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Johnny Rockets CEO latest to go 'Undercover'

John Fuller on cooking, connecting with customers for reality show

John Fuller, the president and chief executive of Johnny Rockets Inc., will be the first to tell you he’s no dancer. But the burger chain executive will be dancing in one of his own restaurants on national television in an episode of the reality show “Undercover Boss,” which airs Sunday night on CBS.

Fuller joins other industry executives, including Don Fertman of Subway and Coby Brooks of Hooters, who have taken jobs under fake names on the front lines of their own companies for the reality show.

EARLIER: Subway: Lessons learned while undercover

Promoted to his current role at Lake Forest, Calif.-based Johnny Rockets in January after serving as chief financial officer, Fuller said the show gave him the opportunity to do something he had long wanted to do: serve customers without being recognized as the guy in charge.

In an interview Friday — before he had seen the episode in which he appears — Fuller spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the experience:

Why did you want to do this?

I’m just a finance guy. Being controller and CFO of all these restaurant companies, when I got promoted in January this year, I thought I really have to get out there and understand the operations side of business more. I could never figure out how to clear my calendar to go work in a restaurant or be a server, and there was never a clean way of doing that without them knowing you’re the CEO. So when this chance came from the show, I jumped all over it. It was the perfect way for me do what I wanted to do.

What jobs did you take?

I was a server in two locations, and a cook for a day and a bartender for a day at the chain’s new sports bar concept in New York.

What was the hardest part of the jobs you did?

For me, the hardest thing was being a cook. On a personal basis, I don’t cook. I literally was learning the most basic things. Let’s say I was making a burger for just me, I wouldn’t care that much. But for someone who’s paying for it? That was the case in being a bartender too. People are paying for a specific kind of drink. I wanted to make sure I was doing it exactly right by the recipe.

As a first-time CEO, what about this experience changed or shaped the way you look at your job now?

Being a numbers guy, I’m pretty analytical and process driven. I’m wired that way. When I first got out to those restaurants, I had that approach or mentality, and I quickly recognized that’s probably the wrong way to go about it.

It’s about human interaction and it’s the way you connect with guests. One of the things the servers taught me, as I’m asking all these crazy questions, they said, "You’re over-thinking it. Just try to make guests smile. If you can make them smile during the course of your interaction with them, you’ve done your job." I thought, that’s so simple. I was clearly over-thinking it.

Through my experiences, I learned that we will make better decisions if we include some of the front-line folks more; the franchisees and the people who are actually in the trenches. We should get the front-line guys involved in part in our thinking because they have some credible experiences or thoughts that we should try to capture.

Johnny Rockets’ servers are known for dancing on the job. Did you dance?

Yes I did. If you asked me what the worst part of my experience, it was that. I’m not a dancer at all. I’m a big guy, I’m 6 foot 6 and 280 pounds and all arms and legs. For me to be smooth and move around like the people that were teaching me how to dance was extremely challenging. It was probably the thing I was dreading the most too. I love seeing our people do it, but I hated having to do it.

Can you talk about employees you met along the way? Who impressed you?

There was Ajay, who was a cook in the Manhattan sports bar unit. I worked with Ajay and he was very passionate. Actually all of them were very passionate about what they do and see Johnny Rockets as their family, which is kind of cool.

But Ajay was very militaristic in his teaching of how to do things exactly right. He would say everything at Johnny Rockets is designed this way, we must do it this way, and we only do this at Johnny Rockets. He was very, very by-the-book, but I loved that.

It was his kitchen, his way and he owned. it. That was fun to be a part of, but there were times when I had to turn my back to the camera to keep from cracking up. I was worried I was going to get busted for not being able to keep a straight face.

Also in New York, I met Claudia, who was the bartender. She had kind of an interesting upbringing, so she really gravitated toward being part of the Johnny Rockets family.

Tony was a server in the Atlantic City, N.J., location who had some personal tragedies happen to one of his kids — one who was about the same age as my daughter. That really struck me in that he had such an upbeat attitude in how he interacted with guests. I thought, if this guy can keep it going like that, I should be able to conquer anything.

At the Mohegan Sun casino unit in Connecticut, Janice was a dancer with boundless energy who was incredibly creative. She loved her guests and the guests loved her. She worked in a casino, but people would come to the casino and have dinner or breakfast whenever she was working.

It was just amazing that these people could connect with their guests the way they do.

How do they keep it quiet that you are who you are?

The premise, which explained why there were cameras following me around, was that me and another guy answered an ad for a reality show. We’re failed entrepreneurs, so this is our second chance at getting a business and the workers had to vote on me, versus this other guy, as to who is most deserving of winning a restaurant from Johnny Rockets.

So whatever I had to go through, you see there’s another guy doing the exact same thing separately. The employees had to pick one of us that was most deserving.

Also, I was in disguise. I have kind of grayish-blondish hair, so they dyed my hair black. I grew a beard for two weeks and then shaved because I only wanted sideburns and a goatee. They dyed my eyebrows and goatee black every morning, and I combed back my hair. I also rode in every morning on a Harley.

Did you win in that scenario? Did the employees pick you?

Actually, they did. But it was cool, because they came in an office and cast their vote. And then I come in and sit down and we go through the whole ‘who I really am’ scenario.

Any changes to the chain going forward that came out of this experience?

It definitely changed some things, some policies for the company. It was absolutely what I wanted to get out of it. I learned a lot. I was able to come back and share some things and make some changes immediately.

And one great thing about it was that they filmed a day with me and my kids. To be able to have them on camera and do something like that with them was pretty cool. It was a way to share the experience with them.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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