Brand ambassadors: How to build a team that cares about your pizzeria

Michelle Brisebois
May 03, 2018
By
Actively engaged employees rave about your food and excitedly point out their personal favourites to guide customer decisions.
Actively engaged employees rave about your food and excitedly point out their personal favourites to guide customer decisions. Photo: Fotolia
If the people who work for you are excited about being there, it has a positive impact on the strength of your brand. Experiences are delivered by people – and your people are your brand, so you should want them to be in a good place. It’s great in theory but how does it look in practice?

We spoke with two pizza operators known for their strong employee engagement to try to understand how they nurture a culture of engagement and brand advocacy.

WHAT DOES A BRAND AMBASSADOR LOOK LIKE?
An employee who is “engaged” in your business goals, culture and products is most likely to be a strong brand ambassador. Engagement comes in three flavours: actively engaged, disengaged and actively disengaged. Actively engaged employees rave about your food and excitedly point out their personal favourites to guide customer decisions. Disengaged employees smile and say, “Everything here is good.” Actively disengaged employees are rude to your customers, provide poor service and drive away business.

Actively engaged is easy to see. Actively disengaged is also easy to identify. The danger zone resides with the disengaged team members. They look fine on the outside but they aren’t “in the canoe.”

ENGAGEMENT IS A MINDSET – NOT BEHAVIOUR
Employers mistakenly think they can see if an employee is engaged by simply observing them. On time? Check. Smiling? Check. Does the job efficiently? Check. They’re engaged. Or not. Not everyone who is miserable in their job shows it by acting out. Engagement is a function of the employee’s behaviour and their perception. That superstar you see may actually be a workhorse who is afraid of losing their job or a martyr who likes the attention obtained by working marathon hours. While visible metrics like attendance, illness and mood can indicate engagement issues. It’s important your team truly feel valued and connected to your business and not just going through the motions.

THE BUSINESS CASE FOR EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
When Gallop began measuring employee engagement in the 1990s, it quickly became clear that a lack of employee engagement costs businesses big time. According to Jim Harter of Gallop, “Those outcomes range from basics such as absenteeism, employee retention rates, service levels and productivity; and ultimately it all adds up to about a 22 per cent difference in profitability when you compare top quartile business units to the bottom quartile.” With strong evidence to indicate that engaged employees are good for business, why do so few companies do it well? And how do the ones doing it well “keep the love alive?”

ENGAGED, EXCITED AND SUCCESSFUL: A TALE OF TWO PIZZERIAS
We spoke with two pizza operators known for their strong employee engagement to try to understand how they nurture a culture of engagement and brand advocacy. Turns out it’s about collaboration and caring. We decided to dig in at the beginning: How do you recruit new talent? What do you look for when recruiting?

THE SELECTION PROCESS
For Brigade Pizzeria in Montreal, it’s about a mindset and fit with the existing team. The type of position they’re hiring for often dictates the personality they want. If they’re hiring for a pizzaiolo, Brigade wants someone who is calm to be able to weather the heat – physical and emotional – of the kitchen.

“The one quality we look for in all team members is that we want them to be humble,” says Jean-Daniel Nadeau, president and co-founder. Candidates are often interviewed as a group so that team dynamics can be gauged. “We might have as many as five people in all at the same time and we may ask a shift captain to join in on the interview process,” Nadeau says. Nadeau believes this process works because the existing team is part of the selection process, and therefore, invested in their success from the beginning, and the newly hired employee is pleased they made the cut.

Pizzeria Libretto, with four Toronto locations, also takes great care as they hire new team members. Hilary Drago, marketing co-ordinator of the restaurant chain, says they look for an “energy” rather than a specific profile. “We look for someone that cares about themselves and others. If they enter the interview room and thank the person that holds the door open for them, it’s little gestures like this that speak volumes,” she says.  Pizzeria Libretto also asks at the interview that candidates reveal what their favourite restaurant is and why. Surprisingly, the “why” answer tends to land in the same zone for many. “It makes me feel like home,” tends to be the answer that fits with the culture Libretto is trying to channel. “If you say that, we know you understand what we’re looking for,” Drago says.

THE ONBOARDING
As with any great recipe, getting the right ingredients is only part of the equation. The real magic comes from the right combinations of flavours being blended and guided into something that’s greater than the sum of the parts. This is the definition of alchemy and it’s what separates great teams from good ones, or bad ones. Brigade Pizzeria fosters empathy and excitement for the menu by cross-training the team on all roles. They find this helps everyone understand how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes as well as creating a deeper knowledge for the ingredients and the menu.

“We often see someone start as a busboy and then eventually move to becoming a topper. In between they’ll be responsible for opening and slapping the dough. Some aspire to go all the way to becoming a pizzaiolo but some are happy to stay bussing . . . and that’s OK,” Nadeau says.

Pizzeria Libretto also cross-trains as part of their onboarding process. “We find it creates empathy amongst the team,” Drago says.

NURTURING A STRONG CULTURE
This tends to be the hard part for many restaurants. It’s almost accepted that there will be everything from disdain to all-out war between front and back of house and that getting pulled into the inevitable drama is a rabbit hole management does not want to go down. Here is where both restaurants we spoke to clearly break away from the pack. They fearlessly wade in.

For Brigade Pizzeria, it can be anything from helping a new team member pick up their furniture at Ikea because they have no vehicle to going down to immigration with someone trying to sort out their legal status. “Sometimes if you notice that someone seems preoccupied or off I’ll sit down to talk with them and say, ‘What’s going on at home?’ If you understand what they’re going through sometimes it’s an easy fix to support and get them back on track,” Nadeau says.

Pizzeria Libretto also makes a point to connect with their team members personally with shout-out programs where team members nominate each other for going above and beyond the call of duty. What’s unique about this is that both the person nominated and the person nominating are recognized, both to encourage the act of noticing and to reward great interaction.

Libretto also does something quite unique and lovely each day as a team. They break bread together. Instead of putting out food for the team to grab at their convenience, they make a meal and sit down all at the same time to eat and bond. In addition to being a beautiful way to connect with each other, it’s cool to start dinner service by doing the exact same thing the customers are about to do. That energy and empathy naturally flows throughout the service.

Philanthropy is also part of the culture with causes chosen that resonate with the employees too. “We recently decided to contribute one dollar from each pizza sold to the “March for our Lives” campaign to support the March 24 march by teachers and students in Washington, D.C., connected to the school shootings. “We have a number of teachers and students on staff and many of them told us it meant a lot to them that the company supported this cause,” Drago says.

THE TIPPING POINT
Operational issues can often be the kindling that stokes the flames of discord. When the tips are skewed to one segment of the restaurant team leaving the other members in the cold or with very little, a sense of unfairness can exist and that works against a democratic culture. At Brigade Pizzeria and Pizzeria Libretto, tips are shared, and they believe this contributes to a more egalitarian and healthy culture.

Research shows that employee engagement increases when people know what their roles are, what success looks like and how it’s measured, and when they have the tools and latitude to reach those goals. Brigade Pizzeria confirms that tasks and responsibilities for each role are outlined in a standard operating procedure manual.

Employees who are emotionally invested in their company’s success are good for business and it’s time we made them a priority. It’s the right and civil thing to do. As Brigade’s Nadeau puts it, “Anything that impacts our employees lives affects the business too. We’re a part of their lives, so we embrace that.” •


Michelle Brisebois is a marketing consultant specializing in e-commerce and digital content strategy and retail/in-store activation. Michelle has worked in the food, pharmaceutical, financial services and wine industries. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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