Applebee's Multi-Unit Operator Instills Commitment and Enthusiasm In His Employees

Zane Tankel doesn't think of himself as a bleeding heart. He's been repeatedly recognized for his ability to build a hefty bottom line. But he also isn't afraid to show how much he cares about the thousands of people who work in his 35 Applebee's locations scattered around the Big Apple and its suburbs.

Over the past 15 years, Tankel's franchisee group, Apple-Metro, has created one of the most generous bonus systems in franchising. GMs and kitchen managers in his organization are given a car after they've put in 18 months. They also get a cell phone and free service. There are bonuses for top players, even free movie tickets for the hourly employees who get special recognition for guest services. More than 100 managers and wives or significant others qualify for the company's regular cruises to Bermuda. And no day would be complete unless he stopped by a few of his restaurants in his never-ending pursuit of employees who deserve some face-to-face praise.

"My biggest role is being a cheerleader," Tankel says as he steers his car to one of his restaurants in Queens, where employees are in store for some personal praise from the boss after winning a decorating contest for Cinco de Mayo. "I pat people on the back."

It's that kind of hands-on management that has helped Tankel survive and thrive in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the U.S. Places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the South Bronx, and Harlem. He took a restaurant franchise designed for the suburbs and medium-sized towns and built the franchisors' first two-story location on Times Square, where it quickly turned into a stellar success and a model for similar locations to follow.

But he attributes all of his success to the people who make up his extended family of restaurant employees--from the best GM to the last person hired to wash dishes. And the 68-year-old won't rest until everyone in the group feels the same commitment and enthusiasm he brings to the game every day of the week.

"It's all social," says the CEO. "It's about being a family. Being a team. And we're a team of about 3,000. Bed-Stuy has a 50 percent unemployment rate. We hired a couple of hundred people there. In the last three locations we opened in urban neighborhoods, we had over 5,000 people apply for 150 to 200 jobs. It gives you a sense of what's going on in these neighborhoods. We're happy that a mother and her family can come in and have a price-friendly meal."

"I won't say we're philanthropists," says Tankel. "We bring sit-down table service restaurants to communities that others don't or won't serve. And our metrics on food, liquor, and labor lead the whole Applebee's system."

One other metric that he likes to discuss is Apple-Metro's low employee turnover rate in a business where people typically come and go on a daily basis. Every time a manager leaves his Applebee's family, there's a costly new round of recruitment and training in store. So he's quick to tell you that what may look like overgenerous perks and bonuses is really just good business. To earn the car and the phone and the cruise takes commitment and a winning attitude, and is how you make a large organization into a top performer.

"It's all about retaining your people and making them feel like they're really, really part of it," says Tankel. "You might have good retention, but it doesn't mean that they're happy campers."

Name: Zane Tankel
Title: Chairman and CEO
Company: Apple-Metro
No. of units: 35 Applebee's

Published: August 10th, 2011

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