Cotton Patch Cafe recently launched the DiscoverLink Talent learning management system (LMS) plus 20 courses from the DiscoverLink Content Library to all locations after a successful pilot program. This 31-year-old, Dallas-based casual dining chain has almost 50 locations in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and is committed to humbly serving their scratch-made food, to #LOA (love one another), and to #Grow2Gether (themselves, their teams, and their communities).
Simplicity as a Key Priority
Prior to engaging with DiscoverLink, Cotton Patch was using a file sharing platform to house recipes and training materials that was clunky, difficult to access, and not as secure as they liked. In identifying a new training platform, the Cotton Patch team knew they had to address the pace at which restaurants operate, meet turnover head-on in the face of COVID and the industry staffing shortage, and make operations simpler. Their primary objective was to lessen the workload of operators in the field by creating, distributing, and tracking their knowledge training easily. With simplicity as the underlying priority, their specific training goals were to:
- Provide real-time information, training, and updates to their teams
- Eliminate the paperwork and confusion with paper-based training
- Provide asynchronous options for their teams so they can put guests first
DiscoverLink Talent was chosen as the platform for the pilot because it’s easy for administrators to manage the system, it’s simple for managers to track their team members’ progress, and it’s intuitive for learners to access and use.
Goals of the Pilot
In designing a 5-location pilot for the system, the Cotton Patch training team identified specific requirements that DiscoverLink Talent would need to meet:
- Must be easy to use for anyone involved. This was measured by tracking the training time to train the test restaurants and roll out the system vs. other initiatives of similar scope, and by tracking the number and types of calls/emails for assistance.
- Must integrate with their human resource management system (HRMS). Like many DiscoverLink clients, Cotton Patch wanted to eliminate double entry of new team member data and ensure that they can start training right away.
- Must support the move to digital resources. To avoid confusion about which version of resources was current, it was critical that the new system enabled digital, secure access to all training materials.
- Must provide geofencing. As part of their goal to make this easy for operators, Cotton Patch needed to ensure that content was only accessible inside the restaurants to alleviate the liability of off-the-clock training.
Key Findings from the Pilot
DiscoverLink Talent met all expectations outlined for the pilot and provided a number of additional benefits that were not initially anticipated. According to Ashley Helkenn, Sr. Manager of Learning & Development for Cotton Patch Cafe, “The pilot taught us we could get up and running quickly AND that we could be flexible – because in hospitality, plans always change.”
Through integration with their HRMS, managers follow their existing protocol of updating employee data in the HRMS and it automatically updates in DiscoverLink Talent. Helkenn commented, “Our pilot showed us we can pivot quickly to meet the needs of all stakeholders. We introduced the HRMS integration to the field easily and were able to track the progress.”
As an example of how the pilot was able to support the move to digital resources, Cotton Patch was able to convert their training checklists online. “We learned that when something works well and can provide quick results, other departments will want in,” said Helkenn.
Shortly before full rollout to the whole system, another department had a compliance need and had to move quickly. As soon as the training department was brought into the conversation, they mentioned the availability of a course from DiscoverLink that could be licensed, which meant no development time was required. The course was uploaded immediately, and the rollout of the LMS was moved up to address this single issue. Cotton Patch had less than 3 weeks to have the full system in compliance to maintain certification and was able to become 99% compliant (over 2,100 team members) in 2 weeks. “This feat gave us so much buy-in from every level of the organization,” reflected Helkenn. “This led to our field teams understanding the system and feeling comfortable with DiscoverLink with few questions or issues. They saw the time saved from previous yearly compliance certifications, and the teams saw the value in the system when we were ready to introduce it with additional learning content.”
Also, with DiscoverLink Talent they are able to quickly provide certifications for when employees complete exams and other training materials to ensure comprehension of safety measures. For example, they purchased the MenuTrinfo Food Handler course from DiscoverLink which made their time-to-certification for new hires go from 7-10 days to less than 3. After reviewing the course, the training team created additional exam questions to bring the context of the course into their own world.
Cotton Patch has also heavily leveraged the Wait Time feature with back-of-house employees to minimize typical e-learning and, instead, apply the learning in the field to accelerate time-to-capacity in the skill position. Wait Time is a content item that can be included in any learning program that locks the learner out of the LMS for a specified period of time, so they can practice what they’ve learned as part of a blended learning approach.
With geofencing on the DiscoverLink Talent Mobile App, Cotton Patch was able to ensure that training occurs inside the restaurant, so it’s easy to clock trainees in and out, manage their time to completion, and provide seamless transition from knowledge learning to on-the-job practice. More than 150 recipes have been uploaded to the Resources area, providing easy on-demand access on store-based tablets. In addition, Resources are assigned with role-based permissions so the training department can control who sees what. Helkenn said, ”We were hesitant about allowing team members to download the app, and our original plan was to only use tablets in each restaurant. With the compliance push, the tablets weren’t on site yet. DiscoverLink had just implemented a Sign-off Form with a digital signature and the timing could not have been better. This allowed us to have a digital consent form within the platform where team members were informed of the rules of using personal devices for training! We now allow use of personal devices for training at all locations, with certain boundaries, of course.”
In terms of the implementation and rollout process, the single word used to describe Cotton Patch’s experience was “simple,” in keeping with the overall focus on simplicity. Each step was outlined so they knew what to expect, training was provided throughout the implementation period so the Cotton Patch administrators could learn the system, and each call was recorded for later review as needed. Helkenn recalls, “Our reps even met with members of other departments in our organization to help troubleshoot and train them! It was the type of service you can only dream of. Since the implementation, they are always available, responsive, and more than helpful. We have scheduled times to help us learn how to use the system in creative ways to meet more needs. It was the experience I could only HOPE for with other vendor partners.”
Cotton Patch continues to transition its content from paper to digital and is also working on two new initiatives within the campus.
First, they are in the middle of a three-month test to see if they can use DiscoverLink to track new hire sign-on and referral bonuses. This should take all work out of the hands of the restaurant management and ease their burden of tracking and remembering. The process includes a way to input the person who referred them for the position (to help with referral bonuses), a wait time before the next step, a quick 90-day survey to gain feedback on their first quarter of employment, and a final sign-on bonus request that triggers a notification to payroll. This will keep team members engaged in the system after their initial training and ease the workload of the manager.
Second, the team is planning to use DiscoverLink Talent to train with its next limited time offer (LTO) later this year. This will ease the burden of training on the manager, allowing them to validate knowledge and focus on hands-on training and practice.