Mr. Nice Guy Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
If you’re having trouble finding and holding onto the cream of the crop when it comes to employees, Andy Lansing might suggest that you’re choosing people for the wrong reasons.

Technical skill and competence are important, but to work at Levy Restaurants, you’d better be a nice person with lots of passion for what you do.

Lansing, president and CEO of Levy Restaurants, says that being nice and having passion for their work are the two most important qualities that the company’s employees need to have before they analyze a spreadsheet, set a table or fry an omelet at one of its 19 restaurants or 75 locations in sports and entertainment facilities.

“To me, only after you get past the nice and the passion is when I’m interested in what your experience has been or how good you may be able to do the job,” says Lansing. “The things you usually start out with in most interviews — ‘Tell me what you’ve done, why do you think you can do this job?’ all those typical questions, we’re an hour into the interview before we touch that.” Lansing says that making sure that employees can pass through the nice and passionate filters has allowed the company to manage remarkable growth — an almost doubling annual revenue since 2002, with 2006 revenue of $735 million — and retain a culture that produces a high employee retention rate and, in turn, delivers top-quality service to customers.

In an industry notorious for high turnover, Levy’s employee turnover for 2006 was just under 23 percent, while the industry average, as reported by the National Restaurant Association, ranges between 53 percent and 94 percent, depending upon the type of restaurant.

Levy Restaurants achieves its enviable retention rate by hiring people who are nice and passionate, and then emphasizing those two core values in its training and treatment of employees. Employees are rewarded for performance that embraces those values and are also given an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their work environments.

Lansing says that failing to retain its culture — and its employees — wouldn’t necessarily have meant failure for the company, but it would have led to a different kind of company.

“The downside if you’re not able to do that is that you wake up one day and you’re a different company than you were and than you want to be,” says Lansing. “We are pretty passionate about who we are as a company and staying with that formula, no matter how big we become.”

Lansing cites some examples of how nice and passionate employees make a difference in practice. A guest at a restaurant asked for Dr Pepper, a beverage that it doesn’t serve. The server found someone to cover his tables for five minutes and went across the street to a vending machine to buy the guest’s preferred soft drink. A visitor from London asked a Levy employee at a convention center operation if it served scones. The server replied that it didn’t, but went home that night, did an Internet search to find a recipe for scones, bought the ingredients, baked them for the guest and served them to him the next day.

You could argue that the two examples are exceptions, and Lansing says that they are among the most remarkable, but every month, the company recognizes an employee for his or her outstanding customer service performance. Lansing says Levy brings them to its Chicago headquarters for recognition at the company’s monthly update meetings. That kind of recognition is key to reinforcing nice and passionate behaviors.

Self-selecting employees
Levy gets some of the best employees through what amounts to self-selection. Lansing says Levy disqualifies a lot of candidates with the nice and passionate requirements but that it helps to attract the best candidates by earning a reputation in the industry as a desirable place to work.

“The fact that a lot of people fall off is a blessing to us, as opposed to something to be feared,” says Lansing. “So we’re really selective. We have amazing people applying to our company every day because of those values, and because they’ve worked elsewhere, and when they come here they have the broadest smile on their faces,” Lansing says. “They say, ‘You really mean this about being nice and passionate, that’s really important to you. I can’t believe it. It’s so different from where I came from.’” Screening for the proper people starts with the interviewing process, where the first hurdles aren’t work skill or technical expertise but attitude.

“The first question I ask people in an interview for a senior position with the company is, ‘Are you nice?’ and they look at me and laugh like it’s a trick question,” says Lansing. “I let them ponder it a minute, and they give me an answer like, ‘Yes, I was voted nicest in my kindergarten class.’

“I say to them that they don’t really have to answer the question, but I want you to know how important that is to me because if you’re not nice, I’m going to get you, and it may be one week or it may be one month, or it may be a year, but you don’t go on with the pursuit of this opportunity if being a nice, decent human being is not important to you because that’s our No. 1 value.”

New employees start their jobs with a nice gesture from senior management in the form of a fruit basket, with a note signed by Lansing and several other key employees, welcoming them to the Levy family. When they arrive on their first day of work, each gets a handwritten note from Lansing.

