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!