Boloco tries to put a different spin on the fast-food workplace

August 18, 2013

Company: Boloco.

Location: Washington, Bethesda.

Employees: 44 locally; 424 nationally.

John Pepper, chief executive of burrito chain Boloco, said he believes his industry frequently falls short when it comes to creating a comfortable environment for its workers.

“Fast food hasn’t been very good to the people who work in fast food,” Pepper said.

So with his Boston-based chain, which has outposts in downtown Washington and Bethesda, Pepper has tried to build a more welcoming workplace by relying heavily on suggestions from rank-and-file employees. Pepper and his regional managers hear these recommendations at regular leadership retreats, where they invite local team leaders — entry-level managers who typically make $12-14 per hour — to share their thoughts.

“The whole point is giving people a voice so it’s not like corporate deciding this is what you should value,” he said.

Over the years, a number of changes have arisen from these sessions. For example, representatives from the Washington area restaurants mentioned that their teams didn’t have a nice spot to go when they were on break during their shifts. Often, they were stuck simply grabbing a table in the dining area, which didn’t feel like much of a respite.

So Boloco outfitted those stores with “relaxation lounges,” private break rooms that contain flat screen televisions, reclining chairs and chalk boards for doodling.

“What we asked the contractors and the architects to do is take the very nicest area of the customer area, and make it nicer than that,” Pepper said.

Several other Boloco workplace policies were born out of the leadership retreats: The company instituted a $50 monthly transportation budget for each worker, which can be put toward the purchase of a gas card or public transportation pass. It also raised its pay floor from $9.50 per hour to $10, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25. At its Massachusetts stores, it subsidizes English as a second language classes for its staffers.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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