Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Undercover Boss

“To lead people walk behind them.” -- Lao Tzu

One of my biggest fears about starting a restaurant is my lack of prior industry experience. In fact, the truth is that up until this point in my career I’ve had limited operational experience in any industry, let alone in one as complex as the food service space. So last month I decided to rectify this deficiency by getting a line job at a fast-casual restaurant chain in Center City, Philadelphia.

My goal for the job was simple; be a sponge and absorb as much as possible on how restaurants manage their operations. Additionally, I knew the experience would provide an invaluable perspective on the backgrounds, fears, and motivations of the line workers that form the heart and soul of any food service establishment. In some sense, my experience felt a bit like the CBS TV show ‘Undercover Boss’ notwithstanding the fact that I’m currently nobody’s boss nor am I running an actual business …yet.

The experience was eye-opening. Over the past few years I’ve read several books on managing food service operations, from Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time to Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. Each of these books tells an inspiring tale of how to build a successful business by following your passions and prioritizing people over profits. However, as informative as a book can be it pales in comparison to the learnings of working for minimum wage at a restaurant and dealing with the ups and downs that come with that experience.

For starters, I was overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of managing food operations. As consumers, we take for granted the thousands of small steps and immense amount of preparation that goes into churning hundreds of customers in the short timeframes of lunch and dinner. In only a few weeks, it became clear that in order for Zaffron to succeed we’ll need great tools, systems, and work processes to ensure we consistently deliver a great product and customer experience.

Next I was blown away by the level of teamwork and collaboration needed to train employees and efficiently manage operations. In the restaurant industry you’re constantly dealing with new and inexperienced workers. Thus, not only do you need great employees but you need a culture that rewards mentorship…hopefully something we ingrain in our culture.

My final takeaway has more to do with me being an actual consumer and that is: to be patient, polite, and appreciative towards restaurant workers. During my brief stint, I noticed some customers (admittedly a minority) perceive workers to be idiots. For instance when mistakes happen people assume it’s because you’re not as intelligent as they are; hence the reason you’re working behind the counter and fulfilling their order. What they don’t realize is that sometimes as consumers we don’t communicate clearly or that working in the industry is quite challenging. So the next time you go to a restaurant and you notice that your server put onions on your burger when you said no onions, give them a smile and be kind. After all, what goes around comes around!



  1. Masha'Allah! It seems like you had a very humbling experience! May Allah bless your restaurant to be a successful one because you guys are working really hard on trying to make sure all angles are covered. :)

  2. Awesome insights Amir. I am glad you did this because it's going to give you insights that other CEOs will never have. It will give you an appreciation for your employees. I think that's why Undercover Boss is so successful as a show.

    Also, it won't hurt that you might be able to learn how to make some basic foods like popcorn, scrambled eggs, and grilled cheese sandwich. I think those take out places were getting fed up with you.