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Paying it forward with training

Paying it forward with training

The debate over how much restaurant chains should pay their workers hasn’t really budged for months, but it’s back at the top of the news cycle with another protest demonstration occurring today at McDonald’s Corp.’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill.

Ahead of McDonald’s annual shareholder meeting tomorrow, protesters once again will push the giant chain to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour. The company and other restaurant brands likely will respond, correctly, that such a wage could not work without menu price increases, staff reductions or other undesirable trade-offs.

I’m still less than thrilled that the wider debate does not treat the minimum-wage issue with the nuance it needs. But I was far more encouraged by what I was hearing from restaurant operators and suppliers during the NRA Show about ways to compensate staff more through better training.

It actually started on Thursday during lunch at the spring meeting of the Marketing Executives Group, where I got to talk to Rom Krupp, the chief executive of Marketing Vitals, a provider of analytics software designed to help restaurant brands track cashier and server performance and incentivize and reward those workers when they hit certain sales goals.

His goal was to raise the pay level of front-line employees of the restaurant industry, but by enabling those staffers to build their skills and by making restaurants more profitable.

The theme came up repeatedly throughout the NRA Show, which seemed to emphasize the importance of people again and again in educational sessions.

A visit from Joe Phraner and Carrie Martin of casual-dining chain bd’s Mongolian Grill revealed the same emphasis on training. To promote several new beverages and appetizers this year, the 32-unit chain is holding server contests at each location to reward the person who sells the most orders of a promotional item with prizes like an iPad Mini. But bd’s invested in additional training to teach servers how to tell the story of what goes into the new menu items as well.

“We think it’s important to take some of those marketing dollars — because we’re not big enough yet to be on TV — and redirect them at our teams to incentivize them to drive sales,” said Phraner, the brand’s president.

Martin added that the increased training and the contests in effect raised servers’ pay.

“Every single server that won an iPad, they won so much more in their tips because of the effort they put forward,” Martin said. “We’re trying to do that now with all our add-on products so that they have the tools they need to sell it.”

Granted, these kinds of staff incentive programs have been around the industry, but it is refreshing to hear restaurateurs of all types talking more about how they can better educate and motivate their people.

Chicago’s Rick Bayless, who has branched out from his fine-dining restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo to the fast-casual segment with Xoco and some on-site restaurants, agreed in a panel discussion that the worst thing a restaurant chain can do is “dumb down” the job of an hourly worker into something rote and process-oriented. The point is to help employees grow, which is why he tries to teach Xoco employees as much about cooking as he does the cooks at Frontera and Topolobampo who share a kitchen in the same building as Xoco.

“To me, if we ever want to see our workforce progress, we have to invest in their education,” Bayless said. “And we invest in their education by actually teaching them how to cook.”

The operators interested in training and retaining better servers weren’t being charitable; they’re just as motivated by driving the top line as anything else. While examples like these likely will not lead to giant chains raising their minimum wages across the board — or quell the popular clamor for a significantly higher federal minimum wage — it is more helpful to everyone involved in the debate to see how wages going up don’t have to be a zero-sum loss for operators.

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