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Interview with John Fuller

The Johnny Rockets CEO takes a covert mission in 'Undercover Boss.'

Ralph Palumbo

GO UNDERCOVER
Who’s the Boss :: Watch John Fuller examine
his business from the inside-out on an episode
of “Undercover Boss.”
:: cbs.com/primetime/undercover_boss

It’s not easy for Johnny Rockets CEO John Fuller to go undercover in one of his restaurants to learn what really goes down on the front lines. The man is six-and-a-half feet tall for starters. Plus, he doesn’t cook, has no serving experience and hates to dance (Johnny Rockets employees are famous for their dancing). In fact, he’s an accountant by trade. So it was a challenge to pull off starring in an episode of “Undercover Boss” in December 2010.

“It’s something I always wanted to do,” he says. “The show made it possible.”

Of course, there were times he would rather forget: when a burger he cooked got trashed by a perfectionist cook; cleaning tables and counters; and that dreaded dance. But all in all, Fuller says it was great for him and, more importantly, for the company. Already a success story, with over 300 restaurants in 28 states and 18 countries and growing at 10% to 20% annually, OC-based Johnny Rockets seemingly has no flaws. But Fuller, a perfectionist himself in the art of business, still gained enough insight to institute a few changes. Plus, his show was darn entertaining. Especially the dancing.

Here, Fuller talks about the trials and tribulations of going undercover.

Why did you do the show “Undercover Boss”?
I did it for a few reasons: First, for the true thesis of what the show is trying to accomplish, which is the boss getting to see the inner workings of his business without anyone knowing he’s the boss. I’ve gone into our restaurants before, but I always felt it was filtered and not the real experience. This show gave me the opportunity to get in there, roll up my sleeves and gain some experience and knowledge that I couldn’t get by being a CEO going in asking questions.

They say everyone should have to be a waiter for a night, to see how hard it is. It’s a lot more difficult than I would have originally thought. Because you try so hard in making certain that every guest is happy, but by serving one guest, by definition you’re not serving someone else. So you have to be sensitive to so many different things and it becomes a real challenge. One thing I did learn: I came up from the finance side, from public accounting, controller and CFO jobs and so I’m extremely analytical and I was taking my analytical approach to this. I figured there must be a process or a procedure or form of training that could make this more automated and efficient. But I learned just to keep it simple.

Did the experience motivate you to make any changes in the business?
Yes. One of the things I created immediately afterward was a mandatory one-week training program for anyone entering our company at the manager level or above. You learn how to cook, order food, serve, and clean – all aspects of the business. So when you’re back here at the corporate office you have a lot more empathy for what [the restaurant workers] go through. One of the things I’ve always tried to instill in the corporate office is that our job is to make their job easier. They’re not there to make our job easier.
 
What’s an example of that?
A perfect example would be in accounting. There may be a way to do something that makes the accountant’s life easier but if it puts the burden on the people in the restaurant, that shouldn’t be their primary focus. Their primary focus needs to be serving guests great food in a clean restaurant. Interacting with the guests, making connections and making them smile [are also important].

A low spot for you seemed to be having to do the Johnny Rockets dance. Hardest part?
Yes. I don’t know if they were trying to break me and make me cry, but it was three-and-a-half hours to get through it. I was thinking, “This is the best I got unless you let me drink a beer or two. You’re not getting anything better from me.” I’m 6’6” and 270 pounds, so I’m not the most agile guy out there. And dancing isn’t something I enjoy doing. So it was a challenge, but it made me appreciate the people who love it and can do it well.

Did anyone ever recognize you?
No. They had me grow a goatee and I kept the long mutton chop sideburns. Then they slicked back my hair and dyed it and my eyebrows and goatee black. That was the first hurdle. Then, because we were coming up on our 25th anniversary, the show sent cameramen to different stores and asked employees questions, supposedly for a 25-year anniversary video. But they were really trying to get a good idea for who was good on film and who had a good story. So we were able to find some great, energetic people.

Didn’t the cameras following you around give it away?
No. The employees were told that they were participating in a pilot for next year about failed entrepreneurs who want a second chance. So a professional actor playing the other entrepreneur went in after me and trained. And the employees had to pick who was most deserving of being awarded a Johnny Rockets restaurant.

Who won?
I’m proud to say they voted six to one for me. I think it’s because I’m genuinely interested. I wanted to know about it all and asked a million questions. I think when you show a genuine interest, people respond to that.

But one of the burgers you made got tossed out by Ajay, a Johnny Rockets cook, for not being cooked correctly. How was that?
The great thing about Ajay was the guy was a perfectionist and truly cared about doing it the Johnny Rockets way, and in his eyes there’s only one way that’s acceptable, and that’s the correct way. [My burger] didn’t fit his standards and although I would have eaten it and was disappointed to see it thrown away because I was really hungry at the time, when a guy has that kind of compassion and caring, it can only help us.

What makes people so passionate about what most would consider an entry-level job?
That’s how amazing the human spirit is. People want to do well, whatever they’re doing, they want to do a good job and take pride in what they do. And honestly, I think a lot of people are thankful that they have a job. There was one guy I met in Atlantic City who was homeless with a felony record and we gave him a shot. He was so appreciative that we gave him a chance that he was bending over backwards to do anything. I think that’s one of the great things that we do in the restaurant industry: We give people a chance to work and give people a feeling of self-worth. That’s one of the greatest things about opening a new restaurant: There’s 30 or 40 people who get jobs.

Did you find any unexpected glaring problems?
Nothing big, no. There was one thing that might sound petty but I could never find a pen. And every time someone gave me a pen it would be from a nearby hotel or something. So we’re promoting someone else’s business every time we’re handing a pen to a guest to sign a check. So as trivial as it sounds one of the first things I did afterward was order a bunch of Johnny Rockets pens for the restaurants. But if that’s the highest thing that hit my radar, I’m a pretty lucky guy.

I was surprised to learn that Johnny Rockets has a strong presence in the Middle East and Asia. So Americana is big there?
Yes. I just came back from Southeast Asia and the interest in our brand specifically and western brands in general is phenomenal. The best thing about our brand is that, as the rest of the world is embracing western culture, there’s nothing that’s more Americana than a Johnny Rockets restaurant.

Still, you’re in places such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. That must be tough right now.
It’s a little different than what we have to deal with in the U.S., sure. We have a store in Libya that’s been put on hold. But I’ll tell you, some of the best [Johnny Rockets] I’ve been in are the seven I visited in Kuwait and the six I visited in Dubai last year. The operators in Kuwait are second to none. Then there are the people I saw in the Philippines. I had chills watching them dance. They have what they call a red zone clock and every 15 minutes they dance. They have a dance menu of 35 songs and a choreographer on staff. These other countries do such a great job of representing our brand. To visit them is a very rewarding part of my job. It’s a really exciting time.



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