Serious games

They scrubbed over, under, around and on the tops of everything. They painted walls, replaced ceiling tiles, reviewed sanitation and food handling procedures and boned up on their knowledge of ingredients and measurements.

For their efforts, the kitchen staff of the New Kensington Kings won $500 and the right to display the winner’s trophy in full view of their customers for six months.

It’s not a fortune, granted, and the trophy, as big as it is, doesn’t quite measure up to Stanley Cup proportions, but the current champs in Kings Family Restaurants’ second “Kitchen Olympics” are nonetheless proud of their accomplishment.

The New Ken store wrested the trophy from the previous champ in North Versailles and took home 500 bucks in the chain’s contest designed to create optimal cleanliness in its kitchen and food preparation areas.

The competitive event is one of several programs the chain has instituted to improve operations and foster employee retention.

While the competition is intended to be fun, its purpose is serious. The well-known restaurant chain wanted to bump up its cleanliness standards a notch or two and decided to use the carrot instead of the stick to encourage kitchen staffs to improve their housekeeping.

“I believe in competition because I worked for McDonald’s, and they were always competing district against district, region against region,” says Patti Evanosky, manager of training and development for the restaurant chain.

Creative turnover-busters

But that’s only part of the story. The labor-intensive food service industry has faced chronic shortages of employees as it has expanded in recent years — $399 billion in sales projected in 2001 compared to $239 billion in 1990, according to the National Restaurant Association. The association reports that hiring and retaining adequate staff is an ongoing concern among restaurateurs.

In an industry that is having an increasingly difficult time recruiting and retaining quality employees, Evanosky says restaurant operators are challenged to maintain standards while attempting to serve customers. Just as challenging is the fact that family restaurants like Kings are competing for employees with casual dining establishments that serve alcohol and can afford to pay higher wages.

That means Kings often has to provide more creative ways to increase employee morale and discourage turnover.

“We needed to do it in a fun way to support the managers out there,” says Evanosky.

To kick off the Kitchen Olympics, Kings held a meeting at the East Suburban YMCA, modeled after a pep rally, to prepare the kitchen managers. They received evaluation forms showing how kitchens and staff would be judged. They were advised to perform a “white glove” inspection to see where they needed to improve and to meet with their employees to put together an action plan to prepare for the competition.

Six restaurants, one from each of the 35-store chain’s districts, were selected as finalists. District managers chose those winners; the final six were judged by the chain’s executives.

When the results were tallied, only one restaurant repeated as a first-place winner in its district.

The standards the stores reached in the district competition were so high, Evanosky says, that it proved difficult for them to improve on their performance.

“When it came down to it, we were the only store to improve on our first-round score,” says Keith Belko, general manager of the New Kensington Kings.

Peak-time inspections

To test the kitchen staffs under the toughest conditions, each was observed for two hours on a surprise visit during a peak period. Judges rated each on 48 items, for a maximum possible score of 100 points. Stores scored bonus points if employees could answer questions on topics ranging from food preparation to recipes for dishes served at Kings.

The bonus questions weren’t pushovers, says Evanosky. Staff members could earn an extra half-point, for instance, if they could build a turkey club sandwich and identify all of the ingredients in their correct proportions.

For the effort, the winning store receives a $500 cash prize and the store name engraved on a traveling trophy that resides at the winning location until the next winner is determined. New Kensington’s kitchen manager, Todd Carlson, could have kept the cash, but Belko said that instead, Carlson treated the kitchen and bus staff to a Pirates game.

The Kitchen Olympics has been so successful that the chain decided to put together a similar event for its servers and hostesses, the “front-of-the-house” staff.

The Kitchen Olympics and the new service competition will be ongoing events, both held twice a year. Kings’ management views them as a way to maintain high standards for their stores and ensure that employees pass through the proper training.

Says Evanosky: “We think because we’re running it every six months, the standards will keep improving and we’ll keep them where we want them to be.” How to reach: Kings Family Restaurants,, National Restaurant Association,

Ray Marano ([email protected]) is senior editor of SBN Magazine.