Popeyes' Undercover Boss episode leads to employee relief fund

March 5, 2012 | by Alicia Kelso

During the March 2 episode of CBS' "Undercover Boss," Popeyes' Louisiana Kitchen's chief talent officer Lynne Zappone went undercover as "Pam Hawkins," a shift supervisor at a fine dining restaurant taking part in a fictional reality show called "Job Swap."

Zappone, who was hired by Atlanta-based Popeyes in April, was asked to step into the trenches on behalf of the company by Cheryl Batchelder, CEO of parent company AFC Enterprises.

"I'm going undercover to have a great look at our long term investment, which is our people," Zappone said. "It's a simple equation – if you have happy team members they deliver a great experience to your guests and those guests keep coming back, and that equals profits."

During the episode, Zappone works closely with four Popeyes' associates, including Aaron, who spoke candidly about the "corporate clowns" that don't spend enough time with Popeyes' employees or checking on stores. Aaron also scolds his employees repeatedly in front of customers, which Zappone admitted made it hard for her not to break cover.

"To me that's a coachable moment. The guests see everything; everything becomes part of their experience. He's wearing that uniform, that Popeye's logo. He represents the brand," she said.

Zappone then meets with Gina, a 27-year veteran of the company who works at a New Orleans unit and whose life was dramatically affected by Hurricane Katrina. Gina is tasked with training Zappone, from hand washing to greeting customers properly to working the cashier. During their time together, she tells Zappone about a broken pipe in the bathroom that has never been fixed, and that is causing customer complaints. They also don't have any cleaning supplies besides spray and paper towels.

"It's our responsibility to make sure our crews have the tools to get the job done. And clearly they didn't have the tools to clean their restaurants according to our standards," Zappone said.

The third employee Zappone meets with is Josh who works with an animated crew in New Orleans, including an employee who sings to drive-thru customers. Josh takes Zappone to Taco Bell for lunch because he said it's cheaper and Popeyes' no longer has an employee discount.

"When Josh mentioned to me that part of the reason he has to go to other restaurants is because he no longer has an employee discount, that was disappointing to hear. We've got to find other ways to manage our costs so that we don't take away that benefit for employees," Zappone said.

Finally, Zappone meets with Doug, a maintenance worker at a Mississippi unit. Doug teaches her the daily upkeep around the building – including scrubbing down the parking lot every day.

"If your restaurant ain't clean, you're going to lose business. I think if the customer comes here and they're walking through garbage, they're not going to come back to my store," Doug said.

Doug, who also lost everything in Katrina, tells Zappone about paying for a special oil soap out of his own pocket so he can get the restaurant clean to his standards. He also tells her how he cooks for his church's soup kitchen, and his goal in life is to have one of his own.

The unveiling

When Zappone came out to the four Popeyes' employees at the end of the show, she discussed the initiatives she plans to put into place from the experience.

She tells Aaron that she didn't like the way he was speaking to other crew members and customers. However, she compliments his potential and wants to help him with his goal of becoming a traveling trainer. Zappone set Aaron up with a mentor in Popeyes to reach that goal.

Zappone told Doug that she is going to have a conversation with the company's supplier of cleaning products so they can provide him – and all restaurants – with some less harmful products so he doesn't have to keep spending his own money. Because of Doug, she is also putting into place an employee recognition program and is naming him one of the first recipients.

Also, Zappone has asked Popeyes to make a $10,000 donation to Doug's church in his name, particularly to help with the soup kitchen efforts.

Zappone tells Josh that she had the most fun at work with him because of his "great spirit." She plans on putting an employee discount into place so Josh and other Popeyes' employees don't have to eat somewhere cheaper.

She has also set up a $20,000 scholarship fund on behalf of Popeyes to help Josh achieve his goal of receiving a degree in hospitality management, and gave him an additional $10,000 to purchase a car so he doesn't have to take the bus home from work late at night.

Finally, Zappone promises Gina that the bathroom pipe will get fixed, and that Popeyes plans on getting her family back together in New Orleans for a reunion, which hasn't happened since pre-Katrina.

The company also is setting up an employee relief fund, inspired by Gina and her struggles through and after the hurricane. The program kicks off with a $10,000 donation to Gina, its inaugural recipient.

"Spending time with crew members proved to me that they are so important to the success of our business. I've seen some challenges and opportunities for us to fix some things," Zappone said. "There's a lot more work to be done and a lot more to learn."

Read more about operations management.

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.
View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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