“That backs up what you talked about in the interview process,” Lansing says. “It makes people feel like family, it makes people feel like I’m accessible, and it just stuns them. I can’t tell you the number of thank yous I get from sending the gift baskets. So we try to set the tone on Day One.”

Training for culture
Lansing carries the culture message through the training program with new management employees.

“I’m very, very upfront with them in management academy, where I say, ‘Please understand that although we’re going to spend the next hour or two talking about culture, this is not for everybody, and do not think that there’s something wrong with you if our culture doesn’t suit you well, because there’s a company out there that’s a perfect match for you,’” Lansing says.

Levy’s new managers go through a week-long training program in Chicago, where they receive both technical and culture training. During that week, Lansing himself guides the discussion on culture and passion.

“They have a great experience because there’s bonding, they laugh a lot and they learn a lot. So now they’ve been here for a short period of time and they realize that we really mean what we talk about, and now they go to out and live it.”

Lansing ensures that the message is disseminated out into the organization by emphasizing to managers the value of employees not simply as workers but as willing participants at Levy who have a wide choice as to where they can work.

“What we try to train our managers to understand is that these employees of ours are really, in a sense, volunteers,” Lansing says. “And when I say that, sometimes they scratch their heads and say, ‘What do you mean?’ Then I explain it, and then they get it. So if you start with that, and your mentality then becomes how can I keep these people, because I know they have so many other choices, it really does influence the way you think about how to motivate people and how to retain them.”

While it’s a large commitment of his time, Lansing says time spent near the employees is a good investment because it creates a good example and sends a powerful message about being passionate and nice.

“If you look at how a CEO can spend his time — there’s new business, there’s strategy, there’s current operations — to me, there’s no higher or better use of my time than being out there with our people and talking and living culture by example,” says Lansing. “If I say this is important to me, and they see the passion and the niceness and the other things, it’s really hard for them not to live that because they’re seeing it personally.”

Lansing says making sure that the company lives out its values not only serves to attract employees but helps to retain them,s well.

“In terms of retention — that’s the name of the game — we can get people in but we’ve got to keep them,” says Lansing. “I think, by and large, we do a good job of that by living the values that we preach during the recruiting process, because if we did a bait and switch on somebody and they come in and said, ‘That’s really nice, they talk nice, they talk passion, but that’s not what this place is about,’ then they’d be flocking out the door.”

Local team empowerment
Lansing says that giving employees autonomy in improving the workplace to enhance their own experience, which translates into more satisfied guests, is a key to Levy’s ability to retain employees. To encourage that, every Levy location, including its headquarters, has a team called Project Great Service, a group of hourly employees that gets together to discuss its mission of making the work environment as pleasant, positive and efficient as possible.

“They will put together initiatives that will range from, ‘We need additional tools to help us do our job better’ to, ‘Let’s do a bowling party function because that would be fun for us and make us feel more a part of the team,’” Lansing says.

Group leaders share the plans and, while some are location-specific, other Levy units can adopt ideas that might fit their own circumstances.

“If you look at the Project Great Service plans from all of our locations, no two are the same,” says Lansing. “One may say, ‘We’re not crazy about our uniforms, can we look at some other options?’ Another may say, ‘We need more pepper mills to do our jobs the way we need to do it.’ So we really ask them, instead of assuming we know the answer, instead of one-size-fits-all. The examples are enormous and varied, but every location has a self-empowered team to focus on the work life for them because that’s where it should start, not from our home office.”

But if the most effective initiatives come from the bottom up, the commitment and the tone has to come from the very top of the company for any cultural imperative to be effective, Lansing says.

“I’ve seen too many companies where the CEO will walk into the HR office and say, ‘Guys, we’re going to start being nice and passionate, that’s going to be our formula from now on,’” Lansing says. “And the CEO walks back into his or her office, and HR’s scratching their head and saying, ‘OK, what’s that?’ as opposed to the CEO setting the example.”

HOW TO REACH: Levy Restaurants, www.levyrestaurants.com