Meatheads’ Tom Jednorowicz on Hiring Trends in the Food Biz


You might not have heard of Bloomington, Illinois or Meatheads, the fast-casual burger restaurant located there, but if Founder/CEO Tom Jednorowicz stays the course, all that will change in due time. He started Meatheads in 2007 in the aforementioned town, and by the end of the year, the restaurant will be operating in 11 Chicagoland locations.

So, if anyone knows what works in the food game, it's Tom Jednorowicz. Before Meatheads, Jednorowicz served as the chief development officer at Potbelly Sandwich Works, where he helped lead the expansion of the restaurant from concept to "more than 100 units in eight markets in three years' time." He's also consulted for Einstein Bros. Bagels, Gibsons, Cosi and many others to help accelerate and/or clarify their growth plans.

I'm not going to ask "what's the secret to your success?," but I am curious to hear what you feel is your forte you bring to the businesses you work with?

Tom Jednorowicz: Well, employee retention is one of the fundamental things to success in the restaurant business. The average in our category of restaurant is probably somewhere -- your turnover's in the 100 or 125 percent a year. Effectively you're more than turning over your entire staff every year. As a result of that, there's a huge commitment to training and a lot of resources that go into making sure that you have people within the restaurant that can execute what you need them to execute at your standards. Our retention is somewhere in the 25 to 30-percent range. So, we're way, way below industry averages in that. We work really hard. I think that relative to retention -- it starts with hiring the right people, but even when you find the right person onboard, retention is all about keeping them. It's kinda like that old saying: "People spend more time planning a wedding than they do planning the marriage."

And I think a lot can go into hiring a person and then the retention of that employee oftentimes gets overlooked or becomes a secondary consideration. And I think with us, retention is about -- it sounds clichéd but it really comes down to culture for us and providing an environment that gives people the opportunity to be successful. We're trying to create that criteria, which, for us is clear expectations and high standards. Culture, to me, is beliefs backed by behavior. You can say, "We operate clean restaurants." But if you don't actually consistently operate clean restaurants, then your culture lacks integrity. It's virtually worthless. I think that's where a lot of people go askew in this process. With us, we take it very seriously. Our culture is based on success first, and teaching people that performing at a high level is rewarding, and that it creates intrinsic satisfaction.

A lot of people haven't had the opportunity to feel that. To understand what winning feels like. It has nothing to do with how much money you make. With us, a lot of our employees make $10, $11, $12 an hour. There's a lot of ways for them to go out and make that much an hour. The only way for them to be passionate about [earning it with us] is to give them that intrinsic feeling, that intrinsic satisfaction. That's what we do with how we establish the standards and the structure and how we go about our business in that every customer is an opportunity to make a lasting impression. We try to cultivate that mentality and that level of action in our employees and reward that. I think what ultimately happens, if you do it right, you create an arena of high achievers.

Like, you working with Second City? That's the elite of the elite, in the business. It's gotta feel good just to be associated with those people, just to be around them. Well, the same thing's true in the restaurant business: People who perform at a high level want to be around other people that perform at a high level. Part of my responsibility in that is to make sure that we don't allow anybody -- few things can negatively impact morale more than a weak link. If they don't care, and they don't want to live up to expectations, you can't let that exist in the environment because it will suck everything else down with it.

You said most people plan for the wedding more than the marriage. What are some ways people can plan for the marriage? I feel like that half of the equation is maybe less developed because they feel like there are so many different factors at play? Like, each new hire is going to be a different set of challenges and a different set of rewards.

Tom Jednorowicz: Yeah. I think the first thing is you need to have a profile in your mind of who are the people to be who will most likely be successful in your environment. So, that's certainly a part of it. I don't think it's a one-size-fits-all kind of solution. But I also think the things relative to who works well in an environment like this are counter-intuitive to a lot of people. More often than not, prior experience can be a negative relative to that environment we're talking about. A lot of cashiers are not taught our kind of business; they're taught to upsell the customer at the register. You try to up-size their drinks or sell them something extra. We think that POS people know what's selling to customers. We want them to get what they want, but by upselling them, what you're doing is getting them to spend a couple of bucks more than they would have otherwise. As a result you run the risk of, "Well, jeez, this was more expensive than I anticipated." And instead of coming once a week like we want to see them, it becomes a once-a-month or a special-occasion environment. So, I think when you talk about planning for the marriage, I think it's setting out clear expectations of what you want to have accomplished and making sure that your standards don't dumb everything down.

People in general want to be successful. If you got a room full of people and said, "Who wants to be successful?" I'm willing to bet virtually every hand in the room goes up. Then you start going through, "Well, in order for you to be successful, you need to perform at this level and you need to show up for work at this time." When you go through a lofty criteria, you're going to lose a lot of people. Just by nature. They say they want to be successful, but there's an elite few who are willing to do what it takes to obtain success. Those are the people that you want to find. When we're out looking for people, and it depends a little bit from position to position. We focus less on experience and what they've done, people who take pride in their work, people who crave a busy restaurant. Because someone who enjoys a slow environment so they can just hang out? That's not going to work in our environment. We want someone who craves an active environment where they're going to have a lot of opportunities to participate in whatever's going on in a given point and time.

It's kinda like an old athletic statement: you can't coach height. We're looking for characteristics in people that you can't teach: attitude, personality and perseverance. We can teach them how to work in a restaurant. It's not my job to make you successful. It's my job to create an opportunity where you can find success. But you have go out there and make it happen for yourself.

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a comedy-writing instructor for Second City. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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