Steve Weis admits it’s fun to be in a Max & Erma’s restaurant on Free Cookies Wednesday. He watches for the responses on customer’s faces as the freshly baked treats arrive after they’ve finished their meals.
“We do it because we see reactions, and we do it because we love it,” he says. “No one else really does it. We love that it’s unique. It always has had a culture of being just a little quirky and a little different — and it’s always been about quality.”
And quality is the magic word that Weis, president of Max & Erma’s Restaurants, knows is helping reinvigorate the casual dining chain that was rescued out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010 by American Blue Ribbon Holdings LLC.
Weis is a firm believer that there was something worth saving.
“There was clearly this great brand underneath it, and the previous owners had probably made some poor decisions along the line that got them into the situation they were in,” he says. “You could feel there was this quality of a concept and also just an amazing group of people that was still operating the restaurants.
“What was beautiful was that there were a lot of great people and a lot of great locations that had a real local connection with the guests. I think that is the difference Max & Erma’s has.”
He recognized that Max & Erma’s bread and butter was the quality of the brand, and his mission was to get operations under control.
“The guests liked the concept, but they had been frustrated with the way it had been operated for some period of time,” Weis says. “That to me is a great problem to have. I think if you realize, ‘Hey, they like us. They just want to see us do it right.’ Well, that is something we can tackle.”
Here’s how Weis is reinvigorating Max & Erma’s and putting it back on track to generate more than $100 million in revenue this year through its 73 locations in 10 states, ending a period of double-digit sales decline.
Find out what’s worth saving
If you look at any company, you’ll find a backstory — the foundation it was built on. You use it to help establish your brand, and you may need to revisit it if your brand is in trouble, which is exactly the approach Weis took.
Max and Erma Visocnik operated a neighborhood pub in Columbus’ German Village from 1958 to 1972, when they retired. Two businessmen purchased the tavern and developed the brand and its theme, including a converted bathtub that served as a sundae bar.
“We have such a long heritage, and people have these warm stories about some connection they have to our brand,” Weis says. “You just don’t get that with a lot of other companies. You just don’t. Most restaurants, it may be just a place where they are happy to dine — or maybe not happy to dine — but it is not the emotional attraction which we really, really appreciate that we have.
“You might see a Max & Erma’s in an area along with some other national chains, but the reality is that we are very local in the way we behave. We do lots of local charity fundraisers, and it’s always been that way. The company operates much more as a neighborhood place rather than a national place — and I think that is appealing to guests.”
While Weis launched a new prototype design and system-wide remodeling program, and introduced a new food and beverage menu with local draft beers, the atmosphere still has the same down-home, community feel. There are still all the quirky, kitschy collectibles, the warm chocolate chip cookies and the cartoonish pair of Max and Erma characters.
“You can’t imagine how many photos I have of a Max and Erma showing up at a walkathon in Pittsburgh, at a bake sale in Detroit, in Indiana and in all these different markets,” Weis says. “We are showing up at all these local events. People have such a connection with this, and I think it’s one of the greatest things about this position and this organization — to see the happiness that it brings people.”
Put passion into your service
The chain was sold to an equity investor in 2008 and American Blue Ribbon Holdings bought the chain out of bankruptcy.
“We acquired the Max & Erma’s brand because we recognized in the restaurant a key ingredient for ultimate success: genuine personality,” says Hazem Ouf, president and CEO of American Blue Ribbon Holdings. “Truly authentic and unique personalities like Max & Erma’s are rare. So I began the charge to bring the restaurant back to the basics.
“We focused on the quality and personality that make Max & Erma’s a memorable and lasting restaurant experience for its guests,” says Ouf, who chose Weis, then American Blue Ribbon Holdings’ vice president of operations to head Max & Erma’s. “With this blueprint in place, Weis continues to embrace Max & Erma’s genuine personality while moving the brand forward in ways that remain true to that spirit.”
A former vice president of operations for an Applebee’s franchisee, Weis drew on that experience to instill the disciplines the operation needed. He didn’t have to look too far to find what needed to be fixed.
“One of the things I think goes out the window during bankruptcy, and when there is this sort of anarchy, is the standardization of how to do things the right way, the same way,” he says. “We had to start focusing on the daily basics, and giving the guests a better experience.”
The key ingredient is to impart the core value of “a passion to serve,” according to Weis.
It’s making sure that every guest who comes into the restaurant has a great experience.
With a number of locations and a number of employees, it is much easier to get the team focused on a core set of values than it is around one particular item.
