Fine Print - May 2009

With a side of business
By G.D. Gearino

Business people, if they were honest with themselves, would have to admit to being the biggest self-help junkies around. You need look no further than book publishing for proof. The surest road to riches in the publishing world is to create a gimmicky book built around leadership secrets of some faintly obscure and decidedly nonbusinesslike figure from history ó Attila the Hun, for instance, or Sun Tzu. Once the author has teased out various business applications from the old Hunís or Chinese warlordís utterances, the path to the bestseller list is open, and high-paying consulting and speaking gigs will stretch ahead for years ó all because business people have an endless appetite for self-improvement.

Call me old-school, but I prefer to absorb my lessons in success via observation and study rather than paying $24.95 to the likes of Donald Trump, who has 14 books detailing his secrets of success, secrets of recovery (after his success proved fleeting), secrets other people have shared with him, etc. Want to understand the key to success in business? Itís as simple as spending time in a well-run operation watching how itís done. I do that at my local Waffle House in the quaintly named town of Fuquay-Varina. (Informal civic motto: Donít pronounce it like that, you pervert.)

Go ahead and laugh. I donít mind. Iím a Waffle House partisan, accustomed to people rolling their eyes when I say, in all sincerity, that itís my favorite place to eat. My fondness for breakfast eateries probably has a hereditary component, considering that my late motherís photograph still hangs on the wall of her hometown greasy spoon, Huddle House #92 in Clarkesville, Ga. But seven months ago, I received some reinforcement in my Waffle House crush when the tony food magazine Saveur published a paean from a fellow cult member, a well-traveled soul who declares in the article that ďIíve never found a breakfast joint to replace the Waffle House.Ē

Preach it, brother. He admires Waffle House for the food, and so do I, but my business writerís eye canít help but notice the operation itself. And therein are found four lessons ever so important in these trying times. To wit:

1) Itís better to do a few things well than many things inconsistently. The menu, a laminated sheet covered front and back with various offerings, may look extensive, but itís mostly different combinations of a few simple things: eggs, toast, potatoes, grits, batter and meat. Donít expect anything else. For more than a half-century, Waffle House employees have focused on the art of getting a plateful of those few ingredients, in whatever array youíve ordered, in front of you within minutes. Itís what they do and all they do. Countless food fads have come and gone, but the House has stayed true to its mission. Contrast that with, say, Sears, which at one time had ambitions of selling everything youíd ever need, including a house and a motorcycle. Today itís happy just to sell you jeans.

2) Every customer is uniquely valuable. Bad or indifferent service is a common aspect of too many businesses these days. Some ó banks, for instance ó discourage face-to-face encounters with customers, pushing them toward digital transactions. Others herd them into that special hell of automated phone lines, where the endless pushing of buttons leaves you sputtering with rage after youíre asked for the umpteenth time to enter your number followed by the pound sign. Iíve long remembered the reaction years ago when I complained to my mutual-fund company that my statement had been mailed to somebody else (who had the good grace to forward it to me). The fundís president, as soon as he heard, called from an airport to apologize. That inspired years of loyalty. I donít expect to see Waffle Houseís CEO at my local restaurant, but Roger the host is an exemplary stand-in. Heís my guarantor of good service, and if the wait for a table is too long and I leave, the coffeeís on him. But you know what? Iíve never seen anybody leave without eating.

3) Make everything the same, but different. Iíll turn this over to Esquire magazine for explanation: ďThe great gift of Waffle House is not that the food at every single one of its units tastes the same, though, in fact, it does; the great gift is that every single one of its units is different and owes something to the vagaries of its location.Ē Every company, no matter how big, ought to have the feel of a mom-and-pop outfit.

4) Transparency is good business. There are no secrets at Waffle House. Everything happens right in front of you, especially when you sit at the counter. Imagine if you could watch your car being repaired or listen in as your congressman talks to a lobbyist. Because we canít do either, doubts about the process always linger. People trust what they can see. Thatíll be $24.95, please.