The greatest benefit to appearing on the television show “Undercover Boss” was not the chance to be in front of a camera, but rather to observe a restaurant brand’s culture up close, three chief executives said.

An NRA Show panel including Amit Kleinberger of Menchie’s, Anthony Wedo of Ovation Brands and Andy Wiederhorn of Fatburger agreed that connecting with front-line employees during the filming of their episodes of “Undercover Boss,” albeit in disguise, put them closer to where the best ideas for growing their businesses always seem to originate.

For Kleinberger, who has led the growth of Menchie’s from one frozen-yogurt shop to more than 400, his experience as a cashier showed him that the brand’s mission to make every customer smile was not always communicated to front-line staff.

“The culture will define the destiny of what your brand is going to be,” Kleinberger said. “In our case, the show revealed the most important thing, which is making sure the front-line folks are delivering the message of what the brand needs to be. … That’s what we’ve taken from the show, and we’re working to fix it.”

Wiederhorn, who was recognized by a Fatburger employee during his episode, agreed that the interaction with hourly employees gave him several important things to consider as CEO.

“Your best ideas always come from your employees,” Wiederhorn said. “But they have to feel empowered to give you that feedback. We learned that there was a barrier there — to the extent that they’re talking to their managers, it wasn’t flowing up. Now questions and suggestions will get answered.”

Since his episode aired, Wiederhorn has expanded Fatburger’s program for soliciting opinions and suggestions from all employees at the restaurant level, and that feedback is quickly shared across the enterprise with the marketing, training and operations teams at headquarters.

The timing of Wedo’s episode fortunately occurred right in the middle of Ovation Brands’ turnaround, including the corporate name change from Buffets Inc. The company is in the midst of changing its menu, décor and hospitality program. As was the case before Wedo’s “Undercover Boss” experience, employee feedback from the unit level is vital to the ongoing turnaround, and that importance has grown since the episode aired, he said.

He added that the show galvanized Ovation’s employees’ enthusiasm for the turnaround plan.

“We told our team we were going to become an innovation-based culture, as opposed to a process-based culture,” Wedo said. “We are innovating at 100 miles an hour right now, and the only way you do that is by drawing the best ideas from your operators. … When everybody saw the show, they felt more encouraged to be part of the solution and started to want to come in for the big win.”

None of the three CEOs professed to have an easy time working in their restaurants, but they said the chance to confront problems in the restaurants and begin changing culture from the unit level would make them better leaders.

“Where your risk is, is if you see something wrong and keep walking,” Wiederhorn said. “I found some cultural things I wanted to change … and employees rallied behind it, and I think your franchise partners and customers will rally behind it.”

Contact Mark Brandau at mark.brandau@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @Mark_from_NRN