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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2005April 15 — Best Places To Work

Direct to Video
BJ’s combination of technology and hands-on training drives results on all fronts.

BJ’s interactive training program teaches four points of service: a to-do list on the mechanics of service, personalized selling, maximizing table turns and impressing the guest.

One of the first things a new server at a BJ’s Restaurant & Brewery does is don a headset and spend a few minutes in front of a POS monitor, working through an interactive video training module. Then the server joins the trainer on the floor for a live session, in which the trainer reviews and demonstrates the tasks and works with the server as he or she tries it.

This combination of high-tech and high-touch training is helping BJ’s Restaurants Inc. stem turnover among its 4,000 employees and fortify its ranks in anticipation of growth. The Huntington Beach, Calif.-based company operates 35 casual brewery restaurants in seven states under the BJ’s Restaurant and Brewery, BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, and BJ’s Pizza & Grill brand names.

Beginning in 2003, BJ’s shifted to a people-development approach, rewriting manuals, focusing training on coaching, and improving the way it selects new hires. Its video training program is a new tool in that effort.

Rolled out in February to support the new “Connect 4 Service” initiative, the interactive training is designed to deliver and reinforce consistent and concise information as the chain grows at a clip of 20 percent annually. “We see a direct correlation between training and our success: The better the training, the lower the turn; the lower the turn, the higher the employee and unit productivity,” explains Chief People Officer Bill Streitberger.

BJ’s Restaurants reports 2 percent to 3 percent increases in same-store sales for the past two years. 2004 average unit volume reached $4 million, and systemwide sales were $129 million.

Management retention improved from 32 percent turnover in 2002 to a current 21 percent. Hourly turn now trends at 80 percent, a vast improvement from 100 percent two years ago.

Be Yourself
While operational and service standards are crucial parts of BJ’s training, the Connect 4 Service initiative emphasizes individualism. In addition to task-oriented content, the videos highlight guest interaction and personality in enhancing the guest experience.

BJ’s Restaurants Inc.
Huntington Beach, Calif.
2004 Systemwide Sales
$129 million
Average Unit Volume
$4 million
Average Check
Expansion Plans

8 in 2005; 9 in 2006; 20 percent annual growth

“The program is really focused on hospitality. Our mantras are to impress the guest and constantly find ways to say yes to the guest. That takes personalized selling and little things like simply smiling, making eye contact and letting your personality show,” explains Streitberger. “We’re now looking to drive the bottom line by ensuring our service is not robotic.”

Connect 4 Service trains on four points: a basic to-do list of the mechanics of service, personalized selling, maximizing table turns and impressing the guest.

The videos star BJ’s regional managers. Combined with the electronic format, the familiar faces increase viewer’s retention, says Nanette McWhertor, vice president of training and development.

“As an industry, we train by the ‘tell-show-do-review’ method. In our evaluations, we found the part where the message is missed is the ‘tell’ aspect. The interactive video ensures every employee not only sees but also truly hears what’s expected of them. They then jump immediately into the floor-training segment for the ‘do’ and ‘review’ elements, which reinforces the content,” she explains.

“Our staff members think it’s cool to see people they know in the videos. It brings a sense of familiarity and imprints the message on them more strongly,” says Jackee Ermansons, general manager of a BJ’s unit in Addison, Texas. “The interactive element—that’s how things are going today—and the presence of friendly faces ensures it’s not a scary tool.”

Complementing the Curriculum
“We’re finding retention levels are higher with this format. Rather than disconnect from personal training, the video adds to that process because this is how kids learn today—in interactive, electronic formats. So, when they get out on the floor, they’re better prepared for the ‘do’ portion.”

The interactive aspect speaks to how today’s employees learn, according to T.J. Schier of Incentivize Solutions in Flower Mound, Texas. “With this system, BJ’s employees can access the information in a format they’re comfortable with and then put it immediately into practice. For today’s learner, whose attention span is fairly short and their desire for fast access to information is strong, this takes the ‘school’ mentality out of training and makes it more impactful,” he says.

Mystery shoppers visit units five times a month to rate employees on things like smiling, making eye contact with guests and displaying personality.

New hires tackle a different Connect 4 Service video segment on each of their first five shifts. The segments run from five to 10 minutes; a final “Impress the Guest” segment re-emphasizes the hospitality message. Trainees must pass the assessment for each segment in order to begin the next. The messages are further reinforced through an hour-long presentation given once a month by a training manager.

A mystery-shopper program ensures BJ’s training translates to stellar service. A third-party firm visits each unit five times per month, evaluating the experience on BJ’s four points of service and rating employees on things like smiling, making eye contact with the guest and displaying personality. Any server scoring 100 percent receives $100 cash. Those whose performance falls short review the training curriculum to brush up their skills.

“We’re measuring a different matrix than most restaurants, but it’s driving our business,” says Streitberger.

Ermansons sees parallels to fine dining and hotel training. “I come from working in five-star hotels and four-star restaurants, and these are the points of service that drive those businesses. Most casual restaurants don’t train specifically on these points. This approach is taking BJ’s to the next level,” she says.

“Mystery-shopper programs that measure things the guest measures and remembers—like the friendliness of servers— are far more effective for the company,” Schier says.

Two other interactive programs round out BJ’s newest training initiative. One covers the chain’s POS system and the other focuses on BJ’s 125-item menu.

Rapid ROI
BJ’s invested approximately $50,000 in the interactive videos, including production, purchase of headsets and upgrading its POS-system monitors. Development took eight months, according to Streitberger, who notes, “The payoff is here already.”

“We’re delivering training content in 10 minutes that used to take two hours, they’re retaining it better, and it saves the individual stores on training costs. We can update content overnight via our intranet and are sure that the message is always consistent,” McWhertor says.

The videos are particularly helpful on brewery training. BJ’s Restaurants operates 10 microbreweries that produce and supply the chain with its signature beers. Previously, it was difficult for the brewers to schedule time to train at the units. With the video program, new servers learn the basics of the brewing operation and the beers within 30 days of hire.

Looking ahead, BJ’s will add an assessment tool to the program for 2006. Employee-assessment and mystery-shopper scores will likely drive enhancements to the content, according to McWhertor. A Culinary Camp is also in development and should debut in first quarter 2006. Succession planning for managers and hourly employees with management potential is another current effort.

The company will open eight units in 2005 and nine in 2006. Streitberger expects the Connect 4 Service program and its new leadership-focused manager training to develop and retain employees while building a management bench to support expansion and create cultural continuity.

“Ours is a talent-driven model with inherent complexity of concept, food and service,” says Streitberger. “The day we stop learning is the day we’re done.”

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