By Nick Fosberg   |   August 1, 2016

Nick: On today’s interview, I’ve got James Henderson with us, who is going to tell us how to build our brand, beat your competition, and ultimately make more money and satisfy more customers. James has quite the resume. He’s worked his way from the ground up to taking on some major roles such as vice president of human resources for Rafferty’s Restaurants, director of operations at T.G.I. Friday’s, and director at multiple conferences. So James, how are you doing today?

James: I’m fantastic, Nick. How are you?

Nick: I’m good. So I just covered a small portion of your resume, but before we get started, why don’t you give us a brief overview of how you got started in the restaurant and bar business, and how you moved your way up the ladder?

James: Well, it’s a funny story. What’s the saying? What a long, strange trip it’s been? My degree is in Broadcasting. I always wanted to be a sportscaster, but I played football in college. And when they take away your green tray, you have to kind of get a job. So when the food is not free anymore, you have to get a job. I knew some people that worked at Rafferty’s Restaurants, and I had an opportunity to go out there. I knew nothing about the kitchen, knew nothing about food service, nothing about it at all. I got a job on the dish machine and hated it. People are throwing dishes at you, splashing water on you, and the whole deal. I got an opportunity to work up on the line. I was a line cook for a long time. That was back in the day when the restaurant industry was the wild, wild west and anything went. You had to work hard, not that they don’t work hard now. But I fell in love with it, just absolutely fell in love with it.

And even though I would leave and go and take a broadcasting job while I was doing my first job out of college – I was covering high school football, baseball, and basketball down in Texas – I had to get a second job. And that second job was bartending at Ruby Tuesday. To make a long story short, about three months later, the guy approached me and asked me if I’d like to be in management. I told him that I didn’t. He told me that I did, and then three months later, I was at Ruby Tuesday University in Knoxville, Tennessee. And so I really never looked back. It’s been a fantastic career. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some magnificent people. The beauty of it is that most of the stuff that I share, most of it is not mine. Most of it is stuff that I learned from working with absolutely fabulous people, and hopefully, I’ve been smart enough to take in some of that stuff as we went along. I just moved up the ladder.

Nick: Awesome. One thing that really, really intrigued me when we first talked is you said something like this: the restaurant and bar business is still a people business, and if my people represent my brand better than other people that represent their brand, I have a sales and marketing edge. And by coaching every employee, front and back of the house, to be goodwill ambassadors, they become an amazing marketing army. You said something very similar to that. I might have taken it out of context a little bit, but can you talk a little bit more on that?

James: No problem. Technology is vital. The way we keep up with our products, the way we keep up with our costs – technology is vital. The way we keep up with our customers – you know that – through marketing. It’s vital for us to do that. But what’s worse is if you attract a lot of people to your restaurant, they get there, and you have people with bad attitudes, people who don’t know your product, people who don’t represent what it is that you marketed. Most people can get people into their restaurant or bar once. It’s having them come back. Once they’re in that restaurant or bar, it then becomes your people that are the marketers. We know that when we get them there, then the guests who are there become our best marketers, because they want to bring their friends to the restaurant that they found so that they can show them how great their culinary knowledge is. So the technology is vital, but having our people understand that they are the culture, they are the marketing arm that really brings people back and creates a long-term business and a long-term culture, that’s what can make you a long-term player in what’s really, really a tough industry.

Nick: So James, tell me this then. What Is the secret strategy, or one of the secret strategies, you use to get people to represent your brand better than everybody else?

James: One of the things I talk to people about when I hire them is I ask them if they want to learn something new. And a lot of times in an interview, we want to sell them on what we do, and they want to sell us on what they do, but it’s vital for someone who comes to our restaurant or our brand to learn something new. They want to be able to learn how they can take their skills, add to their skills, and then be able to apply that to what we do, because too often, we get in an interview and we hire people that – oh, that person was great at XYZ concept, but XYZ concept is nothing like our concept. They don’t have the same philosophies. They don’t do the same things that we do.

So I try to find people who are willing to learn. Once we get them there, I tell them that “We’re going to train you. I’m going to treat you as though you don’t know anything, because first of all, I want you to make as much money as possible. And if I can train you and take the money that I’ve already allotted to training you and do the very best with it that I possibly can so that you know everything, including how the culture works, including where we came from, including what we expect every guest to leave with.” Then if I can do that and if I can have the right people and I can mix those two things, then I have an employee who feels like ‘this is our business’ and not ‘I’m working for your business.’ And that’s the key.

Nick: Right. And so when you say “coaching every employee to become goodwill ambassadors,” what exactly does that mean and what do goodwill ambassadors do? Is it like they’re going out and putting stuff on social media for you? Is it that they’re calling their friends and family to come in? What exactly would you say a goodwill ambassador’s job is, or their priority is?

James: I had the wonderful blessing of being able to work with a gentleman by the name of Grady Regas, and his family has had a restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee since, I believe, 1887. And every employee that works for the Regas family is called a goodwill ambassador, because number one, part of the training is that this is how we expect you to conduct yourself when you go to Publix and you have on our uniform. When you go shopping at Walmart and you have on our uniform, here’s how we expect you to conduct yourself because that’s how people see you. You’re a walking billboard. Here’s how we expect you to conduct yourself when a guest is walking through the restaurant. You stop. The guest always have right of way.

