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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2005 — November — Human Assets

Better Coaches, Better Players
Fatz Cafe drives guest satisfaction and sales with a dual-focused training initiative.

Vice President of Human Resources Steve Corson and Training Coordinator Sara Nickel helped improve Fatz Cafe’s sales and retention.

With its new training focus, Cafe Enterprises hopes to reduce hourly turnover to 80 percent and management turn to 10 percent.

Fatz Cafe has promoted 59 percent of its new managers from the hourly ranks this year.

Three years ago, 70 percent of guest e-mails to Fatz Cafe contained complaints or concerns. Today, 70 percent are praise, says Steve Bruce, COO of parent company Cafe Enterprises. What’s more, all employees are empowered to handle the complaints that do come in.

“We’re not afraid to open those e-mails or deal with a guest in the dining room that has an issue,” says Sara Nickel, training coordinator for the Taylors, S.C.-based operator of 25 casual-dining restaurants. “Everyone, especially servers, knows how to make it right for the guest.”

Last fall, Cafe Enterprises launched a comprehensive server training program involving pre-hire testing and, for the first time, classroom training. On the heels of that launch, the company rolled out a leadership training initiative, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s Leadership & Management Program featuring Harvard’s ManageMentor PLUS program.

“We realized that we were talking a lot about associate satisfaction driving guest satisfaction but weren’t actually driving results with our existing programs,” Bruce says. “And we didn’t feel that we could wait to get one aspect done before we started the other; the server training and leadership program had to go hand in hand.”

This simultaneous focus is beginning to yield results. Same-store sales are up 2.5 percent this year, continuing three years of comp-store gains. As of September, hourly turnover stood at 118 percent, down from 135 percent in 2002; management turnover was 25 percent, a decline from 30 percent in 2002.

The number of managers culled from hourly ranks is also on the rise: 59 percent of new managers are internal promotions, compared to 40 percent last year, and 70 percent of managers for the next four store openings are former hourlies. Building that bench will help the company as it grows from three locations a year to as many as six, with a goal of reaching 38 units and $100 million in sales by 2008.

Getting it Right
Cafe Enterprises embarked on this training drive in 2003, when it identified improving order accuracy as a way of “improving guest satisfaction by preventing dissatisfaction,” Bruce says. “Delving deeper, we realized communication and server menu knowledge were the main issues.”

The company moved Nickel from an operating-partner spot to the newly created training-coordinator position. Working with Vice President of Human Resources Steve Corson, Nickel rewrote all materials, introducing the pre-hire test, classroom training and new content.

Fatz Cafe gives promising server candidates a copy of the menu and study guide and asks them to return for a test; a score of 90 percent or higher makes them eligible for hire. Once on board, they train for five days including an hour each day of classroom topics like service and menu knowledge prior to on-the-job training shifts. Trainees are quizzed daily, and the training week concludes with an oral exam.

Fatz Cafe

Cafe Enterprises, Taylors, S.C.



2004 Systemwide Sales
$54.9 million
2005 Systemwide Sales
$60 million (company estimate)
Average Check
Average Unit Volume
$2.5 million
Expansion Plans

3 by year-end; 4 in 2006; 4 to 6 annually

The company also introduced several new elements. Servers are now trained to write down orders using a system that correlates to the POS system. “A lot of servers want to wow the guest by memorizing the order, but when something doesn’t come to the table correctly, the guest perception is that the server made a mistake,” Nickel says. “If the food comes out right, that’s a big wow and allows the server to focus on wowing them in other ways.”

Another new element is guest recovery. Servers are trained to listen, apologize, solve and thank. “The training takes away the fear of making a mistake, and enables them to make the guest a guest for life by correcting the situation,” Corson says.

The new training program has also improved quality of hire. “The pre-test on the menu eliminates anyone who talks a good game in the interview but doesn’t really want to put in the effort,” says Bruce Dressler, general manager of the Fatz Cafe in Irmo, S.C.

Turnover at Dressler’s restaurant is down 50 percent since implementing the new training last fall. He attributes the improvement as much to better hires resulting from the pre-hire test as to the training.

The creation of a certified trainer position has put the career track at Fatz Cafe front and center for many hourlies. “They can go from hourly to certified trainer then be a management candidate,” Corson says.

Promoting from within improves retention, according to data from People Report. The Dallas-based human-resources tracking firm reports that companies with the highest level of internal promotions enjoy turnover rates of about 45 points lower for hourly employees and 15 points lower for management staff.

Parallel Priorities
To help unit managers administer the training and serve as coaches, Cafe Enterprises kicked off leadership-development training in April. Fifty area partners, operating partners and general managers underwent 40 hours of training, consisting of reading assignments, online modules and group sessions focusing on topics like goal setting, time management and managing difficult interactions.

“If we improve people skills, retention improves and the guest satisfaction improves,” says Nickel.

Tackling hourly employee training and management development simultaneously is ambitious, according to Harry Bond, president of Bradley, Ill.-based Monical Pizza Corp. For the past several years, 58-unit Monical has recorded zero management turnover, hourly turnover in the low 70 percent range and same-store-sales gains.

“Having worked with Cafe Enterprises on implementing the Harvard program, I can say that they understand that the time and monetary investment will lead to retention improvements, first and foremost, followed by better performance on all fronts,” Bond says.

“Both programs absolutely go hand in hand,” says Ralph McMurray, operating partner at the Hendersonville, N.C., Fatz Cafe. “We were studying how to take care of our employees, and the servers are studying how to take care of the guest. I’m doing a lot more coaching and mentoring than I had been, and the servers are looking for that guidance. Everyone is moving in the same direction.”

Cafe Enterprises will train another group of unit managers in early 2006. In addition, strength assessment interviews are under way, which will lead to more tailored management training, says Nickel.

“This training is now in demand on all levels,” she declares. “We’re beginning to see the results, so it’s worthwhile to keep it going.”

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