Big Mac inventor leaves invaluable lesson for restaurateurs today

Dec. 1, 2016 | by S.A. Whitehead

The passing of Big Mac inventor and McDonald's longtime franchisee, Jim Delligatti, got me thinking about the value of true, two-way communication between a brand's top leadership and its front-line employees. Delligatti, as you might know, concocted the Big Mac, the world's singular, most popular-selling sandwich to date, according to McDonald's. 

At the time Delligatti created the original super-sized sandwich, he had been a franchisee of the chain for about 10 years after initially signing on as one of its earliest operators in 1957. That this man had some true, innate business sense is obvious in his early adoption of the franchise, as well as the fact that over his career he eventually became one of the brand's most successful franchisees. 

But when he came up with the Big Mac back in 1967, for his Uniontown, Pennsylvania store, he was still very much a front-line worker. Yet, it's clear that even when immersed with the troops at the store level, Delligatti was the kind of responsive business person who not only quickly picked up on what his customers wanted but then took action to quench those longings. And at that time, it was clear to Delligatti that the relatively small burgers the chain was selling were missing the mark with a fair share of its growing clientele. 

That inspired him to create the Big Mac in all its “two-all-beef-patties” goodness to give the people what they wanted. In return, customers rewarded him with the equivalent of an oil strike for food service — lots of foot traffic. 

In the true spirit of a successful entrepreneur, Delligatti didn't stop there. He could see this wasn't a trend isolated solely to his Pennsylvania stores. He believed that the Big Mac was also a big idea that America would also go for in a big way.

As he told the Associated Press back in a 1993 interview, he wanted to share the wealth, so he headed to the corporate offices to sell the sandwich to leadership. But, as is the case quite often with big corporate entities, getting his voice heard and trusted by leadership was not so easy.

"They figured, why go to something else if (the original menu) was working so well?" Delligatti told the A.P. 

In the end, it took two years to get the idea accepted at the McDonald's leadership level. For a large organization like McDonald's, even back in 1967, that was relatively quickly, but still longer than many in the same position as Delligatti might have persisted with his idea. In fact, one wonders if today the even larger corporate entity that is McDonald's leadership would have received and considered the idea as quickly or even at all. And that's not to cast aspersions on McDonald's, only to call attention to the fact that in today's corporate environments, in general, the voice of those on the front lines is often squelched. 

Delligatti's legacy: An invaluable lesson for business 

This recounting exemplifies what some would argue is the most under-used, absolutely free resource available to all U.S. businesses today: An open channel of honest two-way communication between top brass and the troops on the ground. But that's tougher to truly tap into than it would seem. In fact, if either party in that two-way channel believes for any reason that they are unable to relay information back and forth, the brand suffers immensely. 

All too often it seems this two-way channel is blocked at least in one direction. Management, for instance, has no problem telling franchisees how to perform, but franchisees frequently have neither a voice nor management's ear. In fact, sometimes even the open channel for such communication to take place is missing. Instead, the message franchisees receive is that their ideas, feedback or anything other than their accolades for all that corporate does, are neither needed nor wanted. 

That's a deadly way to do business because no one individual or group of individuals is able to be all places at all times, or even have expertise or knowledge of all areas of their businesses. Management needs boots on the ground every bit as much as boots on the ground need leaders.  

But that has to be an intentional process, meaning somebody (hello, leadership) needs to identify this open channel of feedback as a clear priority and then constantly remind everyone that it's there and should be used often. 

To both initiate and sustain that channel of feedback, leadership must make the first move, or more accurately, these four first moves: 

  1. Designate an ongoing channel for delivery of ideas to and from franchisees.
  2. Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently the need for and value of franchisee feedback
  3. Remain receptive, responsive and non-judgmental to ALL ideas.
  4. Continue to communicate appreciation for business innovation, acumen and even courage to think audaciously, rather than blindly compliantly. 

In fact, businesses who actively allot for and positively recognize this kind of two-way communication at every level and every department across the organization and its entities, are immediately miles ahead of their less open and responsive competitors. So within franchisees' organizations, a similar two-way communication model should be in place to ensure the open flow of ideas at that level, too. Likewise, at the individual store/restaurant level, all employees should also have a way to communicate their ideas without judgment or condemnation. In fact, this should be emphasized as a critical part of their ongoing responsibilities. 

Granted, lots of organizations say they are open to this level of idea exchange, but then in actual practice, every idea is met with a brick wall during the communication process. In other words, this only works when it becomes part of an organization's DNA and daily way of doing business. 

So, at a time when market pressures are making food service more competitive, but also more creative than ever, the survivors and thrivers will be those who maximize every asset to continually evolve their brands to keep pace with customer demands. One of the best ways to do that remains what it's always been: Open, honest two-way communication at all levels. 

In fact, way back in 55 AD, Greek philosopher and sage, Epictetus, summed it up this way, "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak."


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Commentary, Customer Service / Experience



S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.


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