How John Fuller enables his employees to drive success for Johnny Rockets

John Fuller

John Fuller, president and CEO, The Johnny Rockets Group Inc.

A while back, there was a problem with the chicken breast at Johnny Rockets.

“It didn’t cover the whole bun correctly,” says John Fuller, president and CEO of The Johnny Rockets Group Inc.

It’s not unusual for a restaurant chain that specializes in burgers and sandwiches to have some issues like that. With nearly 300 locations around the world, Fuller and his staff are constantly tinkering and adjusting in an effort to keep the food, service and atmosphere at every Johnny Rockets consistent.

The real story is how Fuller achieves that consistency. It’s not through top-down mandates. It’s from the restaurant level, as Fuller frequently seeks input from franchisees and company-owned store operators on how the entire chain can do things just a little better.

To improve the chicken breast, Fuller went into the field — as he does once every few weeks — and started talking to the people on the front lines.

“We talked about different ways to cook it, or the possibility of going with a different product,” Fuller says. “Do we change the cooking style or try some other things? Through that process, we’re going out and asking our franchisees for input. Certain franchisees will test some different things. Then we’ll come back and look at what had a positive reception, we’ll work it through other restaurants, and we’ll come back and share the data. Based on that feedback, we’ll come back and try to make a final decision.”

In some ways, it might be easier for Fuller to simply tell store operators what to do and how problems should be solved. But Fuller believes the best ideas often come from the people who interact with customers each day. He believes that, as a company leader, you should leverage the brainpower and experience of your people to drive the company forward.

Fuller — who has a finance background and also serves as the company’s CFO — views his job as one of support. If you want to adequately support your employees, you should be prepared to enforce standards, coordinate resources and ensure that the people who have expertise in your field have whatever they need to perform their jobs at an optimum level, no matter where they are in the system. It’s an approach that helped Johnny Rockets generate approximately $300 million in revenue last year.

Focus on people

With a background in finance, Fuller is used to managing by the numbers. Numbers are important. You can’t lead a business without knowing where you stand in regard to your key metrics. But in his time at the top of Johnny Rockets, Fuller has learned that you can’t afford to let metrics get in the way of people.

“I have worked at other companies in the past where a lot of the systems the people in the field used to report information to the accounting department were done to make the accounting department’s job easier but were kind of onerous to implement in the field,” Fuller says. “It was kind of the accounting tail wagging the operations dog. That’s why I think it’s important that everyone understands who their customer is and how to provide service to them.”

Fuller has long held a belief that the more that leaders are able to talk to the people they lead, the better the result for the entire organization. If you deal with reports and spreadsheets first and your people second, your business will suffer.

“More district manager and general manager time on the floor is what we should be striving for,” Fuller says. “If they’re spending more time doing administrative stuff, more time crunching numbers and generating reports, then we in corporate have failed them as a support center. Because the more time they’re on the floor interacting with guests, you can’t help but improve the experience that way. Providing a great customer-guest experience and giving customers a reason to come back, is our whole reason for being.”

That’s why Fuller gets new members of management in a customer-focused frame of mind from the get-go. Each new management-level team member at Johnny Rockets has to spend a week in a restaurant, serving in various capacities. The assignment allows new managers and executives the opportunity to see operations through the eyes of their new subordinates. It also allows them to have direct contact with customers and gain a feel for what they expect from a trip to Johnny Rockets.

“If you’re going to provide support to employees, you have to see what their needs are,” Fuller says. “Don’t guess what their needs are, go out there, talk to them and ask them. Feel it and live it. Don’t lose sight of the fact that, in business, it comes down to the customer interaction. So you always have to know what it is you do, and what you can do better in terms of providing guidance and support.”

Be the culture

Fuller has a few other reasons why he wants new ideas, policies and procedures to well up from within the Johnny Rockets organization — namely, what and where. As in, what are the circumstances surrounding a particular location, and where is the restaurant located?

With several hundred locations and untold miles separating all of them, not every restaurant has the same local resources or the same needs. That means in order to maintain consistency, Fuller has to relate the Johnny Rockets culture in a way that makes sense for each audience in each location.

It could be in words or it could be in actions, such as finding common solutions to the same problem.

“One current issue we have is that we’re changing our music,” Fuller says. “Depending on what music system you have, we have to provide three different solutions. It’s knowing what each of our restaurants have and what that particular item is. Each restaurant is not set up the same way, so you can’t be foolish enough to start mandating things without understanding the implications on all sides.”

Fuller wants to hear about what matters to each restaurant operator, what would allow them and their staffs to work at an optimum level. But he still has to maintain standards that allow all locations to stay true to the Johnny Rockets brand.

It’s a fence Fuller has to walk between brand recognition and embracing a culture that allows a certain degree of flexibility so that store operators can tailor their offerings to meet the needs of the specific market.

