Boston Market's Sara Bittorf is going incognito; the chain's chief brand officer is the latest executive to appear on "Undercover Boss," a reality show on CBS that allows leaders of major brands to go undercover as a new employee. Bittorf hoped the opportunity would allow her a more accurate view of how things operate daily in one of the restaurants: "Going undercover was eye-opening and allowed us to see what really goes on in our restaurants and how messages and programs we develop at the corporate level are translated to our guests every day," she said.
The show not only helped Bittorf and CEO George Michel learn how their employees view the brand, it also gave them a few great operating ideas. FastCasual.com got an inside look behind Bittorf's behind-the-lines experience. She also weighs in on Boston Market's rebrand and the chain's future plans.
Q. What did the chain learn from participating on the show?
Bittorf: In the end, this experience for me became so much more about the people who work for us and less about our policies and procedures. I'm determined to find ways to engage people at a higher level in their jobs to help make us an even better company. Working inside our restaurants can be challenging at times. That's something I already knew but didn't fully appreciate until I worked several full days myself. Seemingly simple tasks can be complicated and stressful in a fast-paced foodservice environment. Our dedicated employees definitely make it look easy, and our frontline workers are very dedicated. Their tremendous effort to prepare and serve our food is what makes the difference for our customers. As a company, we saw areas where we can do more to support our employees and help them cultivate long-term careers with us.
Q. Will any business and/or training practices be changed based on the feedback?
Bittorf: After my identity was revealed, I sat down with George Michel and other company leaders to debrief and discuss key takeaways. Our plan is to start an Innovation Fund to solicit employee ideas and get them off the ground. We will also launch a program to retrain staff to best use an existing management system to ensure employee breaks are taken, even during busy times. Finally, I'm left-handed, so we're committed to exploring ways of making processes more "lefty-friendly." Most of our processes are currently designed for right-handed people.
Q. The chain recently underwent a rebrand; what were some of the changes?
Bittorf: We've made several significant improvements in the past several years, which have improved the overall experience for our guests. In 2010, we launched a nationwide rollout of new menu items and upgrades to our restaurants, including real plates, stainlessware and new serving stations. Since that time, we have achieved several more milestones as well. This past August, we recognized the need to bring more awareness to sodium intake at our restaurants and removed salt shakers from our tables. Customers can still find salt shakers at our locations, they're just located in a central area so that the choice to add salt to our food is something they can consider when dining in.
Product innovation has also been key to staying competitive and this past fall, we launched Market Bowls, a once limited-time menu item that is now a permanent fixture due to an overwhelmingly positive response from our guests. In November, we recorded record sales the week of Thanksgiving — the busiest week of the year for us in terms of volume and traffic. As of January, we have achieved 28 consecutive months of positive same-store sales. In 2013, we're looking forward to a lot of announcements and rollouts. On Monday, Feb. 4, we're introducing Tuscan Chicken — a brand new twist on our signature rotisserie chicken that features Tuscan-inspired herbs and spices — in all of our restaurants. There are also other new products in the pipeline, and we plan to open our first new restaurants in more than seven years starting with a new location in Queens (N.Y.).
Q.Why did you think the rebrand was necessary?
Bittorf:The improvements we've made in recent years have all been centered around the cornerstone of our business, which is providing our guests with great food they can feel good about eating every day. In order to remain competitive, we have to continually look at ways to make things better from the top down. That's why "Undercover Boss" made so much sense for us as a brand.
Q. Do you see the show as a platform to show off this rebranding?
Bittorf: From the beginning, we looked at "Undercover Boss" solely as an opportunity to learn what Boston Market is doing right and where we could improve. As chief brand officer, it was important for me to see how the programs and campaigns we create at the corporate level are translated and communicated in our restaurants. The series has always featured well-respected brands looking for the same kind of insights from the experience, and we plan to take the key learnings from the appearance to make Boston Market even better.
Read more about operations management.