Taco Bell has a unique strategy to improve its frontline experience: Make corporate employees work restaurant shifts
At Taco Bell, every new corporate employee must work at one of the fast food chain’s restaurants for a week, sometimes more. It’s an important, humbling, and camaraderie-building experience to ensure that decisions around store policies, menu items, or new features like digital menus and ordering kiosks are made with frontline workers in mind.
Moreover, the company says the mandate helps to reduce barriers between crew members and corporate employees and provides workers in white-collar roles with an increased awareness of the frontline fast food experience.
At a time when retail workers are hard to come by and even harder to keep, companies are quickly realizing that promoting better working conditions, upward mobility, and a culture of understanding helps to retain these in-demand workers, thus creating greater long-term value.
Taco Bell CEO Mark King can count himself as one of the many corporate employees who’s worked a crew shift during onboarding, and he says he’s better for it. King was new to the food service industry when he joined the company as CEO in 2019 after serving as Adidas’ president and the CEO of golf equipment maker TaylorMade before that.
“[Adidas] required all corporate employees to spend time at retail,” he tells Fortune. The experience taught him “what happens with the products, the way they’re displayed, the way consumers interact, the way retailers interact with consumers. That’s just as important at Taco Bell, maybe even more.”
Most of the fast food chain’s training takes place at corporate-owned locations, rather than franchises, in part due to the disruptive nature of a new corporate hire taking on shifts.
King’s in-store training lasted about a week, he recalls, and included food prepping, bag stuffing, and cleaning at a California store under the supervision of a regional manager. One of the main takeaways from his training was the need to simplify Taco Bell’s menu. It currently features around 90 items, and 65% of patrons customize their orders.
“We’ve got too many items,” King says. “These poor people working in these restaurants; there’s so many items [and] it’s so complex.” That epiphany is partly why Taco Bell removed the Mexican Pizza from its menu, he says, although the company has since brought it back and may make it a permanent item.
King emphasizes that he wants the frontline role to become more streamlined so that these workers remain for years to come. “Turnover is so high, not just at Taco Bell, but at any QSR [quick-service restaurant], right? Because the job is just really difficult. So how do we make that experience easier?”
Frontline training for new corporate hires is meant to closely mimic the crew member experience. Employees go through the same online and in-store training on restaurant operations and food preparation. They also man the cash register and fulfill sample orders.
In addition to the weeklong training when they start, corporate employees are required to complete a full shift at a store each year. They take orders from customers, work the food prep lines, and handle cleaning and closing responsibilities. “You’re scheduled for one day, a seven- or eight-hour shift that usually starts around nine, and then work through the lunch shift into the evening and prep for the night,” says Rob Poetsch, Taco Bell’s senior director of global communications and engagement.
“When you go into the restaurant, you really have an understanding of the demands, how difficult the job is, how stressful it can be at times, and what are ways that we can help solve that.”
The shift-worker experience was the subject of a recent Taco Bell leadership retreat, held in Huntington Beach, Calif., a 30-minute drive from its Irvine headquarters. A former strategy executive from Disney facilitated creativity exercises and brainstorming sessions, while chief people officer Kelly McCulloch led a panel where seven store workers, flown in from around the country, candidly shared their experiences. Employees discussed challenges with store operations, security, and staffing shortages.
“Everyone had the same fear around working late at night,” King says. “It really enlightens us on the realities of the business and what we have to do as corporate citizens to hopefully mitigate as much risk and difficulty as we can.”
Moving forward, Taco Bell is turning its attention toward educational benefit offerings for store workers, including debt-free degree opportunities through its partnership with Guild Education; its Live Màs scholarships, which are awarded to store workers and local residents; and the recently launched Taco Bell Business School, a six-week program aimed at helping store workers move up the ranks.
“What we want to do really is give team members a path, not only to go from team member to supervisor to general manager, but to also have a path to ownership,” King says. “That’s really one of the things we’re working on right now.”
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