Four Business Lessons I Learned While Working At Wendy's
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Henry Ford once said improved productivity means less human sweat, not more. This is a lesson I learned firsthand shortly after my 14th birthday, when I got my first part-time job working in the kitchen at a Wendy’s in Ottawa, Canada, which was where I grew up. Now, I know what you’re thinking: how does transient fast food experience as a teenager translate into a defining moment for me professionally? Simple- it taught me that a well-orchestrated set of efficiently managed resources is the difference between business success and business failure.
In the restaurant business, particularly fast food, every second counts, and pennies on the dollar savings are what make profit margins shine. I saw firsthand how it wasn’t the best employees that created the best economic results, but rather the right team, coached and incentivized properly, that made a rush hour lucrative instead of degenerating into chaos. Watching and participating in these moments gave me an appreciation and understanding of team building, HR and workforce management.
When I decided to launch Covalence, my human capital management consulting company, I revisited all that early training I had as a teenager and found it highly applicable to the challenges I’d be facing as a ‘trep. Here are some of the greatest lessons I learned at Wendy’s, which not only played a major role in my future as an entrepreneur, but also continue to guide my business decisions today:
1. Play to employee strengths If you couldn’t handle the heat of the grill, Wendy’s would try to put you to work at the cash register. If you weren’t organized, you worked the rush hour shifts, as opposed to opening and closing times, which required more order and discipline than the responsiveness needed to handle a long line of hungry, demanding, can’t-get-it-fast-enough customers. Much like sports, a fast food team can’t thrive with one star performer, but instead requires a varied range of different strengths working together. Working at Wendy’s taught me the importance of building a team with complementary skillsets. I carry this lesson with me today as an entrepreneur: understanding the health of a team depends on regularly moving people around based on their strengths and removing low performers. By the same token, not everyone can be managed and motivated the same way. You need to find out what makes each person tick to ensure they are incentivized accordingly and headed towards the same common goal.
2. Be agile in your planning Thanks to meticulous timing and planning, fast food restaurants keep the daily juggling act from turning to disaster. If you don’t plan well and get your timing right, you’ll run out of food in the middle of a lunch rush. But if you have too much product prepared, you have extreme waste that eats into your already razor-thin margins. Layer onto that various cooking times –fries: four minutes, burgers: six minutes, baked potatoes: 40 minutes– and the typical day in fast food is a juggling act that rivals a Cirque du Soleil performance. Most of what we do at my venture requires a juggling act that most in the consulting services industry would know only too well. My team constantly faces changing needs, shifting timelines, technical challenges, and overall, a continuous barrage of unexpected happenings, one after another. Careful planning paired with the ability to be flexible when it’s needed is what keeps the inevitable moments of chaos from boiling over. When things do get hectic, as a leader, you need to see through the dense fog in front of you to the clear pastures waiting just ahead. And most importantly, you need to motivate and encourage everyone around you to face chaotic situations with the same outlook.
3. Don’t sacrifice quality for speedy delivery I was 45 minutes late to an opening on a Saturday morning. I vowed to make up for lost time and began feverishly mowing through my workload. A fast food opening shift requires extreme organization: there are deliveries to be put away, food to be rotated, toppings to be washed, sliced, stocked, chili to be made, gravy to be heated, windows to be cleaned, and machines to be filled. Naturally, due to my lateness, I fell behind on my opening shift duties. The store was about to open for lunch and I was still in the back making salads. I scooped out the lettuce from the ice-cold water with a commercial size strainer and started prepping 50 side salads and 40 lunch salads. About 20 minutes into the lunch rush, the first salad comes back. Ten minutes later, another salad gets returned, and this time, my manager is furious and he’s headed my way with the salad in hand. He proceeds to tip it slightly over the sink and water begins to trickle out. In my rush to make up for lost time, I cut corners. I didn’t allow the lettuce to drain properly when I took it out of the water. I made 90 salads that were sitting on a bed of wet, unappetizing lettuce. That day, due to my singular focus on speedy delivery, we had to throw out 90 salads in the trash and start over, not only costing us extra human capital time but money in wastage, and dissatisfied customers. Today, my days are full of changing targets, shifting priorities, and constant adjustments, but I never sacrifice quality for speed. You can’t do it all in less time and maintain all of the important factors like quality. It just doesn’t work– at least not long-term. What does work is re-evaluating progress and priorities, and then adjusting goals and deadlines as needed.
4. Share your big picture perspective I was making a sandwich, top bun got a swipe of mayo, pickles, white onions, a slice of tomato, piece of lettuce and swipe of mustard on the patty before closing and wrapping it up to be enjoyed by my customer waiting less than 10 feet away. Suddenly, the GM for Wendy’s citywide showed up and whispered, “How many rings of onions go on a sandwich?” I didn’t know the answer; to be honest, I didn’t really sweat the number of onion rings that go on each sandwich. “I don’t know, three?” I responded, unsure of myself. The GM grabbed an apron, took over my duties at the sandwich station, and sent me to the break room to watch the training video again. I was impressed with General Manager’s ability to jump in and walk the walk. “How many were you putting on a sandwich?” he asked me after I had finished watching the training video. “I don’t know… sometimes three.” He then proceeded to explain to me that in addition to consistency in products, what was at stake with my three-onion-ring mistake was company scale and margins, breaking down the costs of onions, adding labor, wastage, and how an extra ring of onion per sandwich is literally fractions of pennies adding up over a day per outlet, multiplied by the number of restaurants in our city, province, region, Canada, North America, and then worldwide. My three-onion-ring mistake suddenly made so much more sense when I was given the big picture perspective, and in the process, effectively exposed me to other areas of the business as a 15-year-old. I truly value this lesson until today, and at Covalence, our consultants are not purely technical or functional, as we build business development into their core skillset. Exposing them to our entire business as a whole not only teaches them why we do things the way we do, but also gives them an awareness of the short- and long-term vision, and an advantage over our competitors, who would more often spread that knowledge over various roles.