In kim saga grand finale (link), I completed the little mini documentary I had been writing about my early love life with my girlfriend, and wife to be. An aspect of my life that I skipped over in those saga episodes was what I’d refer to as my ‘managerial experience’ with Taco Bell. This is that story, Part One.
How did I become the second youngest Taco Bell Store Manager in the country at the tender age of 20? No, I didn’t sleep with the boss – get your minds out of the gutter. Like most promotions and career advancements, it was mostly luck – being in the right place at the right time. In this story, (link), I briefly shared how I tried to maintain a full schedule at Miami University and a full schedule as a part time employee at Taco Bell. Naturally, I couldn’t pull it off and so I fell back into an open offer for an Assistant Mgr position that the Store Manager, (Sally), had waiting for me.
My wife and I had met in high school and had become sweethearts. Like most young and immature couples, there were a lot of petty arguments; arguments which feel mightily petty today but I’m sure were life-altering at the time. You can relate I’m sure…I mean who wouldn’t get angry if your boyfriend forgot your favorite color or ordered Coke instead of root-beer? We were ‘steadies’ beginning towards the end of 10th grade and all through to graduation. After high school we both tried our hands at working full time schedules in the evenings and attending day classes at Miami University. This schedule did not allow any time for classwork and at least speaking for myself, it was reflected in my grades the first semester.
I had been working at Taco Bell in Hamilton, Ohio and it was a time when the company was just introducing themselves to the Cincinnati area. They were expanding very quickly and were desperate for managers. They would accept anyone who displayed a little organizational talent and the ability to teach others the fine art of stuffing a Burrito Supreme. That’s where I came in – I have no doubts that I could make that baby yet today, 35 years later.
Management at a Taco Bell store back then, (they were called stores, not restaurants), was divided between the Store Manager and his/her Assistant Managers. A store typically had only one assistant manager unless it was a busy store like our Hamilton location. We were bringing in over $2,000 per day there – a lot of money back in the late 70’s.
Typically, the Store Manager would work the days and then the evenings belonged to the Assistants, and sometimes maybe one of the better employees. We didn’t have a special name for those employees back then; today they’re known as Shift Leaders. The Assistant Mgr would coordinate the activities of the shift and would perform various administrative duties such as clearing out the registers, making the nightly deposit for the bank and starting the evening food fight (I was an expert olive flipper). Oh, and I made a pretty mean ‘burn ’em sauce – (link).
It was as an Assistant Mgr that I first learned the art of bringing out the best in people. How did I learn this? Like everything else, through osmosis – I watched Sally. People want to do a good job, to feel they are contributing and to feel they are being appreciated. I quickly learned that there were different motivators, different things I could do to tempt the best performance from each individual. Some wanted to work in a specific area of the store where they felt most comfortable. Some wanted frequent breaks. Some wanted to just eat a lot while others loved the interaction with the customers. And as with every place of employment, there were one or two who didn’t really want to ‘work’ when they came to work.
I was an assistant for about a year, from the spring of ’77 to the following spring. I was only 19 years old, very young, very immature but very driven. In addition to all the partying and pranking, I learned a lot, especially from my manager – Sally. Sally was a survivor. She was a 30-something career restaurant manager. The restaurant manager came out when she addressed us, her employees. When she turned around to address a customer, she was instantly transformed into a bubbly twenty year old employee, wearing a huge smile, bouncing on her toes, eager to take your taco order and to sell you on a large sized drink. It was fun to watch and I loved teasing her about it.
Sally and I had a great working relationship and I was hungry for the knowledge she was eager to share. She had fantastic organizational skills; that’s what impressed me most. I would have to say that she was my very first mentor. She not only promoted me into management but she was also responsible for recommending me to replace her as the store’s manager when she got an opportunity to transfer back to her home in Indianapolis. I was only twenty years old but having been under her tutelage for a year, I learned a lot and felt ready to lead my own team at the Hamilton Taco Bell. All and all though, it was a very fun year.
Once I was promoted to Store Manager, I got a new boss – Larry. As with Sally, I very quickly developed a great relationship with Larry. He openly shared me as the model store manager that all his other store managers should follow. The first time he held me up as an example in a store manager meeting, I admit I was pretty embarrassed. But, my results were pretty decent so I got used to the accolades. On a couple of occasions he would question my methods, but very quickly gave me full reign of authority. Some examples here I think would help to display the relationship we had grown into.
We were supposed to purchase all of our supplies from a distributor that Taco Bell corporation had negotiated a contract with. Occasionally though, local growers would stop in and ask me to buy their tomatoes or lettuce. If the price was right and if I saw a similar, (or better), quality, I’d buy from them. This was a no-no and Larry called me on it once. After he cut open and tasted one of the tomatoes I had recently purchased, he gave me a thumbs-up, especially since he’d seen I had gotten a better price, (on top of the better product). He told me not to tell any other manager I was doing this and gave me the approval to continue the practice.
Another of the methods I was most fond of was to identify my strongest employees and then I’d pay them a wage greater than any other wage they could earn at any other fast food place around. My total wages paid were all in line but when Larry saw how much I was paying a few of my employees, he expressed doubts about my approach. One of these employees was named Theresa. Theresa was my best hourly worker and easily could have been a very strong assistant manager had she a desire to be.
Like all fast food places today, people pretty much made minimum wage but I was paying her 50% more per hour. My logic then, (and always), was to take care of them and they will take care of me. When Larry debated this, I told him Theresa’s schedule and asked him to come in during one of her shifts. He took me up on it, even came in to spend an hour working a shift alongside her. I never shared this with Theresa as I felt it might be a little too nerve wracking for her. After the hour we spent handling a busy lunch rush, just the three of us, he caught me alone. I won’t forget this moment. He said, “I gotta hand it to you Rob, she’s worth three employees. As long as you are meeting your targets, I’m not going to question any more of your approaches. You are really special and I can have you promoted to Regional Manager by the age of 25”.
Regional Manager was a big, big deal, especially considering they made maybe 3x what a store manager made back then. I know he was giving me a big compliment, but I confess now that more than anything, that comment scared me. I didn’t want to be like Larry, a 50 year old restaurant guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downgrading the career, it was just that I strongly had a desire to get a college degree and work in an office. I felt that was my calling, not a fast track career up through the ranks of Taco Bell. So whenever Larry made a comment like that, I’d just smile. Inside though, I was beginning to think about my escape. I knew I had to get out soon.
Stay tuned for the conclusion….and the escape.