Checkers CEO Appears On 'Undercover Boss'

Rick Silva, chief executive of Checkers Drive-in Restaurants Inc., appears Feb. 17 on the CBS reality television program "Undercover Boss."

While the show features Silva working in restaurants in disguise and revealing himself at the end, he flips the script on what viewers typically see on the show when he temporarily closes one of the restaurants after finding the location's general manager to be running his shift below operational standards.

Aside from that instance, he said the rest of his time as a team member was a positive, enlightening experience.

"I was incredibly motivated by the people we saw in the eight days I [filmed the episode]," Silva said. "One of the employees who trained me at a brand new prototype in Mobile, Ala., named Johanna has all the capacity to become a great manager. As a result of my learnings there, we're trying to find more people like her. As we grow at the pace we have, the ability to find people like her is key."

The Tampa, Fla.-based Checkers Drive-in Restaurants Inc. operates or franchises 800 Checkers and Rally's quick-service restaurants in the United States.

Chief development officer Jennifer Durham said the national reach of "Undercover Boss," as well as the social media activity it generates, gives Checkers more legitimacy and awareness to customers and potential franchisees.

"Since commercials for Rick's episode started airing last Sunday [Feb. 12], we've had double the normal numbers of franchise inquiries," she said.

Silva spoke with Nation's Restaurant News about how his experience has inspired new corporate programs from the unit level.

Why did you go undercover?

We are very excited to tell our story about growing revenues, profits and unit counts. The success we've had the past five years has come in large part from a dramatic change in our operations standards and in our menu. I was incredibly proud to see these employees train me flawlessly and to see the changes we've made absolutely are driving results.

What happened with the unit you had to close?

This one restaurant had a brand new general manager, just put in the position, and he wasn't running the restaurants to the standards we expect. There was nothing posing a danger to our employees or guests, but his tone with his team members was different, too terse. I came to the conclusion that he wasn't prepared to run that shift and wasn't convinced that when I walked away the restaurant would provide the level of service we need. Employees need to hear the kind of leadership I expect, and general managers need to provide support and coaching. We closed the unit down during that Sunday night shift temporarily. The next morning, it reopened with a new manager, and it's been running fantastic since then.

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What did you learn while on the job that you hadn't realized before in your years of doing market visits as chief executive?

As we're trying to grow and sustain our momentum, on key component is to have great ideas, and I learned that our front-line employees are a great source of them that I wasn't tapping enough.

We have a very progressive incentive program for our managers, and every month they can make a considerable bonus. While I was undercover, a team member asked why they wouldn't include team members in the program. I'm the CEO, and that seems so obvious, but I completely missed it before. Next quarter, we're changing the program so that now, whenever a restaurant achieves its targets, team members share in the bonus too. She changed our compensation structure forever.

I want to institutionalize new ideas now. We've created a general-managers conference, and the best managers from the top 10 percent of the system will meet with me quarterly. We'll listen to their ideas and float ideas to them. I can't keep going undercover, but I want to get ideas, so I'll pick up as many from them as I can. We're also creating a mentorship program for promising team members with management potential.

It sounds like this committee of managers is the way to get unit-level insight.

Yes, the general-manager council we're creating is my version of getting ideas straight from the unit level. We operate 300 of our restaurants and are connected to our business, but I count on my leaders to keep in touch with what's going on, and there's nothing like direct contact with managers and team members. I can't always visit 800 restaurants and always visit a representative sample. ... I want to involve the direct stakeholders earlier. For any organization evolving as rapidly as we are, I need to fuel our growth and momentum, and the way to do it is to stay close to employees.

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