In the U.S. midwest, a sub sandwich shop chain founded by a pair of cousins says it has a approach to fighting turnover: treating employees like family.
It's a theme evoked not only by the company's history but also by its name: Cousins Subs. The Milwaukee-based chain emphasizes family in both marketing material and employee relations, Alan Lundeen, Cousins' senior director of talent and operations, told HR Dive in an interview. A look at the company's Glassdoor reviews appears to back that assertion; several reviews mention a supportive management team and positive experiences with co-workers.
Solving for turnover, though, is no easy task, particularly in the food service industry where talent churn is almost a given. A 2018 report by ADP Research Institute found that accommodation and food services had a voluntary turnover rate of 72% — the highest of all sectors measured.
"It's tough out there," Lundeen said when asked about the state of the industry. Companies like Cousins, he noted, are competing for a limited pool of applicants.
Talent market dynamics make matters even more difficult. As the U.S. unemployment rate holds steadily below 4%, food service companies are working to add more workers to their payrolls. Data from the U.S. Labor of Bureau Statistics show, for example, that food service positions have steadily climbed during the past 10 years, nearly catching up with manufacturing jobs.
But the competition provides an opportunity for Cousins to differentiate itself, Lundeen said. The company trains managers to go beyond talking about culture and actually live it.
How Cousins does culture
Even before his current role, Lundeen had a good sense of Cousins' brand, as it's his third stint with the chain. He began his career with Cousins during high school, working his way up from crew member to a general manager position in less than six years. He left and returned in 1988, staying another 13 years and eventually serving as director of corporate operations before moving to work in the hospitality and wine and spirits industries.
"When we speak about culture, I speak about it first-hand," Lundeen said. "The world has changed … but we try really hard to keep that fun, family work environment."
In 2018, Lundeen came back to Wisconsin and Cousins, which created a role for him that combined operations and talent functions. By that time, Cousins was in a more crowded market than in years past due to the growth of national chains. This led Lundeen to focus on Cousins’ recruitment marketing. As it considered what steps to take, the company received inspiration from an unlikely place: students.
Cousins worked with a Marquette University marketing course that each year partners with a local company to put together a marketing project. It was through this experience that Cousins formulated a new slogan: "Our Culture. Your Family." "We took that and we used it as our tagline, which really hits home," Lundeen said.
One strategy for creating that family atmosphere is allowing employees time to take care of their business away from work. Smaller establishments have learned to be mindful of employees' time given the stress of the industry. Cousins has a policy allowing for flexible scheduling to ensure workers have enough time, whether they're still in high school or have other obligations.
Even more robust is Cousins' employee recognition strategy. In his meetings with restaurant general managers, Lundeen said he calls on them to be "recognition detectives." On Tuesdays, he'll bring in a congratulations card for each manager to take back with them and give to someone they want to thank. Cousins' area directors, each of whom own multiple corporate locations, have a budget for recognition, Lundeen said.
Store managers are encouraged to be specific about how they celebrate employees. Cousins hands employees birthday cards as well as "wild cards," given for high performance or going above and beyond. The company also hosts group outings to baseball games, giveaways and other events.
For example, Cousins recently celebrated the careers of two general managers who had a combined 35 years with the company. "I don't know how many restaurants can say they'd had that," Lundeen said. Both managers earned surprise awards courtesy of the company: One scored a champagne lunch while the other got to tour a local distillery. "We customize it to them," Lundeen said of Cousins' recognition program; "we ask questions and we pay attention."
Then there are the simpler, day-to-day actions that can maintain culture, like remembering area directors' favorite Starbucks orders, or having team members sign a thank-you card. "For the most part, it’s not expensive," Lundeen said. "It's about being purposeful and making it happen."
Leaders who listen
Leaders play an outsized role in promoting culture. That's an axiom acknowledged by figures including Brené Brown, who has called on HR professionals to practice "brave leadership" to translate company values into action.
Cousins' four main values — grounded, optimistic, passionate and purposeful — are emphasized in its recruiting process and in communications between leaders. Quarterly meetings include segments in which managers call out specific individuals who live out one of the company's values. In monthly meetings, Lundeen and the leadership team focus on one of the four values and what it looks like in practice.
The company's CEO, Christine Specht, plays a specific role in advancing that mission, too. "Our CEO works at every single one of our restaurants half a shift," Lundeen said. During those shifts, Specht takes orders and runs the point-of-sale system alongside employees, and she also takes time to talk to customers. "She has her finger on the pulse more than I do," Lundeen noted.
Culture also is significant for Cousins in recruiting: Many of the chain's employees come from employee referrals, Lundeen said. In the end, it's up to each leader to determine how they want to go about maintaining culture. Lundeen's advice to HR professionals, though, is to simply pay attention and be purposeful.
"I do my best to be as approachable as I can," he said, "I ask questions and I listen."