The other thing is that allow us to say, “Every single person, the dishwasher, the guy in the bar, the server, the line cook, we all do the same things because our goodwill is from us to the guests that are coming in.” Now, you talk about on the internet. Sure, as a goodwill ambassador from my restaurant, whenever our marketing person posts something, then I repost that because I believe in it and because my training started you to believe in it. Then, as we develop how we’re going to work together, now you really feel like we’re in this together and you’re going to make money off of every person that comes in. So you then go out and do that.

The third thing is that every person that we hire, we assume that once upon a time they’re not going to work for us forever. I’ve had people work for me for years and years and years, but most of them are not going to work for us forever. But after four or five years, when they become consumers when they get out of college and they have that degree in Broadcasting or that degree as a doctor and they begin to bring people out, they want to bring people out to somewhere that reflects them. And there’s always been goodwill, and we’ve always done that.

And the last thing is one of the things we try to do is get our people to be involved in the community. We try to do things that help the community, because number one, it’s our responsibility, really, as a good employer and a good member of the community. And then number two, it gives our employees – again, from the dishwasher to the front of house – an opportunity to get out and spread their wings and say, “Hey, I have a job which cares about all the people in the community, not just the ones who come and buy in my unit.”

So when I say “goodwill ambassador,” it really encompasses all of those things. And the bad thing is that a lot of times when I talk to people, they hire people for what they already know. They don’t hire them for the potential that we can take what they know, combine it with what we want to do, and then create the employee that we want.

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Nick: That makes complete sense. And you also said another thing to me. You said that when owners share their goals with their staff, such as sales goals or promotions and budgets and so on, that they create a powerful team approach to a profitable business. Can you explain a little bit more on that and how owners can actually take the first step in doing this?

James: Well, the best example is in reverse. I remember when I was a kid and my mom would tell me to do something, I would say, “Why?” and my mom would say, “Because I said so.” I never had any enthusiasm for accomplishing that goal. Why? Because I’m just doing it because my mom said so. Too often, as managers – depending on the size of the organization, you may be the owner and the principle manager every day. You may be the owner and you may have 50 managers that work for you. Everyone has to have this same focus and this same goal, and that’s to let every employee – again, the dishwasher.

As director of operations, I would come in and I generally wouldn’t go to the general manager. I would go in the back door and I would talk to the dishwasher. And the dishwasher would tell me, “Man, they’re throwing away all this stuff, and they should be using spatulas to scoop it out. And I’m throwing away all this stuff. There goes your food cost.” Because I’ve established what my goals are. They know that my food cost needs to be at 34.2, and that’s what I’m expecting. They know that everything that gets thrown out is a potential to hurt that food cost. They also know, which is obviously the carry-on end of the stick, that if I hit my food cost, then I can give you a raise. If I don’t hit that cost, then I can’t get you a raise. It’s the same thing in the bar. It’s the same thing front of the house. We take people and we give them our products. We give them a responsibility to handle it, but we don’t tell them what we expect from those products.

I find that when I share my food costs, my liquor costs, even my non-alcoholic costs, all the paper goods, all that stuff, when I share it with my staff, then they begin to see it. Otherwise, they don’t see it. It’s not that they don’t care. Well, some of them don’t care. But it’s not that they don’t care. It’s because I haven’t made it a part of their world. It’s not something they think they should be responsible for, nor have I tied it to how it makes them successful. Because you know as well as I do, if there’s a synergy that when my bottom line is successful, everyone’s bottom line is successful. And I can bring as many people in the doors as I possibly can. If I’m not controlling those costs, it doesn’t work. I won’t be in business for long. But I as an owner, I as a single manager, I as a GM, I don’t touch every single guest and I don’t touch every single situation, but collectively, my staff touches every single person and every single situation that comes in. So when I share with them what my goals are monetarily, my goals as far as how I want the guests to feel when they leave, then my employees can make educated decisions on the spot about how this works best for the overall goals of the company.

Nick: Let me ask you this, James. Do you have any strategies, techniques, or just a formula I guess you could say, for giving incentives to certain staff members for doing a good job, meeting costs? Do you do some kind of employee of the month program? What have you seen to be the most effective, because you’ve definitely got to reward your employees and show that you appreciate them when they do a good job? If you reward them, they’re actually going to do better for you. With all your years of experience, what have you seen that has worked best, that when other employees see this, it makes them want to achieve what that one employee did or a couple of the other employees did?

James: There are a number of great things, but do you know what the best one is? It’s still a people business, Nick. And I’ll talk about the incentive programs, especially the employee of the month, but it’s still a people business. And if I’m the general manager or if I’m the owner or whoever the head cheese is there and I stop and I give you two minutes of my day and say, “Nick, I know your kid was sick. How’s your kid doing today? Is that better? Good. Anything we can do for you, just let us know. If you need time off, we’ll help you however we can help you”, those things go farther than a $60 check for being employee of the month. They go farther than a t-shirt or whatever the case may be. They go farther because what it says is that I care about you. Sometimes people will take $5 dollars less or $10 dollars less if you explain to them that you care about them.