“I’m not necessarily interested if they all want to serve pizza and wraps, things that are inconsistent with what we want to be as a restaurant,” he says. “We’re burgers, shakes and fries. If you want to move into something that is radically different, go open your own restaurant. However, if someone wants to try serving different kinds of soups at a location in the Northeast during the winter, go ahead and try it and see what you have. Come back and let me know if it’s something that we could leverage throughout the rest of the chain. Ultimately, you just have to make sure they’re focusing on things that are consistent with the brand and the company. We do it on a case-by-case basis.”

Fuller views a CEO’s role as someone who sets firm boundaries, but leaves enough space between the boundaries to allow for ideas and innovation — and encourages team members to move freely within the boundary space.

“You have to give your people opportunities and enable them,” he says. “I’m not going to micromanage someone who is doing their job right. I’m going to enable them and allow them to do things within the guidelines and mandates that have been laid out. We have a very good flow of communication going back to our franchise support center, and try to be very transparent within the organization as far as where we’re at, where we need to be better and where our challenges are.”

As the head of the company, the key to promoting the culture is to relate it to each employee. You need to show employees how their daily tasks allow the company to strengthen its brand, reach for its goals and remain profitable.

“You have to emphasize to everyone how they can be a key member of the organization,” Fuller says. “You have to show them what role they play and how they play it. To me, it’s reporting back through financial results and tying those results to their specific role, showing how they impact those results. You emphasize how they have made a difference, and how they can make more of a difference.”

Find the right people

In order to build a solid support system for your organization, the responsibility lies not just with the corporate management providing the support. It is also the responsibility of the employees to take the logistical, financial and cultural support that you offer and turn it into something that advances the company. You need team members who are willing and able to take advantage of the support system to better themselves and the company.

That means finding the right people who not only bring the talents and skills to the table for the position but also have an attitude and values that match the culture.

If you want accountants who do more than just crunch numbers, you need to hire for that, because you can’t teach personality traits and personal values.

At Johnny Rockets, Fuller wants team players who meet management in the middle on the communication front. Management provides resources, and people throughout the organization are willing to take a wide-angle view and understand how their utilization of those resources affects the company as a whole. The mutual understanding of the big picture helps create dialogue throughout the various levels of the Johnny Rockets system.

“Whatever role they play in the organization, I want them to know the endgame in that role,” Fuller says. “You can be an accountant and just kick out numbers and put them in a pile. But tell me how you use those. How have business decisions been made off of the deliverables you provide? I want to get everyone thinking about the deliverable that their department provides, what decisions are made from that, and what cog you are in the overall organizational structure of the company.”

In the end, Fuller says it is a service-oriented mentality that will enable your company to continuing growing and achieving. Management feels the need to serve employees, employees feel the responsibility to serve the company, and everyone wants to serve the customer.

“Go out and meet your customers, talk to your customers, and don’t just sit in the office,” Fuller says. “Go and find out what is happening in the department, go and ask what you can do to help. Go and see if there is anything your department can do to help others. It’s a mindset, and over time, you can spot pretty quickly who has it and who doesn’t. You can see who would rather stay in their office, and who wants to go out and help others.”

How to reach: The Johnny Rockets Group Inc., (949) 643-6100 or

Undercover Boss

Last December, John Fuller, president and CEO of The Johnny Rockets Group Inc., was the subject of an episode of the CBS reality TV series “Undercover Boss,” in which the chief executive of a large company volunteers to work undercover as a low-ranking employee. Filming took place in October 2010, at several Johnny Rockets locations in the New York and Washington, D.C., areas, as well as a day filming at Fuller’s house. Smart Business spoke with Fuller about his reality television experience.

It was great for me, because I had really not worked in a restaurant. Getting out there and being able to see things without people knowing who I was, it was perfect for what I wanted. The show worked quite well and I got a lot of great experience that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

That worked well for me. It also taught me — because I’m very analytical in how I think — how to simplify things. All that really matters is improving the process of the guest-server interaction. Develop a rapport, make eye contact, trying to make them smile once in a while. You build a relationship for the 20 minutes or so that you’re going to be with them, and if you can do that, you’ve kind of won the battle. If you build that relationship, people are more forgiving if things don’t go right and more excited if things go great.

I also learned about the passion that these people working in our restaurants have, and how excited they are to be a part of the Johnny Rockets family. It shows how each location that shows up as a line on a spreadsheet here is really a living, breathing collection of people who have a passion for what we do.

It was really good and it really emphasized the importance of being in the field. That’s why I have made it part of the training for anyone we hire at the manager level or above, so everyone can experience enough of what it is like to work in that environment, to cook during a lunch rush, to serve eight tables at once and all of that. It is important for management to have some kind of empathy with the people working on the front lines.