Last week, 160 workers from 16 Whataburger restaurants competed for gold, silver and bronze medals and a piece of the $140,000 in prize money at stake in the company’s 2011 WhataGames, an annual competition launched the same year as the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and designed to inspire the same kind of team spirit the athletes demonstrated.
“In essence [we wanted to] create an event that focuses on training in restaurants, builds employee morale, takes care of employees and concentrates on customer service from a quality perspective,” said Todd Neer, group director of field training.
Workers at Whataburger’s 720 restaurants in 10 states went under the microscope last November as the contest began with 12 visits by secret shoppers and five on-the-spot phone calls from corporate with detailed questions about different aspects of the operation. The process narrowed the field to 39, and follow-up audits and a few more mystery shoppers got it down to the 16 10-member teams that competed recently during the company’s annual convention, with quiz shows and card games aimed at testing their knowledge of the intricacies of running a Whataburger and a 30-minute simulated lunch rush attended by almost all of the chain’s top brass to determine who could best put their knowledge into action. The members of the gold-medal team came from a store in Fort Worth, Texas, and each took home $5,000 and the accolades of about 2,000 screaming fans.
The games have proven a powerful employee retention tool, says Neer, who has worked in various operations positions at the chain for 14 years. Eight general managers and three area managers in the San Antonio market who were part of previous years’ teams later opted for long-term careers at the company, in large part because of the way Whataburger shows its commitment, he says. Employees at the chain founded by Harmon Dobson in 1950 in Corpus Christi, Texas, are called “family members,” and while Dobson’s blood relations have controlled the company since its inception, the meaning of “family” includes all 21,000 of the chain’s current staffers.
Quickservice chains are notorious for high turnover – the industry averaged turnover of 100% or higher in the years before the recession – and companies are always looking for ways to retain workers. Whataburger boasts 150 “family members” who have been with the company for 20 years or more, many of whom worked their way up from after-school jobs serving burgers to executive posts, says Communication Director Pam Cox.
The idea that workers who feel connected and loyal to the company are more likely to provide a better customer experience is a pretty simple one, but the concept often hits snags as chains franchise and grow larger and more diverse. Efforts ranging from employee scholarship programs to a newly created initiative to tie together the company’s growing roster of education and training programs under the Whataburger University banner are aimed at keeping workers engaged. And, of course, there are the games, which give staffers a chance at the spotlight.
“The winners paraded in from the back, waving their flags. There were cheers as they got their moment at the front of the room. A lot of them are 16- or 17-year-old kids who are searching for a path. They have never been at an event like this before and they walk away saying ‘Oh my gosh, this company really does appreciate what we do for them. This company really does invest in their people and make sure we’re taken care of,’” Cox said.
What are you doing to keep your employees engaged and invested? Tell us about it in the comments.