'Undercover Boss': Tilted Kilt CEO Ron Lynch Sees His Pubs Skirting Company's Standards
Everyone knows that sex sells, but where do you draw the line when you're trying to run a respectable business? CEO Ron Lynch of the Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery says that his Tempe, Ariz.-based chain of 70 restaurants aims for a PG-13 experience by featuring female servers in skimpy costumes. But in Friday's premiere of the fourth season of "Undercover Boss," some of what was revealed appeared to leave Lynch shocked and embarrassed.
"Some people think our servers are X-rated," he said during his appearance on the CBS series, referring to the uniforms worn by his servers, aka "Kilt Girls," who help the Gaelic-themed company bring in $250 million each year. Maybe that's no surprise: Servers' midriff-baring costumes -- with low-cut tops and short plaid skirts -- are designed to be sexy.
But Tilted Kilt's "guiding principle is portraying class," Lynch maintained in an interview and during the episode. The costumes may be a way to draw in customers, he said, but customers come back to Tilted Kilt for offerings that set it apart from rivals like Hooters. Those include a full kitchen and bar, and a menu that includes items like "Gaelic chicken," which is two chicken breasts on bed of a pasta with a whiskey cream sauce. It's "to die for," he told AOL Jobs.
"We have a classy brand," he went on to say. "We're in the entertainment business, and if we don't portray class, we look bad. These girls are proud to wear the costume. If you work as a Kilt Girl, you can go on and do great things." (He said that even his two daughters have worn the outfits during their careers at the company, though not while working the floor and only in training videos.)
Then Lynch saw more of Kaliane's routine with customers, which was about as PG-13 as the writing in "Penthouse Forum." It included telling jokes like one about jelly, jam and sexual intercourse. And she also made use of a pile of straws and whipped cream in a display that might delight a middle-schooler.
Lynch was not amused. Speaking into the camera, he appeared to earnestly come to terms with what his business might stand for outside the corporate office. He said that he wasn't sure his "classiness" standard is being upheld and feared that this employee is "putting herself too far out there." (Watch in the video above.)
For her part, Kaliane saw herself as fulfilling the company's mission. "It's Tilted Kilt. It's a little tilted," she said.
Lynch later acknowledged his disappointment, saying that he didn't feel a positive energy at the pub, saw very few smiling customers and admitted that the culture "raised a red flag" with him on the trip.
The potential to see a flabbergasted CEO is a regular element of "Undercover Boss." But the vast majority of last season's most dramatic moments came when a boss confronted individual incompetence, either his own or from one of his workers. There was, for instance, Philly Pretzel CEO Dan Dizio encountering two of his franchise owners -- whom he'd simply forgotten having personally met before -- while trying to help boost their sales. He got teary after meeting them again.
But Lynch's experience was different -- he saw a workplace that seemed dramatically astray from his company's mission, and had to admit, for instance, that he was "appalled and embarrassed" by Kaliane's behavior. And Spencer told him he thinks it's likely strip clubs protect their workers from sexual harassment better than Tilted Kilt does.
Lynch's company has also made news recently for alleged discrimination. In October, AOL Jobs reported on the case of Jennifer Rogers, who sued the company that month after she was rejected as a "Kilt Girl" position because, she alleged, she couldn't fit into a "Kilt Girl" skirt. (Litigation is ongoing.) There is no federal law against rejecting job applicants based on body type, as long as one gender isn't targeted. In explaining his company's policy, Lynch told AOL Jobs if a girl "didn't fit in, yes," she might not be hired.
Her one-woman show at the pub turned out to be a respite from a stressful family life. Shayna is raising two kids on her own, one of whom has autism. And her father is currently battling bladder cancer, which continues to spread in spite of treatments. "I am dying inside," she said, "but I am trying to have fun at work."
And then there was James, a cook at a Titled Kilt in Joliet, Ill. The father of four, including triplets, puts in 16-hour days that include a second job. But he said that he nevertheless thinks of Tilted Kilt, through no prompting, as "family."
In the episode's reveal, Lynch tried to address the lapses in his company's culture.
He told Spencer that proper training will be instituted throughout the Tilted Kilt company so that all workers know when and how to handle over-the-line conduct, and how to deal with unruly customers. He also gave Spencer $14,000 to help with student loans.
He ponied up another $10,000 in scholarship funds for both of Shayna's kids, in addition to two grants of $20,000 for her autistic son and for medical fees for her sick father. Scholarships for James' children were also offered, in the form of a $20,000 fund, in addition to another $20,000 so that the chef can drop the second job.
Lynch further demonstrated a desire to breathe new life into the company's culture by telling Kaliane that he will be selecting a mentor for her to work with, provided she finishes her GED equivalency. "You need to mature," he told her.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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