Sunday, February 28, 2010


I saw a very interesting program tonight on CBS called Undercover Boss. The premise is that each week a business owner goes and works unannounced for a time with his labor force to examine how his or her employees are doing and to learn about and hopefully improve the operations of the company. This week's employer was the White Castle 400 plus store hamburger chain's CEO, David Rife (shown above, at left, while undercover).

Those of you not familiar with the White Castle chain probably live in the western or upper northeastern parts of the country. For, with the exception of a store near Sacramento, CA, and two near Los Angeles, White Castle restaurants are found almost exclusively in the midwest, middle south, and east. They do sell their hamburgers frozen in numerous supermarkets all across the country. The White Castle hamburger, nicknamed "slyder", is unique in its category. First, it is very small, measuring about 3 to 3 1/2 inches square when fully cooked, and very, very thin. It is steam-grilled rather than fried, comes with tiny onion bits and a pickle on top, and kind of melts into its bun casing, giving it an unusual texture and surprisingly good flavor. A single burger as of this writing and location, is priced at 64 cents. The chain also features french fries, onion rings or battered onion chips, a tiny cod fish sandwich, and various other unique items like battered chicken rings, battered whiefish "nibblers", mozzarella sticks, and battered clam strips (in season). Their batter is uncommonly good. White Castle also features the usual array of soft drinks, milk, and coffee, plus breakfast items, too.

Like most fast food operations, the pay for workers tends to be very low, and it is not unusual to find the work staff at each location made up of a mix of young, old, and minorities. But unlike most fast food corporations, White Castle is a privately, rather than publicly, held corporation that is family-owned, as it has been since its founding in Wichita, KS, back in 1921.

Maybe because of this, fourth-generation CEO David Rife decided to think outside the bun and go undercover to get an honest feel of how his employees do their jobs and what they go through in the process. In collusion with CBS, he portrayed himself as a laid-off equipment worker who came to White Castle for a change and to do something new. His undercover study took him to several of his stores, working both day and night shifts, in all capacities from grilling to prepping to drive-up window, and also to his company-owned bakery as well as their packing plant where they package product for supermarket sales across the country. In the process, he got a firsthand experience as to the difficulties and frustrations of each job, as well as a deep glimpse into the personal issues facing his coworker/employees.

This is in no sense an endorsement of White Castle, its products, or its business structure or practices. But I credit Mr. Rife for getting out and actually experiencing what the people who work for him and make his fortune possible truly go through in their service to him. He now knows the importance of their labor. Now, in reality, Mr. Rife may be a real son of a bitch to work for, and we already know from the wages he pays that he must throw quarters around like they were manhole covers. Someone may very well comment what deplorable working conditions the company had for them, or that Rife is a total phony and pulled this off as a PR gimmick to boost sales. I don't know. But he, unlike the overwhelming majority of corporate CEOs, actually went out, got into the nitty gritty, and got his hands dirty along with his workers. He now knows and understands them far better than he did previously. I am not naive enough to believe he will now turn around and hike all of their wages. But I do believe he will now appreciate the true value of those employees, and will understand more fully how the decisions he makes, miles and layers away from them in his boardroom, impact them. Instead of being a typical dead-ass corporate CEO, counting his profits and never giving a thought to the well-being or feelings of his employees, taking them for granted each and every day, he made a sincere attempt at exercising CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY. And that will be good for all.

This working among the workers activity Mr. Rife undertook should be a required undertaking for every single corporate CEO in the world! Perhaps then we would see more productive CEOs, (truly earning their outrageously high paychecks) able to make informed and intelligent decisions regarding their labor force and business policies!


BigmacInPittsburgh said...

Call me cynical Jack but my gut tells me Mr.Rife already knows the conditions of his low-level employees,I think you may have hit the nail with the hammer in pointing out that his appearence maybe a PR stunt.Also Mr.Rife watchs his P/L spreadsheet and understand how his profit is generated from each of his units.By the way I love those little hamburgers!

Holte Ender said...

Thinking back to a previous post of yours, imagine if previous CEOs of this country Bush/Cheney had gone to Iraq for week or so to hang out with the troops at ground zero. Yikes.

TAO said...

