Undercover Boss Builds White Castle
"I wanted to get an honest look at what happens on the front lines," says Dave Rife, the oldest member of the fourth generation of the family that originated White Castle, the world's first fast-food hamburger chain, started by Rife's great grandfather back in 1921.
"When we (the executives) go out, everyone knows we're coming, and they have plenty of time to prepare. I'm not sure we get a true picture of what employees really do and how they feel," Rife told DimeCrunch. He was stunned to find out just how challenging some of the jobs are -- including packaging hamburger buns. White Castle bakes all their buns in company-owned bakeries, and Rife managed to quickly ruin thousands.
"I wasn't as adept as I thought I should be," Rife confesses. "It was a humbling experience, but I learned a lot about myself and my employees."
Among the things Rife learned? That the individual restaurants could be managed better -- there were incidents where too many employees had nothing to do and just stood around idly. He learned that even the simplest tasks, like taking a drive-through order, can be difficult.
But most important, he learned that many Americans truly care about their employers and are happy and dedicated to their jobs. They told him some very poignant stories about their lives when he was undercover. One woman who had been with White Castle more than 20 years confessed that she was concerned about her weight and health, and said it was the happiest day of her life, when, after the reveal, Rife set up a healthy living program for her. Another employee who was interested in food science had the initiative to concoct a burger sauce and let undercover Rife sample it. His resourcefulness was later rewarded with a scholarship. And a very engaging and supportive manager was given financial support for the special needs of his beloved son. Viewers find it almost impossible to watch this show with dry eyes.
Would You Like Ketchup with That?
Rife started his career in the Columbus, Ohio-based company behind the counter when he was in high school. "Undercover Bossgave me a chance to revisit my roots and realize that a lot has changed since then," he says, noting that "technology has made it easier for team members."
But some things never change -- especially the recipes; although, as the company expands, different condiments are used in different locations, to accommodate local tastes and preferences.
The Original Slider®, for example, is made with Düsseldorf brown mustard in Chicago, Cincinnati-Dayton, Louisville and Nashville predominantly. A horseradish mustard is used in Indianapolis and St. Louis, while most others use regular "yellow" mustard. East Coast operations in New York and New Jersey automatically include ketchup, unless requested otherwise.
Rife's White Castle episode of Undercover Boss ran Sunday, Feb. 28, and viewers were surprised to learn that the company consists of far more than blue-and-white burger stands, or those boxes of small, square, steam grilled, onion-infused burger patties you find in the freezer section of your local supermarket.
Sure, the burgers are legendary -- they're even the subject of a popular road trip comedy, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, in which Kal Penn and John Cho play characters who risk life and limb to feast on the sandwiches with the cult-like following. But the machinery involved in making them is pretty popular too.
In fact, in addition to the food-producing facilities, White Castle has three manufacturing plants -- in Columbus and Dayton, Ohio and Rome, Georgia -- where they make most of the equipment used in their restaurants, as well as other products that require metal fabrication and painting, including automotive products, appliances and devices for other restaurants.
Any Job Opps?
"White Castle is always looking for committed team members," Rife says. He advises job seekers to log onto the corporate Web site and contact the regional office in their areas.
If White Castle hasn't come to your neck of the woods yet, know that they are slowly expanding, opening 10-12 new restaurants each year. "Even in this economy, we're as popular as we've ever been, and we're continuing the slow and consistent growth that has worked for us for the past 89 years," Rife says. All restaurants are family owned -- there are no franchise or stock opportunities.
Rife says he was selected for Undercover Boss because he is the senior member of the fourth generation of the family that started the company. And after seeing his bun-bungling experience on national TV, does he anticipate that the fifth generation will want to follow in his footsteps? "Both my sons (ages 20 and 24) have expressed interest," he says. "So we'll see."
Bosses Being Bossed
Rife's colleagues in the Undercover Boss series include the heads of Waste Management, Hooters and 7-Eleven--all have been huge hits on CBS. The series will skip next Sunday, possibly to avoid competition with the Academy Awards on ABC, but In two weeks, the head of the Churchhill Downs Racetrack will be featured. According to producers, while it was difficult to find companies to participate at first, now they're lining up, in spite of the fact that the boss isn't always presented at his best.
Part of Rife's week undercover involved leaving his gorgeous home and checking into a low budget motel that would be consistent with a worker starting out behind the counter. He also shaved his facial hair, and wore plastic hairnets, gloves and uniforms, rather than expensive designer suits to work. With millions of Americans watching him, warts and all, struggling with basic tasks others do with ease, would he ever consider another appearance? "I'd do it again tomorrow," he laughs.
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