Using Talent Development to Drive Franchisee Engagement

Franchisee Engagement Innovation Forum at Restaurant Leadership Conference

Top 3 Takeaways from the

Restaurant Leadership Conference Innovation Forum


When restaurant concepts pursue rapid growth or embark on a new franchising initiative, they often struggle to maintain the culture and brand experience that drove their early success. In addition, according to a study conducted by Gallup and TDn2K, only 27% of restaurant general managers are engaged, and even worse, 18% are actively disengaged.

At the recent Restaurant Leadership Conference, DiscoverLink President John Poulos sat down with executives from two restaurant chains to find out how they use talent development to promote manager and franchisee engagement, and how they use training to ensure their unique culture is carried through each new location. Ryan Achterhoff, Chief Administrative Officer for Pizza Ranch, and John Aiken, Senior Director of Learning and Development for Golden Corral, shared their insights and experiences. Here are the key takeaways from this Innovation Forum panel discussion.

1. Focus on development of franchisees and general managers

Poulos: What challenges do you see in terms of manager or franchisee engagement, and what are you doing to address that?

Achterhoff: We benchmarked with other companies on process improvement and as a result, we have two key initiatives this year that focus on the general manager or lead operator: 5-year Retention and Full Buffets. We looked at the pressure points that make managers leave the organization, and we came up with seven key tactics we’re implementing to address this. The goal is to set good habits early on and focus on development.

Aiken: We have historically, and successfully, focused on improving managers’ ability to run shifts. While we continue to do that, we also want to place a dedicated focus on leadership skills and that is one of our mission critical projects for 2019 and beyond. We’re starting at the Franchise Advisory Council level in order to gain input and alignment. We can no longer make the assumption that people who have been promoted know the skills they need to be good leaders. They do tactical things very well, but they need help with soft skills. We’re now providing them with more opportunities for personal growth to round out their skills outside of the standard restaurant curriculum.

Achterhoff: Our Franchise Advisory Committee (FAC) gave us very specific feedback – that we were missing career path development – the step by step path to reach their next position. We have now added cross-training to address some of those missing skills. We are 90% franchised so it’s critical for us to address these gaps and keep our managers engaged.

2. Instill culture and training philosophy from the very beginning 

Poulos: What advice can you offer to help maintain culture and brand experience when you are entering a fast-growth phase or beginning a franchising initiative?

Achterhoff: One of the biggest things for Pizza Ranch is our unique culture. We have Discovery Days, where we introduce the brand to potential franchisees, and this is happening almost perpetually now. If we’re upfront with our culture, it helps to set the stage right away.

Aiken: We introduce potential new franchisees to our culture from the beginning, at the time they are considering becoming franchisees during the franchisee interview process. At that time, they are introduced to our training philosophy and what we’re going to offer them. Additionally, we share requirements for equipment and requirements for the “A” team that will help them open their restaurant, and we lay out how managers get trained in a training restaurant. New franchisees get to meet all the key players in the organization, and it gives everyone a chance to gauge if the franchisee will be a good fit for our organization.

Achterhoff: We can’t be idealistic from a training standpoint. With rising labor cost and profits shrinking, we need to establish training as a leading measure to drive guest experience, food cost, etc. We’re working to do that now because we know that we can’t manage what we can’t see.

Aiken: We revamped our coworker curriculum to a blended learning approach with microlearning courses coupled with on-the-job training and shadowing. We have struggled to get managers to ensure a trainer is available to handle the in-person aspects. It’s also difficult to get many franchisees and managers to see training as an investment, not an expense. We’re 92% franchised so we have gotten the Franchise Business Consultants and Field Trainers involved in ensuring the program is carried out. They, along with the Golden Corral Training Center, are responsible for disseminating information to the franchise locations, so they are part of the process. It’s a paradigm shift to get everyone to think of training as an investment, but it’s critical to our success.

3. Implement a plan for ongoing communication with franchisees

Poulos: How do you leverage training as part of your franchisee/location communication efforts?

Achterhoff: At every restaurant opening we teach Foundations of Pizza Ranch that shares our mission, vision, and values. We have a weekly blog that highlights stories of impact that focus on what it means to represent our values, and we talk about values at our annual conference. We do things to keep those ideas alive and layer on the message consistently through training programs.

Aiken: Maintaining culture in a heavily franchised system is a constant effort. We strived to have everyone follow our 5 Fundamentals of Excellence, our 10 TO WIN program and other initiatives, but, like anything, it requires reinforcement. Our CEO is an excellent conduit and is great at providing information about how we can continuously improve our culture. Our Franchise Advisory Council is another conduit for driving culture. We’re reaching a point where everyone in the franchise community, no matter how big or small, is starting to feel heard. It requires constant evolution and a whole lot of listening.

Driving Franchisee Engagement through Manager Development

DiscoverLink’s AGM to GM Program addresses the skills general managers need to succeed across eight competencies. This proven program uses a blended learning approach that includes both online and experiential activities where learners put their training into action.

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