Assessing an Old Job’s Values

Understanding how a business is run from the inside takes a considerable amount of analysis. So many different aspects and facets must be broken down, analyzed, and then refigured into some form of statistical data regarding the information that is being analyzed. Such is the case with one of my older jobs, bartending for an Applebees.

Applebee’s actually started out as an Rx in the early 1980’s before being sold to W.R. Grace and Company. Shortly after this, the first restaurant then opened up in Kansas City. The company has been sold back and forth over the years to different companies, however, the concept and idea of the restaurant has remained the same; a friendly, social restaurant with good food and good people. The actual structure of the restaurant in all of its aspects is actually much more complex than just “good food and good people.”

Applebee’s, from my perspective as a bartender, works on a very basic structure of a totem pole. There is a certain hierarchy that starts at the very top of the chain and works its way down to the simplest employee. Starting at the very top of the chain is the Chief Executive Officer, or CEO, of the company that owns Applebee’s. Beyond that, there are different officers for different positions. Eventually, the totem pole descends to a Regional Manager, and then a District Manager, and then finally the General Manager.

The General Manager starts the beginning of a new totem pole that is comprised of singular employees that work on an hourly wage. The only exception can be found in a group of smaller managers that work underneath the General Manager. There is no hierarchy of those singular employees other than the occasional granting of small amounts of responsibility and power as a manager sees fit.

Unfortunately, one of the greatest flaws of this kind of structure is the inability of the lower members of the totem pole to make any decisions worth merit. The duality of structure within the structuration theory can sometimes cause dissension among a certain society of employees. Because the system allows for little to no input from the lower end of the totem pole, the frequent problem of dissatisfaction does occur.

The lower end of the totem pole, considered the heart and soul of a company based around customer service, is often overlooked for their ideas and thoughts. I remember when a server thought of an incredible idea involving a change of uniform to help cement a more neighborhood friendly look. With a well-written suggestion letter, the server gave it to the General Manager to send off to the corporate office. Unfortunately, the General Manager was disinclined to send the letter, because he disagreed with the uniform change. Even though the store is run by the General Manager, his lack of interest in the idea meant that the corporate offices never got to read the letter, let alone ponder the idea.

Applebee’s runs an “open door” policy. At any given time, the employees are encouraged to ask to speak to any member of management, no matter how high up the chain that manager may reside. The corporate offices consider their doors “always open” to suggestions, ideas, complaints, and concerns, however, I have personally seen times where the corporate offices have legitimately told a server to take certain information to one of the managers. That personal experience involved a situation where the problem was the management at the store.

One of the main problems at that restaurant was the hierarchy of power and the General Manager when I was there. Even though he understood the tropes of running a restaurant, he was definitely in love with his position. Several indicators of legitimate power were shown throughout our company. Our General Manager ran the store, but he also exacted several types of influence on the employees, regardless of the manager’s effectiveness. His bosses, the Regional and District Managers, treated him the same way he treaed the employees. It is their store, they know how they want it run, and that is the way things will be done. This type of power is common throughout smaller businesses, and can either lead to a successfully run business or complete failure throughout.

When the corporate offices wants information passed down to the store, they send an email or letter to the Regional Manager. The Regional Manager then submits that information to the District Manager, who then relays the information to the General Manager. The General Manager then informs his or her managers, before a meeting finally takes place with all of the employees. This type of information relaying is effective, albeit time consuming, as it can sometimes take several weeks before the employees receive the information from the corporate offices.

The restaurant I worked at had always been run on a strict set of procedures and rules. Some scholars believe that certain procedures and rules are paramount to success. Dr. Pankaj Madhani, Associate Dean of ICFAI Business School, says, “The hierarchy culture focuses on maintaining a smooth-running organization and is characterized by a formalized, centralized and structured workplace. Formal policies, procedures and processes hold the organization together.” Through my own experiences, Applebee’s is held together and continues to run smoothly due to those specific rules and procedures set down by the corporate offices.

Applebee’s has always been a family and locally inclined restaurant that attempts to appeal to the regular people situated in the area of each particular restaurant. With this in mind, my specific Applebee’s tends to change the décor every few years to accommodate the surrounding area. When a local sports team wins a state championship, the restaurant will hang up photos and signs of congratulations to the winning team. Not only does this appeal to the locals because it shows the restaurant recognizes and cares about its community, but it also draws in more customers.

Applebee’s introduced a “revitalization” process in 2011, where the restaurants remodeled their stores with, “warmer color tones, contemporary designs; features specific to the neighborhood the restaurant serves; service improvements; and new food and drink selections.” This can be seen in the restaurant I worked in as the color scheme changed from brown to the school colors of the three surrounding schools. Adapting to the local schools showed even more care and interest in the locale, which again brought in more customers with their relatability.

