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Opinion Editorials

Using Pal’s Sudden Service model can make you famous for service, staff retention

(EDITORIAL) Winner of the 2001 Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award — the first restaurant to do so — Pal’s is a fan favorite with a turnover rate a third lower than the industry average. Here’s how they do it.




It’s no accident

Regardless of your business, its focus is on people: the people you engage as customers, served by the people that you hire. It’s not about what you make, but about who you make it for, and how well the people who represent you do that. Impassioned customer engagement and employee retention doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s earned, day after day, by a devotion to establishing and maintaining your culture with the people who are hired and trained to do so.

We all should be looking for ways to create the best customer experience by investing our energy in those things which we can control, starting with our employees and their experiences.

As we look to companies that are renowned for their customer service, such as Walt Disney or Zappos, it’s easy to say to ourselves, “Well, if I had the money and resources that those companies do, it’d be easy for me to have a more attractive experience for my customer and employee.” But there are companies much smaller in scope who deliver an amazing customer and employee experience.

How Pal’s Sudden Service succeeds

Located on the Tennessee/Virginia border, Pal’s Sudden Service is a quick-stop restaurant (QSR) with 26 stores that’s physically similar to other such restaurants, excepting that it’s a drive-thru only. However, there are many differences. When cars approach the dual drive-thrus, customers provide their order to a Pal’s employee face-to-face, rather than through a speaker.

This is such a hallmark of Pal’s that their recent advertising campaign was titled “Face-to-Face”, highlighting the speed and accuracy that come from beginning the order process talking to a person rather than a screen, allowing customers to progress through the line faster and resume enjoying their day. Speaking of their speed and accuracy, it’s legendary.

From the time of first contact with a Pal’s employee, the customer orders and receives their order within 30 seconds. By way of comparison, the next closest competitor completes the process in two minutes, four times slower than Pal’s. Now, you might well be thinking, “Great. They’re fast, we can be fast at my business, but only being fast doesn’t guarantee customer satisfaction.” And you’d be right.

It’s about more than just speed

The story of Pal’s transcends speed. Winner of the 2001 Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award — the first restaurant to do so — Pal’s makes a mistake in a customer order only once in every 3,600 orders, reports Harvard Business Review.

In comparison, that’s ten times better than their closest competitor, and the combination of speed and accuracy has won them loyalty from their customer base, as well as being a company worthy of study by competitors and management experts alike.

How do they do it, and how can we apply their methodology to our companies? It all comes down to their approach to their employees.

Retention begins with selection

Pal’s 26 locations employ roughly 1,000 workers. 90 percent are part-time, and 40 percent are between 16 and 18 years old. Given the complexities in managing this segment of the demographic, the hiring process at Pal’s begins with an extensive psychometric screener, a 60-point check to see how well the candidate is aligned with the attitudinal characteristics of Pal’s most talented employees.

“We’re believers that birds of a feather flock together,” said CEO Thom Crosby, speaking to the Harvard Business Review. “If you start having an operation with weak crew training and not a lot of really good leadership by managers, the people who apply there are the same kinds of people. We go the opposite direction.”

Training never stops

The work’s just beginning when employees are hired. At Pal’s, training isn’t a one-time event, but an intense process designed to ensure that all employees can successfully do all of the tasks involved in operating the store, with frequent rechecks to test for proficiency.

Employees new to the company receive 120 hours of training before they are allowed to work independently.

Each of the tasks that they do is accompanied by a certification test, which must be passed as well before they can work on their own.

The training is continuous: daily, in each restaurant on each shift, the company’s training software generates the names of employees that must be recertified in one of their areas of responsibility. Think of these as a form of a surprise quiz for the employee; they complete the brief test, and if they aren’t successful, they must be retrained in that area before they can do it again independently. This occurs for every employee on average 2 to 3 times monthly.

“Human beings go out of calibration, just like equipment”, said Crosby.  “We see so many operations that have training and they’re so happy when a trainee can pass a test. Then they sign off on this person as “trained” and they usually don’t revisit that person unless there’s a really severe performance issue.”

By focusing time, energy, and money on ensuring that employees don’t have the opportunity to go out of calibration with the expected standard, or to develop bad habits, Pal’s focuses on not only quality, but also culture in the same stroke.

Staff development is not a one-off event, especially for the part-time or adult learner.

By focusing on your staff as assets to be developed, rather than employees with varying levels of performance based on infrequent or non-existent training, you meet the needs of your customer and demonstrate to your employee that they matter.

Leadership never rests

At Pal’s, leadership is a serious endeavor in coaching employees. All leaders, including the CEO, are expected to spend 10 percent of their time daily teaching a specific skill to a specific employee. “At Pal’s, every leader needs to have a coaching and training target every single day,” said Crosby to Burger Business. “As CEO, I’m not exempt: Anyone is welcome to ask me my coaching target on any day.” This hands-on approach is bolstered by their master reading list, a selection of 21 books spanning leadership classics, alongside modern tomes on quality. These books are discussed at a bi-monthly book study occurring with the CEO and selected management.

