Cinnabon president Kat Cole shares 'Undercover Boss' learnings

Cinnabon president Kat Cole shares 'Undercover Boss' learnings

The television show let Cole learn more about her business.

Kat Cole, the president of Cinnabon Inc., has become the youngest corporate leader to put on a disguise and become an “Undercover Boss” for an upcoming episode of the CBS television show.

Cole, 34, who became president of Atlanta-based Cinnabon last year, worked in a number of roles while filming the show, including bakery cashier, machine operator, coffee host and manager.

“I was incredibly proud of our brand and developed an even deeper understanding and appreciation” for the employees, Cole said earlier this week in a phone interview.

The episode featuring Cole and the more than 900-unit Cinnabon will air at 8 p.m. EST on Friday.

Cole talked with Nation’s Restaurant News about her experience with "Undercover Boss."

What was appealing to you about doing 'Undercover Boss?'

I grew up working in restaurants. So unlike the normal bosses who go through this, the jobs themselves weren’t going to be the learning for me. When I first came on board with Cinnabon, I spent the most of two months doing nothing else but working in the bakeries. I was incredibly familiar with the jobs.

What I really wanted to see was how some of the programs our new team had put in place are really affecting the day-to-day work of the employee. That included our beverage program, the smaller portions — our Minibons — or some of the other products.

What does the show provide the executive?

The other thing I wanted to do was something that 'Undercover Boss' uniquely provides: It was that opportunity to just check in — in a really unique way. I work with our employees all the time. I get to know them all the time. But [there's another] level of openness that being undercover really provides.

Because you are undercover, the employees are told that you are in some disadvantaged position. They are told they are in a position to help you and mentor you, and they share their own personal stories. I don’t care how connected of a leader you are or how approachable you are — you typically would not get that. You wouldn’t have someone, within 10 minutes of meeting you, talking to you about their ill parents or their childhood. Because of the format of this show, you can get to the heart of who they are and their personal stories very quickly. That’s a unique opportunity.

What was the biggest eye-opener for you during the 'Undercover' experience?

I was most moved by how young and energetic and sweet and great our employees are. I knew it, because I’m in the bakeries all the time. But [I was] working side-by-side with them and hearing their stories of how they are trying to pay for school or trying to raise their kids and just being reminded of their day-to-day life. Remembering what that was like for me was incredibly powerful.

I was raised by a single mother and had several years where things were really tough. I was reminded of just how alike we all are. I was reminded of how much of a positive influence we can be for our employees. I was deeply moved.

How has the experience influenced Cinnabon?

We have basic elements of multicultural marketing that are available for our franchisees, depending on the makeup of their communities. If there’s a large Asian community or Latin-American community, we have translated materials. One of the employees I worked with [on the show] was so passionate about personally reaching out to his local Latin-American community; he wanted more. He wanted flyers that were literally letters to local groups like churches, cultural groups and even families. He wanted to talk about the flavors and the elements of our brand that appeal to their taste. He wanted to take it to toward true guerilla marketing. We already have produced some of that for him and are working on more.

Did you learn anything about your sampling practices?

Cinnabon was really built on sampling. The aroma is certainly is a big factor in drawing people in to sample the product. You have to be generous enough to give away a little taste of the product for free. Over time, I think we have not as been consistent with sampling as we should be.

What really stood out to me is when I worked with one of the managers. They weren’t just cutting up a piece of a really great product to share. They were making specific, teeny-weenie little inch cinnamon rolls. They were allocating labor. People were eating it up.

I was playing the curious trainee, asking if they were worried about wasting money and food costs. He said it was the right thing to do. Their sales at this location blow it out of the water. They have increased competition in this mall, yet they are up in comps by double digits. That experience put more fire under my butt to drive the sampling initiatives throughout the franchise community.

What was your disguise?

I never wear lipstick, but I had to do things that differentiated me. I had that offensively bright red lipstick. I looked in the mirror and almost cried. I had thick, thick eyeliner and makeup and a nose ring.

The [blond] wig was the hardest for sure. I was almost in tears trying to rip away the wig tape and glue every night. I had to bleach the bottom part of my hair at the neckline because it was sticking out. The wig was awful, messy and uncomfortable. And it had to be a wig that was short enough to work in foodservice without a hairnet.

What’s your advice to others considering appearing on 'Undercover Boss?'

The experience is incredibly unique. It’s at least worth considering. It comes down to your comfort level. It is reality television. You don’t have editorial control. People are going to see what they see. You film for several days and then it’s edited down into a one-hour show, so there are risks. But I think the risks, in most cases, are well worth the reward of getting the unique opportunity to connect with people who are the unsung heroes.

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