After uncovering its strengths, weaknesses and opportunities on the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss,” Subway made several changes to the way it trains and treats its employees, which it got to revisit and showcase on this month’s season finale, called “Epic Bosses.”
After his first appearance on the show, Subway chief development officer Don Fertman established the brand’s Sandwich Artist Roundtables to give front-of-the-house staff a formal way to air their challenges and suggestions to the franchisor. Employees invited to Subway’s roundtables also receive the chance to suggest menu items, which make their way to the 39,000-unit chain’s marketing and culinary research department for testing.
“They are clearly the folks making things happen with the customer and are saddled with implementing the decisions we made back at headquarters,” Fertman said. “When we make our decisions here in the corporate ivory tower, we have to make sure they’re executable in the field and can enhance the customer experience.”
In a recent follow-up episode of “Undercover Boss,” Fertman reappeared and reunited with Jessi Polk, a manager of an Orlando, Fla., Subway who trained the executive while he was in disguise. Polk, who has kept in close touch with Fertman over the two years since the episode first aired, participated in the roundtable with other employees.
Fertman and executive vice president Millie Shinn conducted the roundtable sessions in Subway’s headquarters, as well as in Miami, California, Europe, Asia and Latin America. “What we found was surprisingly similar from one country to the next,” Fertman said. “They wanted to feel a sense of respect in what they did, and they just wanted the ability to make their customers happy.”
In addition to convening with front-of-the-house employees during the season finale, Fertman also filmed a segment in which he met Harold, a man who reached out after the original “Undercover Boss” episode aired to thank him for being open about discussing his recovery from alcoholism. Harold, a recovering alcoholic, wrote Fertman to let him know that the episode of the reality show encouraged him to stay on the path to sobriety, despite intense temptation to waver.
Greater emphasis on employee education was a resounding theme with the restaurant executives participating in the follow-up show. Cole brought in Mayra, a Cinnabon employee who impressed her during her episode, and certified her to be a trainer and gave her the responsibility of helming a breast cancer fundraiser, which Cinnabon started in honor of Mayra’s mother.
Silva, who had to shut down a Florida location while filming his original episode to correct unacceptable behavior from a manager, revisited that unit for this season’s finale. Because Checkers overhauled its training methods for employees there, that restaurant is now the top-grossing restaurant in South Florida and the No. 3 unit in the Checkers system, he revealed during the episode.
Silva also followed up with a front-of-the-house employee, Todd, to make sure he would fulfill his vow to advance his career by going to culinary school.
Similarly, Subway responded to its team member feedback with greater investments in training, not only for front-of-the-house staff but also for managers. Area developers now have training staff dedicated to teaching franchisees and store managers more than operations, Fertman said, including how to motivate employees and improve their working environment.
“For us, the challenge was communicating with our franchise owners and in turn having them convey our policies to the sandwich artists,” Fertman said. “It was like a big game of telephone. So we put in place an entirely new manager training program. … Before, the focus was just about running a clean, efficient store and following the big, red book. This is more personal.”
Milford, Conn.-based Subway has restaurants in more than 100 countries.