White Castle is a private family owned corporation and as such it MIGHT be a different breed than most corporations...

When you run a corporation that YOU own then everything reflects on you and you are more apt to treat employees better and to provide better service.

Besides you have fewer stockholders to take care of...

BigmacInPittsburgh said...

Lets be real here folks The ownership of White Castle are not in business to make sure I don't live in poverty.They are in business to get rich period.
So lets stop assigning them a image of a caring corp. CEO.The CEO after filming that show still went back to his house on the hill!

Jack Jodell said...

Nice hearing from you, and I think it is fairly well understood that this action was taken not mainly as a kindly benevolent gesture, but as a calculated business decision designed solely to make the business more profitable, and I think that much was intimated in the post. But I still think the activity undertaken was enlightening and beneficial for Mr. Rife (and would be for other CEOS, too) in that it brought him into direct and meaningful contact with those who produce his wealth. He experienced exactly what they do each and every working day and found out the importance of their jobs and that they cannot be taken for granted. When he went to the company bakery, for example, he repeatedly screwed up the bun-packaging process, resulting in the wasting of 48oo buns! He also screwed up at the drive-through window and in the packaging plant. So now he knows a little better and, I would think, appreciates a little more, what his workers go through for him, and that can only be good. And I enjoy their burgers, fish sandwiches, chicken rings, and mozzarella sticks, too! :-)
Great point, Holte Ender. I always maintained that if Bush's and Cheney's daughters had had their asses shipped over there, we would have brought the troops back home long ago!
That is so very true. The distance - physical, mental, and emotional - between most publicly owned corporate boards and their labor force is indefensible and wholly unnecessary, and constitutes a major flaw in their business model.
We can be assured he went back to his house on the hill. But let us hope his experience will make and keep him more attuned to the needs and concerns of his workers, and may even someday yield a more generous compensation or benefits program for them. That wouldn't be at all bad.

TAO said...

Let me be the devils advocate...

We all complain about corporations and CEO taking advantage of their employees and not paying a fair wage...all of which I will agree with for the most part.

Now, how many of you as consumers pay full price or wait till something goes on sale before you buy it?

How many of you buy "Made In USA"

How many of you shop at Walmart rather than a small locally owned store?

I hear it all the time from the retailers I sell to about how nobody shops at small stores and would rather go to Walmart....then in the same sentence they tell me that they would buy more from me if my goods were cheaper...

Hey, you reap what you sow....

Max's Dad said...

I've seen the show, Jack, and the CEO's of Hooters, Waste Management, & 7-11 have all done this very thing. I know it's "reality" television and probably as phony as Tim Pawlenty slamming the stimulus, but at least these CEO's appear to care. It's called the anti-Apprentice because the CEO's aren't trying to look like a greedy prick like Donald Trump. I have to admit I like the show. The workers have some great stories.

Manifesto Joe said...

This is off the subject to start, but I have noticed that styles of hamburgers vary just as much as regions of the U.S. In Texas, it's Whataburger and Sonic (pickles, lettuce, tomato, onion and mustard, plus sliced jalapenos, for those of us who like it hot) that's the gold standard. I spent a little time out in the L.A. area, and the McDonald's "Big Mac" style, dumbed down a bit from a joint called Bob's Big Boy, seemed to be the standard out there (they do sort of a thousand island dressing or "special sauce," and sesame seeds on the buns). Then there's the Burger King style (flame-broiled with mayo) that my wife is convinced was purloined from a now-defunct Austin, TX, joint called Holiday House. That one seems to have gotten popular a lot of places. Seems to be really big in the Northeast.

More on the subject: When I was working for the Waco daily newspaper, our editor in chief came out of his office for a few days to try to rim some copy with us on the desk. He was slow as friggin' molasses, and after a few days he just sort of didn't show up out there again. It's kind of darkly funny when the big-ass bosses actually try to do something like that. In his case, I never noticed it making much difference in his management style.

Jack Jodell said...