“Instead of saying I want everyone to work on cooking a burger a certain way, it is much easier to get them focused on a passion to serve,” Weis says.
“For the guy who cooks burgers, it might be one thing; for the server, it might be something else; and for the manager a third thing. They all have a common thread between them, which is if you work here, you have to have a passion to serve guests. There is no point in being in the restaurant industry if you don’t love that and you just don’t do it.”
Find the true connection
The passion to serve is an awesome value — one that Weis believes can come about in two very distinct ways. An employee either arrives with it, or comes in with a malleable mind, allowing you to inspire them. Either way, it’s the employee’s connection to the business that counts.
“We always use the phrase, ‘People always join companies, and they stay with companies because of values connections.’ Every day in every industry, people call and say, ‘How would you like to go across the street and work for me for X dollars more?’
“And the people who jump are leaving because they don’t have a true connection to the company that they are in, and the people who stay and continue to make the company great are the people who really do believe and connect with it. It connects to their own personal values.”
To stop a disconnect from happening, stay balanced and values-focused.
“If you say quality of life is important to you, and you want to spend time with your family, but your company makes you work seven days a week and close every night of the week and you never get to see your family, that’s a value disconnect and you’re not going to stay there.”
Weis stresses a life/work balance, focusing your time and attention on matters you can control, including “ownership” of your job.
“Staying balanced and very values-focused is a little bit untraditional for the restaurant industry,” Weis says. “Restaurant work is known as a grind for everybody, and everybody’s got to work all kinds of hours. I think sometimes they miss the long-term picture of really keeping the best people connected to the business.”
The final piece of getting the connection is having a little skin in the game, no matter how you look at it.
“It has to be what you talk about, and how you behave and what your actions are,” Weis says. “Clearly, we want to make sure that everybody feels there is something for them in it. So if we are going to sell a particular item, for example, it has to be good for the guests, it has to be good for the server, so that they have the ability to make money doing it, and it has to be good for the company.
“And the good news is sales are growing, and guest counts are growing. I can’t say that about everybody in our segment and in our industry.
“There’s lots of stuff people focus on in business and the reality is, if you just run it very well and you have lots of people coming through the door, you are never really going to have a hard time figuring out how to be successful.” ●
- Discover what’s worth saving.
- Put passion into your service.
- Find the true connection to the business.
The Weis File:
Name: Steve Weis
Company: Max & Erma’s Restaurants
Born: Queens. I grew up in North Jersey. We moved there when I was young and my dad worked in New York City.
Education: I went to American University in Washington, D.C. That’s where I lived and where I started to get in the restaurant industry. I worked for Domino’s Pizza back in the early growth days in the 1980s, and kind of moved into the industry from there.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I was a dishwasher in a restaurant when I was 15 or 16, and I remember it was hard work and that you couldn’t cut any corners. It was kind of a fancy, upscale restaurant. The hardest part was that there were lots of pots and pans that had to be scrubbed by hand. If I was tired or didn’t feel like scrubbing it as clean as I should, I remember the owner coming in, looking at it and saying, ‘Hey, it’s not good enough. You’ve got to go further.’ I think probably the greatest lesson to learn at that age was that you might as well do the job really well the first time rather than have to do it a second or third time.
What is the best business advice you ever received? When you lead people, it is much easier to lead them through their heart than it is through their minds. So that ties into our values — how that works for us here and how that works for me. If you can connect with the people you work with through the things that matter to them, they will give you their brain, their energy and their efforts. If it matters to them in some way, they do it wonderfully, and they do it better than you can ever get them motivated to do if you went the other direction.
Who do you admire in business? Innovators — people who had the guts to take something small and make it much larger. I look at somebody like Bill Gates. It is not just the success and the money but the fact that he had this idea that was pretty remote when he co-founded Microsoft, and he was able to turn it into something that made everybody connect. I admire people that from a business perspective have the ability to take something that’s a fairly small idea and completely change things. And then I love the fact that he is giving his money away and that his intent is to really kind of change the world by eliminating, for example, diseases by vaccinating the entire continent of Africa. That’s pretty amazing.
What is your definition of business success? In the restaurant industry, it is pretty simple. We need to have happy guests, and a happy team that in the end drives growth. We have to have more people coming in to the restaurant this year versus last year. So for us, it’s a combination of giving a great experience to guests and having a team that really is energized to deliver that to the guests. Then the business grows; it takes care of itself.
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How to reach: Max & Erma’s Restaurants, (615) 256-8500 or www.maxandermas.com