When Hurricane Katrina hit, hardly anyone was up to the task of protecting New Orleans' most vulnerable residents. President George W. Bush famously flew over the disaster site as corpses were floating through the Big Easy. Two New Orleans residents who were in the city then, and survived, played a central role on this past Friday's episode of "Undercover Boss." Their employer, and the week's featured company, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, had no choice but to persevere after the disaster.
After being introduced to a woman described as "Pam Hawkins," the subject of a "job swap" reality show, Gina and Doug, both based out of Popeyes branches in the South, told her of their struggles back in 2005. "Life was close to perfect before the hurricane," Gina, a shift trainer who has been with the company for 27 years, said. After the hurricane passed, she was forced to leave the state. Coming back four months later, she learned that Popeyes had let her go for showing up late. She was able to reclaim her job at the New Orleans branch only after reapplying for it.
Doug, a janitor at a Horn Lake, Miss., Popeyes branch, was depicted as equally resilient. He said that he lost everything in the hurricane. And so, with "nothing left," he hitchhiked to Alabama. A local pastor took him in, and gave him the building blocks to start anew. And ever since he has been a walking celebration of the Protestant work ethic. He sees himself as part of the Popeyes image, and so wanted it represented well. He sweeps up the entrance area daily, which is not required. But in going the extra distance, he goes even further -- he uses his own money to pay for the proper cleaning products. He also makes weekly visits to the local parish of the pastor's mission to cook lunch. Of course, the good Samaritan had no idea that the cameras actually were rolling for an episode of "Undercover Boss."
"Pam Hawkins," whose real name is Lynne Zappone, is the chief talent officer for Popeyes. That puts her in charge of 40,000 employees in 44 states. And the idea that the company didn't stand by its residents during Katrina is a "heavy burden," she noted, even though she herself has been with the company for less than six months.
But the embarrassment didn't end with the post-Katrina cold shoulder. While working with Gina in New Orleans, Zappone was exposed to the branch's unsavory premises. Taking her to clean the bathroom, Gina warned her, "It stinks." The odor was attributed to a broken pipe, and the situation was creating problems with customers, Gina said. The company provides no cleaning supplies, we also learned.
Gina, for her part, took it in stride. Then she went outside to spray perfume on herself. (She also assured Pam that the perfume is the "good stuff," and not a cheap knockoff.)
The Popeyes fare also took a hit from the four employees profiled in the episode. After he finished his shift as a food packer in New Orleans, Josh turned to Zappone and asked if she was hungry. Nodding, she was then met with the following words: "Taco Bell," where the food was more affordable. The idea that her employees go to a rival to eat lunch left her numb. In an interview with AOL Jobs, she defended the chain's menu. "At Popeyes, we make delicious, flavorful food with the recipes and care in preparation that you loved at your grandma's house. No one cooks this way at home anymore," she said. "And we believe our menu can be enjoyed as part of a balanced lifestyle."
Indeed, for Zappone, the blows were particularly painful. She openly mused about the disappointments in her company's performance. But it wasn't simply a matter of good management. It was personal. At the top of the show, Zappone explained how grateful she had been throughout her career to have had employers who were respectful of her life as a single mother. And so she views the workforce as family. She also said that she thought of the company's staff as a true long-term investment, above and beyond any product.
And so by that logic, her first visit on the episode was time spent with a wayward son. Aaron works in kitchen preparation in New Orleans and referred to the company's executives as "corporate clowns." He lambasted their performance. He knocked them for merely showing up in nice clothes when they have no idea what it actually takes to work at a Popeyes. (Indeed, Aaron questioned privately whether "Pam" had any experience preparing fast food.) He was equally as unreserved with customers. Aaron barked commands, and Zappone expressed worry about the image being presented of the company.
But while spending time with Josh, she was delighted to learn how his workers had rallied around him as if he truly were family. The environment at the New Orleans branch, with the crew members turning the ordering line into a song-and-dance routine, was in stark contrast with Josh's family life. After finding out about Josh's "sexual preference," as he described it, his family kicked him out and so he was homeless, living under a bridge.
In the reveal, Zappone sought to right the wrongs. In view of Doug's good deeds, she reinstated an employee recognition program after he lamented the elimination of the "employee of the month" honor. She told Gina that the pipe was to be fixed, and that thanks to her story from Katrina, an employee relief fund was to be set up. Zappone also announced the reinstatement of an employee discount program, so Josh and his co-workers aren't forced to go to Taco Bell to eat. She even showed a munificent side with Aaron, in spite of how he carried himself. His dream of becoming a traveling trainer for the brand was one which she was happy to fund. It's a tad hard to believe that her reaction would have been the same if she wasn't speaking to a national audience, though. But she did add he'll only become eligible when his mentor says he's ready.
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