Undercover Boss Steven Foster Gets Lucky

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You could say that this week's episode is the first time an 'Undercover Boss' has really been pinned down. You could also say he had a ball doing it, even though the show involved strikes. The bowling puns are endless for Steven Foster, co-founder and CEO of Lucky Strike Lanes -- perhaps the poshest chain of bowling entertainment centers in the United States.

To call Lucky Strike Lanes "bowling alleys" is a bit of an understatement. No smelly shoes, frozen pizza and unsightly lower back cleavage in these parts: They're more like high-energy, upscale clubs with gourmet comfort food, luxurious lounges, stellar sound systems and a sprinkling of stardust. Whether you're in LA, New York, or any of their multiple venues, this is where local celebrities come to compete, socialize and party. You've probably seen Lucky Strike Lanes in movies and on television shows, both reality and scripted.

When you run a good-time gallery where patrons come to play, relax and socialize, your employees had better be upbeat and gregarious. Foster knows this from experience. He and his wife Gillian started the first upscale roller disco in New York in 1979, and when that craze ended, they moved into an upscale billiard chain they called Jillian's, doing for pool halls what Lucky Strike has done for bowling alleys.

Bowling: The great equalizer

"Bowling is an activity that is simple and fun and can be enjoyed by everyone, even if you're not good at it," Foster says. "I'm a terrible bowler, but it doesn't matter. People still have fun doing their goofy little dances even if they get a gutterball. They jump and hoot and high-five their friends -- it's the perfect social icebreaker."

It was in that spirit that the 61-year-old consented to putting on a white leotard and a big, spongy pin costume to hit the streets for marketing duties. It wasn't exactly what he had in mind when he was told he was going to do some promotional work to attract guests -- he thought he'd be handing out cards or flyers. But he made the best of wearing the "Mr. Pin" suit: He danced around, gave out plenty of hugs, and his supervisor, Devin, was actually impressed. Devin knew just how much fun Mr. Pin could be, and suggested a bowling ball costume to go with it. Foster was just happy he'd done well with his first job as an Undercover Boss.

But the same couldn't be said for Foster's second job -- his bartending skills left a lot to be desired. At the flagship Hollywood location, which he calls the "heartbeat" or "pulse" of the company, 40-50 percent of total sales comes from the bar area. While Foster was great at socializing with the guests, he had a heavy hand when it came to pouring drinks and couldn't seem to measure alcohol correctly. This would make him popular with the patrons but not so much with Devin, as it would eventually affect the bottom line.

It wouldn't have been easy for anyone to keep up with the gregarious and energetic Devin. He'd learned to be that way, and to be an engaging marketer, selling product for his father, who was often on the road touring in a Christian rock band as Devin grew up. When Foster revealed that he was the CEO and owner of Lucky Strike, he offered to pick up the tab for a vacation for Devin and his dad, and to put Devin in charge of a national campaign that would involve Mr. Pin and a bowling ball buddy for him.


Accidentally making a big splash

The Lucky Strike in Manhattan doesn't need much more marketing, because it's the most successful of all venues. It's so busy, in fact, the waitresses like Brianna are kept running to serve hundreds of people each night, and Foster didn't help her much dumped a whole tray of drinks on the floor. "Still, I was surprised to see how nice people were to me, from the employees to the clients. Even when I was incompetent, they were patient and friendly," he said.

He was also surprised that no one had really complained about the lack of a decent breakroom for the staff -- they had to sit on a window ledge outside the kitchen to rest and chat. While perched there, Foster found out that Brianna had recently moved back in with her mother because her parents got a divorce. It was her dream to start a day care center in her mother's house.

She's one step closer to that now, as in the end, Foster offered Brianna $10,000 to develop her daycare center. He also put her in charge of and paid her to start a new children's program called Bowling with Bri. And of course, his company is building a breakroom in that venue.

