Chain leaders speaking to the industry’s top marketers during the Marketing Executives Group, or MEG, meeting Thursday and Friday, before the NRA Show officially kicked off, stressed that when it comes to connecting with consumers, employees are as crucial as a restaurant’s menu or marketing.

Engaged team members provide the customer service most important for building repeat traffic at Yard House, Burgerville and Starbucks Coffee, the executives said.

Harald Herrmann, president of 45-unit Yard House, said the back of the house is called the “heart of the house” internally to elevate staffers to their place as key stakeholders. Irvine, Calif.-based Yard House surveys its staff every year to ask what they would do if they owned the company.

“We shape the organization based on the feedback we’re getting from our hourly team members,” Herrmann said. “We just finally allowed exposed tattoos in our restaurants, which is kind of a bold move, but it was the most requested bit of feedback from team members over the past five years. At one point we learned that team members were making job decisions based on whether they could expose tattoos because individuality is so critical to them.”

Continually evolving based on that feedback is one of Herrmann’s major strategic goals, he said. “We have a slogan: If it’s not broken, then break it, re-evaluate it and put it back together again,” Herrmann said. “Innovation is finding a balance within what you add and what you take away, and hopefully we’ll stay on-trend and current with different flavor profiles, as well as different needs our guests and team members are looking for.”

Clarice TurnerJeff Harvey, president and chief executive of 39-unit Burgerville, also endorsed the “servant leadership” approach Herrmann described, adding, “Our employees are a more powerful marketing agent than anything we’ve done.”

The Vancouver, Wash.-based brand’s mission of “Serve with love,” which encompasses everything from sourcing food exclusively from its native Pacific Northwest to offering hourly employees full health care coverage, brings talented people to work for Burgerville, Harvey said.

He added that all employees are trained on three tracks: operations, leadership and “mission school,” where they learn to embrace the brand’s ideals.

“Almost everybody who comes to Burgerville comes because they want to make a contribution someplace,” he said. “We’ve invested in a significant amount of development to support them. … The mission drives us to our relationships. When you invest in a relationship with your communities, employees and your supply chain, you gain a level of resilience you couldn’t design a different way.”

Similarly, at Seattle-based Starbucks, the coffeehouse chain’s employees — which the brand refers to as its “partners” — drove much of the development of Starbucks Evenings, a test of additional alcohol and small-plates offerings at 20 locations in the Pacific Northwest, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

The chain’s senior vice president of U.S. operations, Clarice Turner, said the idea for Starbucks Evenings grew from guest feedback telling the brand an after-dinner gathering place would be relevant to them, and Starbucks employees shaped much of what the new daypart could and should be.

“That would be the one thing that’s different from what I’d done traditionally in my career: paying so much attention to what our partners thought and engaging them in intrinsically wanting to make it successful,” Turner said. “Our partners are really integral to making anything we do a success. We wanted to make sure they were passionate about [Evenings], because then they’d be proud of it and then it would work.”

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