Nick: Yeah. I’ve got a funny story on something I wasn’t the best at, which is exactly what you just said. I remember a few years ago when I was harping on one of my managers about something, and he pulled me aside one day. And we sat in the office and he said, “Hey, I really love my job and everything that’s going on, but I just don’t feel like I get much appreciation for all the hard work and stuff that I do.” And I sat there and I thought about it and I said, “You know what? You’re right.” I don’t go out of my way enough to say certain things, even just “good job” or “Hey, you did a great job with bringing these people in for this promotion.” And that really just triggered in my head that people do need to hear and feel those kinds of comments. And I’ve been very good about it now, and I’ve been teaching my managers the same thing. Every single day you’re there, find something positive to say to all the employees or at least some of the ones that are doing well. But that was a personal thing for me, and it hit me. And a big light bulb went off in my head that “hey, I need to start making them feel good.” Otherwise, why are they going to want to do good for me if I’m not caring about them? So that’s a great point.

James: I think it was Zig Ziglar that said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I’m going to give you a shameless plug because one of the things I got from your webinar – and I shared this with the people I’m working with right now. I got this from your webinar the other day. It’s sending out a marketing piece, and having that marketing piece be a personal letter. You may send that personal letter to 1,000 people, but when it hits my inbox, it’s coming personally to me, and it says, “Hey Nick, I want to do business with you”, “Hey James, I want to do business with you. I want to hear how you liked it.” Well, in my building, my employees are the same way. They want to know that they’re not just a tool for me to use. They want to know that they’re part of the process.

Again, I’ve worked with some fabulous, fabulous people along the line. My buddy, Tony Fernandez, who I came up in the business with – he was a crewman and I was a coordinator for years and years together back there on the line. Tony could tell you something about the family of every single employee that worked for us, without much effort. And it came without much effort, because without much effort, he made a commitment to talk to people, to just talk to them.

Nick: Yeah. It’s all about asking questions, too.

James: Yes, ask questions. First of all, it’s amazing what you’ll find out. I had a guy one time, and the guy was washing dishes, and he was from Haiti. He was there for a long time, and he didn’t speak great English, so it was kind of an effort to talk with him. And I came to find out that the guy was driving a taxi in his off time and he was working for me. And every single dollar that he didn’t spend here just for living expenses, he sent back to Haiti for his family. And he was bringing them back one by one by one. So what we had to do was – immediately in my mind, we have to teach this guy how to prep so we can give him some more money. Well after he’s learned to prep, then we have to teach him to work on the line so I can give him some more money. So now, in reverse, by talking to him, I know what his goals are so that I can help that person attain whatever their goals are. Again, down the road, he’s not going to work for me forever, but when he gets done, when he makes his list of the 10 places that he wants to eat –

Nick: It’ll be at your spot.

James: One of them is going to be me. And on top of that, you just build a great community by dealing with your employees that way, and they become part of the community. And that’s how in the bottom line, they become marketers. That’s how they make us all money, is because when they’re out there doing their thing, whatever that thing is – from art to medicine – they remember the experience of working at Jill’s Diner, and they’ll always come back to Jill’s Diner. And hopefully, they’ll use some of those skills and some of those philosophies in whatever their business is to help them build their business, and they’ll continue to share those on and on.

Nick: That’s great, James. The last question is if anybody wanted to contact you with questions regarding this interview or for consulting, please let us know the best ways that you can be reached, really what you specialize in with bar and restaurant owners, and what you can do to help them take their bar or restaurant to the next level.

James: Thanks, Nick. I appreciate that. They can reach me at They can reach me on Facebook under James Henderson and Henderson Coaching. What I specialize in is I’ve done over 50 restaurants from the ground up, the majority of those as the project manager. A lot of times, people have a great concept and they turn it into a mediocre concept by continuing to open restaurants and opening them the wrong way. So I specialize in helping people open their restaurants and open them with a bang. I also specialize in writing and developing training programs for individuals, for small companies, or for larger companies. I can do either/or. And as a speaker, I do keynotes for association meetings, for groups. I do keynotes on fighting back in your business or fighting back personally, making your employees your spotlight, or making your employees your culture. And then, I do stuff with colleges, just trying to continue to get people to stay in our business. So I try to do a little bit of everything.

Nick: Sounds good. Well James, it was an awesome interview. I appreciate it, and I think everybody else got a lot of value from this.

James: Nick, I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

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Nick Fosberg

Nick Fosberg is known as one of the highest paid, marketing and promotional consultants in the bar & restaurant industry and he owns 2 bar / restaurants in the Chicagoland area. He's famous for creating some of the highest grossing digital marketing promotions in the history of the bar & restaurant business..... without spending a penny on marketing. All done through e-mail & Facebook posts. 

Click here to get a free copy of my latest book.

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