You raise very real and valid points, all of which illustrate what a dangerous trend this country is on. By exporting jobs, freezing or lowering wages here, shrinking the middle class to create a giant superclass of lower-paid workers here, corporations are forcing the very kinds of economics and buying patterns that will destroy innovative smaller businesses and create lethargic, malignantly self-serving, and eventually shrinking numbers of super elites. It is an escalating pattern of self-destruction that feeds on itself, is fueled by corporate greed, and it must be stopped.
Max's Dad,
It was the first time I ever saw the show. I hope it will lead to an at least partial transformation of philosophy and attitude among some CEOs.
Manifesto Joe,
There is indeed a subtle difference in even the same chain's food from region to region in the country. But the White Castle style stands alone in its unique size, texture, and taste. As for your experience in Waco, I guess it's safe to say that some people just never "get it" and never will, and those we call "conservative Republicans." :-)

Beach Bum said...

I agree with the points TAO's raised as well. Except that I can't really shop local stores because all of them with actual connections to the area I live in have been drive out of business. We had a locally owned book store that had been in business since the 50's close a couple of years ago. National chains just killed the crap out of it.

The closest thing we have to a local economy is businesses tied to the region like a few grocery and drug stores but even they are chains.

I have even gone as far to buy American over the internet.

I just don't see Mr. Rife doing much for his employees. It all comes down to money and people are going to run to the cheapest place for that kind of food. So if he raised prices to give more pay and benefits to the workers his customers will just go to McDonalds. In short I'm laying the blame on us consumers; most just don't care about the working poor.

Beach Bum said...

Oh yeah, check out my story "when the center cannot hold", you may like it.

mud_rake said...

White Castle burgers, you say? Brings back memories of my time in college in Detroit. I remember one bleak Thanksgiving when I needed to stay in the dorms due to my lack of academic diligence.

There I was on Thanksgiving Day, eating 4-for-a-dollar white Castle burgers and no cranberries!

TomCat said...

Jack, I agree. The man seems to care about quality, a forgotton word in this day and age. I remember White Castle from my youth. There was one two blocks from my first job. For less than I dollar I could gorge on 11 cent hamburgers with enough lerft for fries.

TRUTH 101 said...

Neat coincidence that as I'm reading this I'm wearing one of my Turner Pocket T's made by TAO's company.

I've had damn few higher ups at the places I've worked that I legitimately believed they gave a rat's ass about my or anyone elses condition. While there are a few employers who can onlyu afford to pay minimum wage, for the most part I have no doubt they are paying the minimum wage because that is the minimum they are required to pay.

Jack Jodell said...

Beach Bum,
You and TAO may very well be right, and as I replied to him, consumers AND corporations performing as they are is a slippery slope that's detrimental to all.
I'll check out your story---I haven't been making the rounds quite as much lately due to caring for a sick, elderly mother.
I'm sure your tale is shared by a large number of college students. An accountant friend of mine tells me he was so broke in college, had it not been for White Castles, pork and beans, and peanut butter sandwiches, he would have starved to death for sure. Today, he's thriving and is even leaner than I am, so he apparently suffered no permanent ill effects. :-)
That's kind of how I saw it too. We can't expect miracles from these guys, but it's nice to have their eyes opened once in a while.

Jack Jodell said...

As ever, there is much truth in what you say. And then there are the ones who ship jobs over to China to avoid paying even as little as minimum wage. It's CLOBBERIN' TIME!

MadMike said...

I have watched all of these and this is the first time I thought it was just a stunt. I really didn't sense a lot of compassion emanating from Rife, nor was this particular episode quite as interesting as its predecessors. Excellent summation however Jack, then again everything you write is comfortably on the "excellent" scale.

Jack Jodell said...

Having seen no other episodes of that show, I'll have to take your word for it. I did sense that Rife's enthusiasm over the 17 year old Hispanic's culinary drive and focus was genuine, as well as his concern for the woman who had suffered a heart attack as well as the father whose son was visually impaired. And their reactions of teary-eyed gratitude to the gifts he bestowed on them at corporate HQ could not possibly have been faked. That's why I am not as convinced as some here that this was purely stunt. But Rife's discovery of his inadequacy at the drive-up window and his inability to properly wrap buns at his factory, which caused him to have to waste 4800 buns, were nuggets of gold I'm sure he will remember for a long time. And, surely, he has a greater appreciation now for the employees who excel at those jobs. I would say that made his endeavor totally worthwhile. And thank you for the nice compliment! :-)