Creating a culture of 'yes'

I was recently asked to write an editorial for Nation’s Restaurant News about our company’s philosophy – and why it sets us apart from the competition. The secret is simple: We take care of people. That means we treat our Guests and Associates the way we’d like to be treated. I took this opportunity to explain how the philosophy, “The answer is, ‘Yes.’ What is the question?” helps us make a Raving Fan out of every one who walks through our doors.

Creating a Culture of 'Yes'

I have been in this wonderful hospitality business for 33 years and president of Cameron Mitchell Restaurants for the past 20 of those 33 years. We have a motto in our company: “The answer is, ‘Yes.’ What is the question?” It is a really simple statement that serves as the backbone of how we identify ourselves as “great people delivering genuine hospitality.”

This all came about years ago when I was dining at a local branch of a regional chain with my wife and 4-year-old son. My wife did not want to go to this particular restaurant because she knew from previous experience that it did not accommodate children very well, but I convinced her to give it another try. We were greeted by a friendly hostess and seated at our table. Our server came by, greeted us warmly and proceeded to get our drinks.

Everything was going fine until it came time to order. My son wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. Though it was a Saturday afternoon and the restaurant was only half full, our server politely said, “No,” because it was not on the menu. So I pulled a move from Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” and ordered my son a club sandwich – hold the turkey, ham, lettuce, tomato, bacon, mayonnaise and middle slice of bread. I then asked the server if she could take what was left and grill it on the griddle on each side for me. After some consternation and checking with her manager, she begrudgingly replied, “Yes.”

Then I added, “And he would also like a chocolate shake.” Four-year-olds do not exactly have a wide-ranging palate, but she said she could not do that because the only chocolate milkshake they had was a very large size that was basically too much for him. When I asked if she could simply make him a small chocolate milkshake, she again replied, “No.” I asked her to check with her manager, but I saw the manager also shake her head no, and our server returned with her negative reply.

I then asked to see the manager. My wife began to kick me under the table, saying, “Don’t make a big deal out of this.” But that was my point – it shouldn’t be a big deal. I was more curious as to why her response was, “No.”

The manager came over and politely explained to me that they measured their ice cream, and if they made a small milkshake for my son, what would they do with the rest of the ice cream?

I asked if she could make him a glass of chocolate milk, and she said, “Absolutely.” She turned to walk away, when I said, “Excuse me, I see you have ‘à la mode’ listed next to your desserts for $2.95. What does that mean?” She explained that it was a scoop of ice cream. “Great!” I replied. “Can I get the chocolate milk à la mode, and could you add the ice cream to the chocolate milk and whip it up in a blender for me?” Again, she begrudgingly agreed, but informed me it would be expensive. I said, “OK, I can handle that.”

By this time my wife was beside herself, telling me we shouldn’t have come to this restaurant, and she would never return again.

If the restaurant company had a culture of, “The answer is, ‘Yes.” What is the question?” the server easily could have glided over the request, and we would have been happy campers with no reservations whatsoever about this restaurant. Actually, we would have felt good about the restaurant, told our friends and returned again as loyal patrons.

The difficult thing about accepting this motto is that “yes” usually requires that someone take action. “No” is safe and requires no risk and no action.

Over the years, we have continued to take this milkshake experience to heart. Our company icon of genuine hospitality is a picture of “Flo the waitress,” who has a beaming smile and is holding a tray with a chocolate milkshake on it. We start all of our big meetings, leadership conferences, president’s roundtables and staff meetings with a milkshake toast to “great people delivering genuine hospitality.” We reinforce our culture of “The answer is, ‘Yes.” What is the question?” on the first day of orientation, when every Cameron Mitchell Restaurants associate receives a fresh, made-to-our-standards chocolate milkshake as this story is told. New employees learn how important this philosophy is and how seriously we take it. The milkshake has become a very important symbol of the cultural foundation of our company.

Now, “The answer is, ‘Yes’” doesn’t mean you can smoke a cigar in the middle of the dining room. It does mean we have a pervasive attitude in the company that if we can do it, we will. If a guest wants a certain table, the answer is, “Yes.” If a server requests a certain night off, the answer is, “Yes.” If the driver can only make a delivery at noon, the answer is, “Yes.” When a question arises, we take every opportunity to do whatever we can to honor the request. 

This attitude is contagious, and our 3,000 associates love working in this type of environment. Many of them use our culture and values in their own personal lives, and I have received hundreds of letters from current and past associates telling me their own personal milkshake stories.

I like to say, “Great restaurateuring is difficult; if it was easy, everybody would do it.” Just as our chief financial officer Diane Smullen tells people, “If you ask, ‘Does saying, ‘Yes,’ help our bottom line?’ Well, the answer is, ‘Yes!’”

I challenge you to find your own milkshake stories, and see if you can work them into your own company culture. It sure has been good for us here at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants.

- Cameron Mitchell