On 'Undercover Boss', Bowling Exec Tries to Avoid the Gutter

Undercover Boss CEO Steven Foster on Undercover Boss
Undercover Boss CEO Steven Foster on Undercover Boss

On Sunday, Lucky Strike Lanes CEO Steven Foster will get a chance to show America how he rolls. The latest guest on CBS' (CBS) hit show Undercover Boss, Foster will take a close look at the bottom rung of the corporate ladder as he tries his hand at the day-to-day tasks of running of the bowling alley chain that he created.

While this week's show follows Undercover Boss's well-worn trope of a thinly disguised executive fumbling his way through various manual labor positions, Foster seems to offer a more sympathetic version of the guy from the boardroom. Thus far, many of the show's guests have tended to be condescending, self-important, and barely conceal their disdain for the proletarians with whom the reality-show premise obligates them to interact.

A common critique of Undercover Boss is that it's essentially an extended infomercial for the companies it features. While that's probably how the show is pitched to the participants, it often has exactly the opposite effect. Watching disinterested executives expressing ignorance about the day-to-day running of their companies isn't a confidence-builder. As for investors, seeing how far out-of-touch many of these titans of industry are begs the question of what, exactly, is going on in the corporate suite.

It seems like Foster may be one of the show's rare exceptions. A resident of Burbank, Calif., and a graduate of Boston University Law School, he has learned some hard lessons about the importance of direct involvement with the operation of his companies. His first venture, Jillian's, was a chain of pool parlors/bowling alleys that he started in 1988 and named for his wife. In 2004, a few years after he left the top post of the company, and just one year after he left its board, Jillian's filed for bankruptcy. "At Jillian's ... I delegated to the president," he said at the time. "Now I am the president [of Lucky Strike], and I'm directly involved in execution."

'I Want to Be Dressed in the Mr. Pin Costume All the Time'

Lucky Strike, which opened its first location in 2003, currently has 20 locations in the U.S. and Canada. For his work on the show, Foster visited a few of the bowling alleys, trying his hand as a bartender, waiter, control room worker and machine technician. In one memorable scene, he dons a giant bowling pin costume and tries to convince people to come into the alley. Enthusiastically hugging partygoers and playing with kids, he draws the admiration of his "boss," who tells viewers "A lot of people have a hard time letting go and being free, but 'Aaron' really got into it." Foster echoed the sentiment "I'm feeling really spectacular. I want to be dressed in the Mr. Pin costume all the time. Maybe I need to wear it once a week for therapy."

Contrasted with previous execs on the show, Foster's joy at participating in the ground-level work of his company really stands out. Speaking about the experience, he stated that "This has been a moving and meaningful experience for me to see the heart and soul of Lucky Strike in our employees." Noting the effect of his bottom-up view, he continued, "I have learned a lot about our operation and am excited to make changes that will strengthen our brand."

If Foster's previous post-bankruptcy education is any indication, he may have the rare ability to turn spilled drinks and gutter balls into a valuable lesson for his company.

Foster's episode of Undercover Boss will air at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14 on CBS.

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