This approach is also seen in how they approach their role within the industry. After winning the Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award, the company created its Business Excellence Institute (BEI) as a development arm to provide best practices to others. As a sign of their success, one of their clients, Austin’s K&N Management became the second restaurant winner of the Baldridge award in 2010.

The result of all this? The customers are unswervingly loyal, and the employees stay employed.

In an industry renowned for its turnover rates, employee turnover rate for hourly employees is one-third the industry average.

Among leaders, it’s lower still. Over more than three decades, only seven general managers have left the company voluntarily, and assistant managers have an annual turnover rate of 1.4 percent.

How do we apply this to our individual circumstances? By focusing on the customer through the lens of improving your employees, you receive dual benefit. Your employees satisfy your customer, and you’ve invested in the best walking advertisement for your company that you can: a carefully selected employee who’s been well-trained and coached to take care of your customer.


Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

Opinion Editorials

How top performers work smarter, not harder

(EDITORIAL) People at the top of their game work less, but with more focus – learn how to replicate their good habits to get ahead.



working smarter

Practice, practice and more practice will get you to be more competent in what you do, but working smarter isn’t always about competency, at least in business. Productivity expert, Morten T. Hansen’s studies indicate that multitasking is detrimental to working smarter. But it’s only half of the problem.

Hansen discovered that the top performers did not try to do thousands of things at a time. He’s not the only one.

Earl Miller, an MIT neuroscientist outlines why humans cannot multitask. As he puts it, “our brains… delude us into thinking we can do more.” But this is an illusion. When we interrupt the creative process, it takes time to get refocused to be creative and innovative. It’s better to focus on one project for a set amount of time, take a break, then get started on another project.

Hansen also found in his research that the top performers focused on fewer goals. He recommends cutting everything in the day that isn’t producing value. As a small business owner, you have to look at which tasks bring in the most profit. This might mean that you outsource the bookkeeping that takes you hours or give up being on a committee at the Chamber of Commerce that is taking too much time away from your business.

Taking on less work will help you work smarter, but Hansen found that it goes hand-in-hand with obsessing over what you do have to do.

When you have fewer burning fires, you can dedicate your time to these tasks to create quality work. According to Hansen, this one thing took middle performers at the 50th percentile and put them into the 75th percentile. When someone is competent in writing reports, for example, and can focus their energy into that, the work is much better.

Top performers also take breaks to rest their brains. One of my favorite analogies is the one where a lumberjack is given a stack of wood that needs to be cut down. He starts with a sharp ax, but over time, as the ax gets dull it becomes harder to chop the wood. By taking a break and sharpening the ax, more gets accomplished with less effort.

Your brain is like that ax. It works great when you first get to work. You’re excited to get started. In a couple of hours, your brain needs a break. Go outside and take a walk. Get away from your desk. Do something different for 15 minutes. When you come back, you should feel like you have a second jolt of energy to take on tasks until you break for lunch. Science backs the need for breaks during the day.

By taking breaks, obsessing over what you have to do, and laser focusing on fewer goals, you’ll be outperforming your competitors (and even coworkers). Work smarter, not harder.

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Opinion Editorials

The real key to working smarter, not harder

(EDITORIAL) We’ve all heard that we should be working harder, not smarter, but how does one go about doing that aside from a bunch of apps?



working smarter, not working harder

I know you’ve heard the phrase, “work smarter, not harder,” but what does that mean exactly? How do you work smarter?

A new book by Morten T. Hansen attempts to answer the question. “Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More” was released at the end of January. Hansen found 7 different behaviors outside of education levels, age and number of hours worked. I’d like to take a look at a couple of the things he recommends. Read the book if you want to know more.

Let’s continue on by addressing the 10,000 Hour Theory of Expertise. Under this principle, it’s thought that if you spend 10,000 hours in deliberate practice of a skill, you’ll become world-class in any field. The Beatles are thought to have used this theory to become one of the greatest bands in history. But it’s not just about practicing until your fingers bleed or you can’t stay awake any longer, it’s really about pushing yourself in an area.

Although it has been argued that this theory doesn’t necessarily apply in business or professions, there’s something to be said about deliberate practice.

When it comes to working smarter, no, you don’t need to spend 10,000 hours in the workplace to get better at your job. But you can put some of the principles of the theory in action:

  • Pick a skill that you need to develop. There’s no way you can work on every skill at the same time. Just choose one to focus on for three months, or six months. Review your performance now. Have a benchmark of where you want to take that skill.
  • Carve out time to work on that skill. Spend 15 minutes a day doing something that helps you get better. You know the old joke? How do you get to Carnegie Hall? “Practice.” You’re going to have to find ways to practice.
  • Work on specific elements of a skill. Typically, the skills we want to improve involve a lot of smaller things. Take a good presentation. You need connect with people, have a good outline and learn to have diction and tons of other things. Work on one thing at a time. ?I used to have a real problem with looking at people when I was giving a presentation. For quite a few months, I made it a priority to be conscious of making eye contact. No matter who I was talking to, the cashier, a patron at the center where I volunteer and even my neighbors. It’s much easier now for me.
  • Get feedback. You may believe you’re making progress, but others may have a different vantage point. Find a couple of good mentors who can really evaluate your performance and offer constructive criticism.