On a more interpersonal note, the restaurant does its best to accommodate and reward its employees with certain acts. Each month, an Employee of the Month is awarded to a server, cook, or bartender based on a specific criteria. The employees are awarded with a cash prize, a picture on the wall, and a pin to wear on their shirt. Even though it is considered an honor to win, the employees, to my knowledge, never go out of their way to win that monthly award.

The management attempts to hold several parties where the employees can get together, relax, and enjoy their time. Unfortunately, the management never pays for the entire party, and the employees are expected to pitch in their own money if they would like to participate. Attempting to throw parties is a good way to boost morale and build unity, but all of these parties ended up as redundant gatherings with no real social interaction between the employees.

The main way this Applebee’s processes incoming information and feedback is through a system of surveys sent out with each receipt. When a customer experiences an issue or overwhelmingly good experience, they are asked to fill out a survey that provides specific information such as time of visit, name of the server, and the overall experience. These surveys are sent directly to the corporate offices. Unfortunately, through my own knowledge of the system, the messages are only read by a person whose sole job is to read the messages. If a certain message pertains information that the person finds viable, then it gets forwarded to the Regional Manager, who then relays it further down the totem pole.

The real problem lies in the customer’s choice of filling out the survey. Given that a customer is more likely to fill out a survey if they had a bad experience, how is the restaurant to know when a good experience has been had? It has been postulated by several members of management to offer a small questionnaire at the end of their meal. Another employee mentioned the idea of having somebody by the front door that asks the customer a few questions about their visit. I have never personally seen more than five or six surveys filled out per week, yet I know we had hundreds of customers a day.

Another issue with information processing is the chain of command through which the information passes. Rather than passing the information through a discreet channel of managers, it would make more sense to pass information directly to the employee. By emailing, sending postal mail, or visiting the store to provide the necessary information, the corporate offices could make sure all of the information was relayed directly to the employees with no interfering dilution.

One thing the restaurant had adopted in recent years was using social media to keep in contact and relay information with the employees. Each group of employees has its own personal Facebook group for requesting shift changes and work banter. That group is run by the manager for that particular department. The bartenders had their own group with the bar manager, and we used this form of communication on a daily basis. This is the most direct and constant form of communication we used to talk about meetings, upcoming menu changes, and inter-agency issues within the group of bartenders. Even though this channel of conversation works, there are still times when information gets lost in translation, simply because people check social media for different reasons at different times of the day.

If the corporate officers, or even the general manager, would sit down and converse with each employee about suggestions and ideas, there would be a better understanding of what the organization is asking of the employee and what the employee expects from the organization. This would be slightly unethical and impossible to do with customers, but there are systems in place for that as well. By offering incentives for filling out the surveys, much like IHOP does with its free stack of pancakes, the business will most likely see an increase in customer feedback.

The check and balances in relation to communication within Applebee’s is actually skewed yet effective. Even though the chain of command exists, the final word always seems to rest with the person above everybody else. As with most companies, I assume the company that owns Applebee’s is run by a board of people. The majority of executive decisions begin there and then makes its way down the totem pole.

When the General Manager decides something, regardless of whether it came from the top of the totem pole, that specific decision is final. Employees can enact the “open door” policy, but the decision will always be backed up by the corporate offices. Although it is possible the offices might override something of an ethical nature, they almost always back up that decision. Thankfully, every decision and major change or decision is monitored by several systems.

First, there is an assessment of the store every month where the corporate offices send in a representative to check on things. Second, the General Manger is kept in check by the lower managers. Although they do not hold the same power as the General Manager, they keep an eye on the store and hold more sway over corporate entities when bringing forth information. Finally, there are organizations out there dedicated to improper treatment of employees, and those numbers are available to employees at any given time.

The main communication between the layers of Applebee’s business model definitely has flaws, but it is clear the business has found a modicum of success. Since its open in the 1980’s, Applebee’s has continue to flourish. As an internal employee of the store, I had seen it become abundantly clear that its lower employees, regardless of their importance, do not have as much say as higher people on the totem pole of hierarchy. Some of the lower managers have done a good job of connecting with their employees, which is a good system of communication. Though the business model clearly works, there will always be systems that need to be put in place that could help facilitate better communication between the different layers of the hierarchy. It’s not the best to be at the bottom of the totem pole, especially in a situation where the employees feel like they have no say in anything when it relates to running the business.

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