Earlier this year, Firebirds Wood Fired Grill revamped its employee-training program and launched a fresh digital platform, a first for the company. Coming off of the heels of an ownership change—J.H. Whitney Capital Partners acquired the chain in January—Firebirds asked customers to complete an in-depth survey about where the brand could improve and what customers really wanted from their dine-in experience.
A few key points emerged, says Stephen Loftis, Firebirds vice president of marketing. Firstly, employees needed to better convey messaging of the brand’s fresh ingredients, style of cooking, and overall value proposition.
The survey also revealed that food resonated well with guests, but service wasn’t at the same level.
“[It] wasn’t not good, but it wasn’t coming across five stars like we wanted,” Loftis says. “That was where we stepped back and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got areas of opportunities here and not that we were deficient, but let’s step up our game.’ Let’s give them another reason to come back.”
Firebirds’ new training program is more structured than it’s ever been. But “structured” doesn’t mean boring. Tammy Calhoun, director of learning and development, incorporated engagement into the training program that starts with e-learning courses and hands-on activities that continue into the restaurant.
With Firebirds approaching the 50-store milestone, the new platform could serve as a springboard for future growth, and help ensure consistency during expansion. Past training skimmed some important elements of the brand’s operational standards and left best practices in a gray area. It gave operators leeway on how to approach training market by market. It held the brand back, Calhoun says.
“For us to get on to 50–70 stores, we have to do things one brand, one way,” she adds.
The first round of training was designed specifically for servers, but Calhoun and the rest of the team realized everyone in the restaurants should have the knowledge. Throughout March, in an initiative Calhoun named Mark Certification Madness, everyone from regional and general managers to hostesses and bartenders re-certified their training with new courses.
Going against normal practices, where courses need to be strictly practical, Calhoun decided to add fun into the platform. Guided by a workbook that features true and false questions to fill in the blanks, employees learn about the Firebirds’ current standards of hospitality.
“We made sure that bled throughout because that’s part of our mission,” she says. “When someone got done, they could physically say, ‘Here’s what our mission is and here is how we accomplish it.’”
The education process isn’t finished when an employee completes the e-course. Training continues during pre-shift huddles and general managers are tasked with quizzing employees about different topics, from new menu items to bourbon lists. Calhoun admits Firebirds, which was just named to Forbes’ America’s Best Mid-Size Employers List, isn’t the easiest restaurant to learn, but the ongoing training sets employees up for success if they invest the time.
With the new program, the dynamics of the manager/employee relationship also shifted. Instead of a barrier between tiers of staff, it allows them to build a relationship, which isn’t always a priority in the industry. Employees, in turn, feel more empowered, and can go to managers with complaints or issues without fear of being singled out.
The first round of courses is just the beginning as well, Calhoun says. New will continue to roll out throughout the year. Surprisingly, Calhoun says, employees expressed interest in learning more about the hostess stand. This makes sense, she added, since it’s the first guest touchpoint. Additional courses covering back of house and other areas of the restaurant are in development, too.
“Creating extraordinary experiences through hospitality is our mission, and it’s our No. 1 objective for this year,” Calhoun says. “Everything that we do is going to start off with that. So if you’re back of house you’ll take the exact same course as servers because there’s no reason why they can’t show you where the restrooms are … or a host can’t walk by and fill in somebody’s napkin.”
As Firebirds grows, it wants to ensure each location evolves, just as the system does. Training is a major part of this growth. Customer engagement on Firebirds’ digital channels is as well.
The company recently took an in-depth look at how customers interact with the brand digitally and came up with some new options to provide real-time feedback.
Firebirds’ marketing team is using a social media management tool to engage with more customers in a timely manner and give staff feedback on what they’re hearing and seeing online.
It is also helping with brand awareness in existing and new markets. Christine Lorusso, Firebirds’ digital marketing manager, says the brand is tracking customer engagement.
As the brand grows and adds new social pages for each location, the time and detail Firebirds spends managing social accounts, along with review sites, like Yelp and OpenTable, can be overwhelming. Now it’s all in one place and they can interact with customers quickly and efficiently across 49 different restaurants.
“This is just something that’s really helped us go to the next level,” Lorusso says. “Also in the event of something positive or negative happening it can tell us the reach, how far it’s going and how we can either put a stop to it or use it to our advantage, depending on what the topic is.”
Promotion of new menu items is as easy as posting on Instagram. So is responding to a customer complaint or suggestion. When managers are more aware of what customers are posting on their location’s Facebook page, the managers can use that feedback as an opportunity for learning.
The marketing team currently monitors review sites and is alerted when someone makes a review or a complaint. It then works with regional managers to rectify the issue. Firebirds can reach out to customers directly, invite them back, and offer them a second chance.
In turn, customers often update a review or remove a negative comment. People end up coming back because of the detail that goes into managing reviews and seeing that their voice was heard, says Callie Murray, Firebirds’ marketing manager.
An additional review tracker specializing in local markets is currently in development, and the company plans on using it as a complementary tool to get a complete picture of how customers are responding to Firebirds.
As the chain grows its footprint, leadership doesn’t want the quality of hospitality to get diluted.
“We’re trying to be one brand in one way, and hopefully [the new training program] will help us overcome that,” Calhoun says.