Can Work Perks Fix the Labor Problem?

DMK Restaurants' Werewolf Coffee Bar has become a meeting place for employees to hang out and drink free coffee.
DMK Restaurants' Werewolf Coffee Bar has become a meeting place for employees to hang out and drink free coffee.
Sarah Azzouzi

At a time of high turnover and increased competition in the era of the gig economy, quick-serve companies are looking for alternative incentives and perks to attract and retain loyal employees. From free coffee to education benefits, quick-serve establishments are investing in their employees in new and interesting ways, and the payoff could mean longer term careers.

Bjorn Erland, vice president of people & experiences at Taco Bell, says his chain started delving into new ideas four or five years ago, starting with a leadership development training program and expanding into other areas. Through employee surveys Taco Bell listens to what employees want and need from them. The company has come up with a diverse and successful slate of programs for thousands of team members nationwide. Firstly, it offers employee discounts through numerous vendors in its supply chain organization, including mobile phones, amusement parks, and oil changes.

Education has also been important to Taco Bell employees, so the company partnered with some organizations to help workers obtain GEDs.

“Most of our franchisees will pay for their folks to go back [to school] and get their GED, and that includes the study program,” Erland says. They have also partnered with online school Excelsior College for next-level education, which allows for credit hours obtained through work.

“If you start Excelsior as a restaurant general manager you have about 40 percent of your college degree done through the training we provide at Taco Bell,” Erland says.

Starbucks thinks along the same lines. its College Achievement Plan allows U.S. employees who work 20 hours or more per week to earn a bachelor's degree through Arizona State University's online program. Its employees' full tuition is covered.

Taco Bell has also partnered with Road Trip Nation, a 15 year-old organization devoted to helping young people determine what path they want to take it in life. Taco Bell saw it as a good opportunity to reach out and promote a “start with us, stay with us” concept to appeal to long-term hire prospects.

The company's leadership program strives for that  notion as well, and it includes programs called The Mark, The Quest, and The Spark. “The Mark and The Quest are for restaurant general managers and area coaches, who are restaurant leaders who run about six to eight restaurants,” Erland says. “They come out to our corporate headquarters in Irvine and get to spend time with executives and do community service. It's a very introspective week where they really their leadership vision, and we help them take that back to their restaurants.”

Erland says 3,000 general restaurant managers have gone through The Mark and shared their experiences through the company's Facebook page. “We really keep them engaged. That is probably the most powerful program that we have,” and one he says has convinced many people to stay on with Taco Bell.

DMK Restaurants runs nine different restaurant establishments in the Midwest, including Werewolf Coffee Bar, which has become a meeting place for all DMK employees to hang out and drink free coffee.

“Our culture is all about taking care of our employees who work so hard to take care of our guests,” says DMK Restaurants co-owner David Morton. Complimentary coffee at Werewolf “is on a list of many other company-wide amenities that include a book club, dining dissents at other properties, and complimentary yoga, among others. Our employees absolutely love the perks, and the coffee shop is used daily by them.”

In essence, Werewolf serves as a “company clubhouse” that invites employees to fraternize and bond; perhaps even deal with work matters in a relaxed space. “Getting people together is an excellent tool for information sharing and culture building,” Morton says. “Having processes and amenities in place to encourage this has worked great for us.”

Morton concurs with the idea that alternative perks and incentives are something that  companies should consider today. “'Leader industries,’ meaning those that are pushing the standards for best practices, have long adopted these practices,” Morton says. “The most obvious is the tech industry. So why not learn and evolve as a restaurant company? We love learning from other industries and applying their great ideas to our company.”

“In this day and age, a lot of people expect you to have these types of programs,” Erland adds. “If you don't, it really hinders your ability in a competitive marketplace of hiring and finding great employees. It's definitely been more competitive over the last two to three years, and I think turnover rates throughout the industry are the highest they've been in a pretty long time. That's why we think it's important to have a lot of these programs to try find people, bring them in, and retain them.”