiences to be exactly the same when she visits us again for lunch on Saturday. Did you ever eat a Big Mac in Paris? With the exception of the language being spoken in the booth next to me, if you told me I was at a Mickey D’s in Toledo, I would have believed you. Consistency and the promise to maintain that 100% quality commitment builds trust worldwide.

7) Every transaction has a life of its own:
Study the lives of all transactions you make. Never force issues that are not ready to grow naturally. Be patient, the time for every idea will take root when it is supposed to. If you have to force an idea down someone’s throat or if you have to try really hard to establish a network connection, then that is your indication that the life of the transaction is either not ready to be born or it is ready to die.

Fast Food Principle #7: No Reheat, No Resale After our French fries sat under the heating lamps for one hour without being sold, we had to toss them in the trash. The business transaction lifespan for fries is one hour; after that, they get too dry and the texture/consistency we all love is gone. Many perfectly good burgers were wrapped, and slid down the chute for the drive thru attendant to pass along to the customer, only to be thrown out because the customer refused the order and had driven away. Why? Because it took too long to wait for the flame-broiling process. It was usually those who were used to fried burgers who would drive away angry. You can’t rush flame-broiling deliciousness, but the life of a business transaction is relative to what your customer demands.

8) Commit yourself to quality from day one:
Again, commitment is everything. Attention to details facilitates quality. Are you paying attention?

Fast Food Principle #8: The Art of Wiping a Table I’ll never forget a lesson I witnessed as a new Fast Food Recruit was being trained on his first day. While I was in the dining room eating my evening break, the night manager was teaching this new hire how to appropriately wipe tables. The problem was, the newbie swept the floor first, then cleaned all the tables. The night manager ripped into him like he had just been caught embezzling from the Whopper fund. Quality for this Fast Food Establishment involved high efficiency, immaculate cleanliness and a polished image.

9) Don’t hog the credit:
The world is full of self-centered, insecure, power-grabbing narcissists. Give credit when it is due and give it away when others least expect it. This will catapult you into leadership positions!

Fast Food Principle #9: The Value of Vomit Moppers What do you do when there are 200 customers standing in line at the front registers, 30 cars are backed-up at the drive thru and the entire staff is scrambling taking and filling orders; when suddenly a customer with the flu has made a horrible mess in the men’s room? Are you going to be the teammate who steps up and mops up? Or is that job beneath you? Will you be the one who understands the implications of leaving that mess near the dining area (from a customer repulsion standpoint and from a health inspector point of view)? Or will you simply see it as a menial task meant for someone who isn’t as important as you? Just so happens that Hector did drop his burger duties, he did pick up a mop and an off duty health inspector was dining with his kids and commended the owner on the speedy response to the mess. These days Hector owns his very own franchise!

10) Be nice to everyone: There’s an old saying about how your attitude will determine your altitude and truer words were never spoken. We have all heard stories about people with great attitudes and excessive friendliness being promoted to high levels just because “everyone loves” them. And, conversely, we can relate to the sour curmudgeon who consistently gets passed up for a promotion. Gee, I wonder why….

Fast Food Principle #10: Service With a Smile At my Fast Food Restaurant, you can only become a manager if you can pass the customer service gauntlet: cash registers, drive thru, and complaints about quality control. You can’t survive the gauntlet unless you’re nice to everyone…..even to the mean and nasty people who throw their undercooked burgers in your face!

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