"You're sitting at a desk in an office in California and someone tells you they don't have a decent breakroom in Manhattan, but that information gets lost under a pile of more demanding issues," Foster says. "This experience really helped me open my eyes and ears and focus."


Pinned down by the machinery

What 'Undercover Boss' bowling experience would be complete without a little pin-setting? Or at least working with the machines that do it. At the Lucky Strike in West Nyack, N.Y., Foster enthusiastically worked with a bowling mechanic, named Angel, even though Foster wasn't really comfortable with tools and was afraid that all that climbing around on machinery might cause him to flip his wig and blow his cover. That particular venue hasn't been as successful as some of the others, and Angel, whose family used to run a bowling alley, suggested that they form leagues there to guarantee business.

Even though Angel didn't think Foster was cut out to be a mechanic, the two bonded when Angel gave him the surprising news that not only did he have a daughter, he had a granddaughter! Angel explained that he and his daughter both began having children at very young ages. Angel was doing what he could to put his daughter through school -- she wants to be a veterinarian. When Foster came out as the CEO, many people guessed that Angel would receive $10,000 for his daughter's education, but he was also made head mechanic, complete with a raise, and in addition, he'll be paid extra to organize a bowling league.


The computerized equivalent of a gutter ball

It wasn't just that Foster is not very tech savvy, but that the computer systems aren't great and don't communicate with each other. Foster found this out when he went down to Texas and manned the control desk with Jermaine, who had only been working there about six weeks. Foster said he'd rather spray bowling shoes than try to work with that system, which is supposed to book reservations and smoothly control lanes.

At the Huston venue, they sell more Lucky Strikes merchandise than any other, perhaps because of unique display case in which people can actually touch and feel the merchandise. Foster found out that Jermaine was studying computer science and used to be a graphic designer, and had some design ideas for more Lucky Strikes merchandise. Foster also found out that Jermaine has a son who was born blind.

So Foster's help for Jackson was three-fold. Jackson would have the opportunity to advise and consult the main Lucky Strike systems operator; he would be allowed to design a Lucky Strike t-shirt, which will be marketed there, and a portion of the proceeds would go to helping Jermaine's young son. Jermaine was very moved by this.

Foster was very moved by the entire experience, and probably shed more tears than any other Undercover Boss to date. It seems his 94-year-old mother, with whom he was very close, had passed away just weeks before they shot the show. She knew he would be doing it, and she was happy about it. Listening to his employees talk about their families made Foster think of his. He misses his mother, and says he wants to make her proud. He also said she has inspired him to make Lucky Strike like a family to his employees.


AOL Jobs Asks
Undercover Boss Steven Foster
5 Quick Questions

1. What was your first job? Stocking milk in a Boston convenience store.

2. What inspires you? Passion, enthusiasm, full open-hearted commitment.

3. What is the most important trait needed to succeed? Persistence.

4. What is your biggest challenge? Balancing the needs of the business, the company and my own.

5. What is the best career advice you ever received? Follow your heart and never give up.

A perfect score for Foster

All in all, Foster says his time spent as an Undercover Boss was "a profound inward journey for me; and for the company as a culture, it was an evolutionary experience." He noted that he was "amazed by the passion" his employees have for their jobs. "They enjoy coming to work -- they feel as if they've found a family."

In a transient culture like Hollywood, that's quite the accomplishment. "There's so much love in the company culture, I thought the light would shine through," Foster said, when talking about the risk of exposing his "baby" to public scrutiny on 'Undercover Boss.' "My wife and I personally hired every staff member back in 2003 when we first opened here. To this day, half of our original staff is still here. That true sincerity is what I hope viewers will see."

Get more 'Undercover Boss':

-- Interviews with Season 2 Bosses [AOL Jobs]

-- On 'Undercover Boss', Bowling Exec Tries to Avoid the Gutter [DailyFinance]

-- Undercover Boss already causing controversy (UPDATE) [TV Squad]

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