Paul Steck: Everything I know I learned at Burger King, at age 21

Saladworks CEO Paul Steck says that everything people learn in the food business they learn at their first restaurants. In his case, his lesson began at age 21, when he bought his first Burger King franchise in a small town in Ohio. Here's a hint: It's all about the fries and what they symbolize.

Sales were low, so Steck concluded that the restaurant was badly run -- the proof being that a successful McDonald's was operating across the street. Obviously it wasn't a town of vegetarians.

"So all I did was I take over the store and I start running the restaurant," he told me during our Executive Q&A interview published in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. It helped that his father had owned two Burger King franchises and that Steck had grown up working in the restaurants. It also helped that his father co-signed the first loan.  

"It’s real simple.  In the food business three things matter: quality of the product, the service and the cleanliness of the restaurant.  That’s it.  My industry likes to make running restaurants seem like it’s so difficult and so challenging," Steck said. "You can’t deliver two, it’s like a three legged stool.  You’ve got to have the three.   If you do the three, that drives the business forward.  Within a couple of years I doubled the sales of the restaurant. 

Q: So what was the problem with it? 

A: It was dirty.  The service was bad. 

Q: Shouldn't the quality of the food be the same as Burger Kings everywhere, given it's a franchise?

A: Even that wasn’t the same. I will give you an example.  I’m running a salad place right now, but here I am talking about fast food. In fast food, French fries cook for four minutes or so. Then you throw them in a bin underneath a heat lamp and they can sit there for some amount of time.  The longer they sit, the quality degrades.  So in a lower volume setting, you cook French fries and you let them sit. If it’s a poorly run restaurant, they’ll sit there for an hour. So you’ll go in and order some French fries with your hamburger and the French fries are lousy.  They’re limp.  They’re greasy.

Q: Well, if it only takes four minutes to cook them, why not just cook less more frequently? 

A:  That’s right.  Cook fewer French fries more often.  It sounds simple, but when it’s a poorly run restaurant, you’d be surprised the mistakes people can make. 

Q: It doesn’t cost any more to fry them does it?

A: No. It costs money to throw them out if they’re bad. But it costs you infinitely more to lose customers. 

Q:  Are most customers willing to wait four minutes for the French fries?

A:  In fast food, typically no. 

Q: So you are taking somewhat of a risk when you cook more often?

A: That’s correct.

Q: But not much of one?

A: Again, it’s really simple.  You’ve just got to deliver on quality, service and cleanliness.  That’s it.  I was able to save up enough money to build a second Burger King. 

Q: How long did it take you?

A:  I didn’t build my second Burger King until I was eight years into it.

Q:  Were you making enough money to live on at Burger King?

A:  Yeah, I was just out of college.  It was 1984.

Q:  Were you working in it yourself?

A:  Oh, yeah, like 100 hours a week, because I didn’t have any friends in Ohio.  I didn’t have any family in Ohio. 

Q:   It was in rural Ohio, which makes it even worse.

A:   Right.  So, I’d wake up and I’d go to work.  And you’d work all day and you’d work half the night and then when you’re tired, you go home and you go to bed.  I ate three meals a day in my restaurant.  That makes it sound like it’s a sob story.  It really wasn’t.  I was just doing what you do. 

Q: That’s what all restaurant owners do. 

A: I enjoyed it.

Q: Then you went on to Au Bon Pain.

A:  Right.  I sold my two Burger Kings and, candidly, I had more money than any 30-year-old kid deserves to have. 

Next: What it's like to live in a battlefield of bosses.