Repeat until your skill-set grows.

To get better, you need challenge and practice. Believe me, you’re going to make some mistakes along the way. Get up, dust yourself off and keep practicing.

Competence in a particular area goes a long way toward working smarter.

But wait, there’s more – the discussion continues in part two of this series, keep reading!

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Opinion Editorials

How I pitched the CEO of Reddit onstage at SXSW with no notice

(EDITORIAL) This is the story of how luck, networking, preparation and being at the right place at the right time got me onstage at SXSW with no notice, to pitch Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit and co-founder of Hipmunk.



daniel senyard pitching the CEO of Reddit

After graduating from Austin’s Capital Factory accelerator earlier this year, Shep, my travel tech startup was in need of our first office. The team had grown to more than seven people, and while coffee shops had sufficed for product meetings when there were only four of us, we’d started getting dirty looks when we began putting tables together and colonizing entire corners. We looked at dedicated offices, office shares, and coworking spaces like WeWork. When it came down to it, at this phase, Capital Factory was the right choice for our company.

We’d already raised our seed round with Capital Factory with several of their partners as major investors, so we decided that, as a startup in Austin, we had to be where the press, investors, and partners were most likely to show up. Past visitors to Capital Factory have included Barack Obama, Apple CEO, Tim Cooke, Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, and many more. We knew that we might be able to get a space for less, but the community, education, and flow of people through the space optimizes our startup for serendipity.

Fast forward to this year’s SXSW and I was meeting with team members on the fifth floor when I received a text telling me that Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit and co-founder of travel startup Hipmunk, was downstairs and he had just said that creating a travel tech startup is the most difficult thing he’s ever done.

“The CEO of Reddit is talking right now and saying that doing a travel startup is the hardest thing he’s [e]ver done. You should tweet at him.” said the first text. “Baer just told him about Shep,” came the next one, referencing Josh Baer, the founder of Capital Factory, who was conducting the interview downstairs.

So, being in the right place (or at least four floors above) at the right time, I rushed downstairs and made eye contact with Josh before taking a seat in the back of the room. I planned to wait until after the talk and fight the crowd to introduce myself as the person Josh had mentioned and hand Steve a business card.

SXSW had other plans for me.

“So, we only have about three more minutes, and because SXSW is all about doing things on the fly and taking opportunity as it finds you, I’m going to ask Daniel Senyard from Shep, who’s just joined us, to come up and pitch Steve for 90 seconds,” said Josh from the stage before getting up and giving me his seat. I proceeded to tell Steve how Shep allows smaller businesses to set up and track travel policies and team spending on travel websites like Orbitz, Expedia, and Southwest through a free browser extension. My hands were shaking, but I got it all out in about the right amount of time, and he immediately responded by saying, “I love the Premise.”


Steve asked some questions about customers (closed Beta) and target market (companies that spend less than $1M in annual travel) before enquiring whether Shep had to have relationships with online travel agencies (OTAs) like Expedia and Orbitz or Meta Searches like Kayak. I said no, but that through our strategic investors, I’d spoken to many of them.

“I’m trying to grill you, but I honestly think they would love this,” he said, stating how OTAs and other travel sites lose lots of bookings when companies grow and move from letting their team book on their favorite websites and instead mandate bookings be made on enterprise booking tools like Concur or AmEx Travel. Now Steve knows this world better than almost anyone, having co-founded an OTA that was actually acquired by the very company he says OTAs lose business to, Concur!

After a few more comments, I thanked him and took the opportunity to slip him a business card before heading back to my seat.

Now, to some, this may seem like pure luck but these moments of serendipity take years to create.

While there are several factors at play, it all essentially boils down to just showing up every time. As Josh said to me afterward, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity,” and I’ve been preparing and pitching non-stop (albeit within three different businesses) for seven years. Over those seven years and three companies, I’ve slowly built up a vast network of connected people who will text me when my name is mentioned and will invite me onstage when they see an opportunity.

While I didn’t nail it, I didn’t flub my pitch because I’ve rehearsed various forms and lengths of pitches in mirrors, while driving, and to every family member that can stand it. I’ve taken my bumps and done my reps while probably pitching 200 times. I even won a contest and was sent over to Oslo to represent Texas at Oslo Innovation Week back in 2015. But even after pitching at every chance I’m given, I still get nervous, and my hands are still a little shaky while writing this, an hour after it all happened.

It was an amazing opportunity, and I’m very thankful to Henry for texting me, Josh for inviting me onstage, and John and Henry for recording the whole thing. While cool moments like this are certainly highlights, it’s just a step towards building brand recognition for our solution. Now I need to follow up and see if I can get Steve to join our advisory board…

Also read “Why your being the ‘Uber of’ or ‘Netflix of’ is bad for your business” by Daniel Senyard.

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