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Wendy's Franchise Owner Launches a Big Training Initiative

This story appears in the September 2013 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Fast-food employees have been the butt of jokes for decades, and with good reason--with annual turnover for the industry topping as much as 50 percent, running a shift can be like monitoring an unruly detention hall. Managers complain about employees who don't get to work on time, can't do simple math, can't run a register--or even worse, misfits who lick taco shells, bathe in the utility sink or do unspeakable things to the nachos. In many cases, owners--and customers--have simply given up on expecting high-quality service.

But the Meritage Hospitality Group, which owns 113 locations, including 48 in , isn't giving up. In fact, while the entire Wendy's franchise goes through a reboot that includes updating its logo, rolling out new décor and uniforms and revamping its , Meritage is taking an extra step, cleaning out dead weight and bringing onboard 10 well-trained workers to every store in Michigan. That's almost 500 new employees--a monumental task, but one Meritage hopes will take its stores to the next level. "One of the things consumers tell us is that we have the best products: great burgers, chicken and fries," says Mike Baldwin, area director for Meritage. "We're just trying to complement that with five-star talent at the register."

We talked with Baldwin and Al Pruitt, president of Wendy's for Meritage, about hiring, training and inspiring change.

How do you find 500 good, new employees?
Baldwin: We held a job fair in May, with managers interviewing people at all 48 of our Michigan stores. The interviews didn't start until 2 p.m., but we had people lining up as early as 8 a.m.; in fact we had more than 1,000 people show up.

We were looking for people who were pleasant, who smiled and were engaging and initiated conversations. We want them to care. Every customer has a story and needs something different. Our employees have to be energetic and fast, and display a sense of urgency. The fair helped us add a couple hundred new employees, and we have many more doing additional interviews and aptitude tests.

Why do you think new employees will change things?
Pruitt: It's not just new employees. We are really putting more time and energy into training our people, whether they are new hires or existing employees. Last year we created a new position where we have a corporate trainer for all 113 Wendy's stores. She goes out and does one-on-one training for two days in each store with our cashiers, training them on the importance of appearance, how to recognize regular customers and how to develop skills to help them become better salespeople. It's part of a new program we call our "Amazing Service Journey."

How do you teach customer engagement?
Baldwin: We've instituted challenges in the restaurants, like day shift vs. night shift, seeing who can get the most customer names in a given day. We teach them to look for things to initiate conversation, like a sports hat or shirt. It's so much different when a team member has a personal connection with the customer, or when they have a regular customer's order ready before they even ask.

Are you seeing results from your training initiatives?
Pruitt: Yes, we've had an increase and saw turn around last year in the fourth quarter. And we've seen sales in a positive direction this year. There's been a reduction in customer complaints and an overall improvement in how they're being treated in our restaurants. We've also seen an increase in customer compliments, which I attribute to better interactions with our register operators.

Baldwin: You can really see a difference between us and our competitors as soon as you walk into one of our stores.

What's your advice for other franchisees facing problems with service?
Pruitt: Our biggest tip is to invest the time in training.

If you spend time on your people, you will always get a return on your investment.

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