Encouraging change Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

When Mike Hislop’s famous guitarist friend wanted to celebrate one night, Hislop offered to make him a reservation at the restaurant where he was working. The guitarist said that was fine — as long as Hislop got him seated in a certain server’s section. He said that the server was teaching him about cabernets, and he didn’t want to upset the man by sitting in another section. The multimillionaire’s loyalty to a restaurant server made an impression on Hislop, and today, as CEO of Corner Bakery Cafe — a $200 million fast-casual restaurant chain — he seeks to earn that same kind of loyalty.

Smart Business spoke with Hislop about how he finds the right personalities for the job and how to get employees to embrace change.

Hire great people. The way you grow is people. Have the right people. We have the economic model. We have the concept. Now we can be choosy about who we’re going to bring in, in the future.

When you end up losing managers, you usually end up losing employees.

So how do we hire the right managers? When you’re going through the interview and looking at the kind of experience that they’ve had, do they enjoy working with people? It’s real easy to get at the core of an individual in an interview.

You ask them certain questions. Do they have fun? When you’re asking them to describe their personality and style, you can find out real quick. Are they going to come in dressed and ready to go? Are they smiling? They go through three of those interviews. They start with the assistant manager, move to the manager and then get to the general manager. By then you have a real good idea, and you can tell them a lot about what the expectations are.

Empower managers to hire good people. We have the best manuals and training programs, but you really need to have that personality, starting with management to make sure they’re going to hire the right people. Once you get a person who can smile and really does honestly care about people, it’s real easy to train them.

When you get the right personality it really meshes together. You will see the sales grow.

We’re training our managers exactly what to look for — not just questionnaires. We’re looking for personalities. When they come in, do they naturally smile? Do they naturally have that caring attitude that we have? We talk to them about building relationships — how are you going to be able to build those relationships?

If someone is coming back every day, how do they like their coffee? Trying to remember their names. People love to be recognized when they come in. When they build the relationships, they’re going to come back more often, and that’s what drives the economic model and allows everyone to make money and grow together within the culture.

Embrace change. It’s making sure you have a culture around and that senior management realizes that, ‘Hey, part of our culture is we’re going to evolve this brand and make sure that we’re going to be on top of research to make that happen — every year.’

Go out and talk to your people. If you have a culture that’s been doing it the same way forever, and maybe it’s been good and maybe it’s been OK, you’ve got to go out and just meet with them. Start with your senior management and get buy-in that, ‘Hey, this is how we’ve been doing it, and I think these are some changes.’

You have to be a good listener. As a leader, go out and ask the tough questions, and then really listen to the answers. Some of the people, you’d think they would be afraid to talk to the CEO — they’re not afraid to talk to you at all.

Encourage new ideas. Create a culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up respectively and then leave that meeting and all be on the same page. Create an atmosphere where people aren’t afraid to ask questions.

Say, ‘That is a great question, and I don’t know why we do it that way. Maybe we can do it a little bit better.’ There’s nothing worse than being ‘yes’-ed in a middle of a meeting. Some leaders might like that, but I definitely do not. I don’t think you can be successful unless you can create an environment where people aren’t afraid to speak up and let you know some of their ideas.

Be ready to try a few things. You can’t say, ‘This is it.’ You have to go out there and test out some new ideas. You want your leaders, whether it’s general managers or corporate support, to be thinking of ways to make this brand better and knowing if they get a good idea that it’ll be something that we go out and try.

When I was at Il Fornaio [which acquired Corner Bakery in 2005], we had a couple of guys who thought the bar needed some change. The older people said no, but we ended up putting in a whole new bar, and the bar’s doing about 40 percent sales versus about 25. We go back to that guy and said, ‘You nailed it on this one. It was a brilliant idea.’

HOW TO REACH: Corner Bakery Cafe, (800) 309-4642 or www.cornerbakerycafe.com