Barking up the Wrong Tree

Why does fast food rarely come with friendly service? It starts with misaligned incentives.

Barking up the Wrong Tree
Photo by Jude Infantini / Unsplash

Last summer, I worked in a fast-food drive-thru, and it always intrigued me how customers would treat employees like owners, rarely in a positive sense.

They talked to us like we had skin in the game, saying things like, "I'm taking my business elsewhere from now on," as if we got paid differently no matter where they took their business.

If they were mad at our competitor, they'd say things like, "your competitor down the road is out of Coca-Cola! Can you believe it? They're going downhill--not you guys." I would nod and smile and hand them their order.

Whether or not an angry customer came back, we were paid $10 an hour. Whether or not our restaurant got a bad review on Yelp, we received a paycheck from putting the time in: clock in, clock out. Whether or not a customer "took their business elsewhere," our wages stayed just above minimum wage.

In a perfect world, we would all represent the company as if it were our own, but this isn't a perfect world. This is a world with incentives at play.

Fast food rarely comes with friendly service because the people with the least skin in the game are the ones interacting most directly with the customer.

Even employees who want to do a good job, from an economic standpoint, technically have little incentive to do so. Sure, there's a long-term incentive of keeping the company we worked for in business, but for people getting paid weekly, living paycheck to paycheck, it's hard to think that long-term.

The person who cares about whether or not their customer comes back is the restaurant's owner, not its hourly employees. It's the owner who's most impacted by the customer, but it's the employee who has the most contact with them.

The lunch rush perfectly illustrates this tension. When a restaurant owner sees a rush of people coming to place orders, all they see is dollar signs. For the owner, it's exciting. When an employee sees a rush of people coming to place their orders at noon, they dread all the work that they're about to have to do.

These competing incentives between labor and ownership paired with low wages help explain why you'll rarely find outstanding service at your local fast food joint.

Labor wants fewer people coming in to make their life easier; ownership wants more customers to bring in more money. Labor rarely cares if an employee doesn't come back or spreads negative reviews; ownership sees all the potential sales going down the drain.

Admittedly, I don't see an easy reconciliation to this tension. Giving hourly employees literal ownership of the business wouldn't be profitable. What's free, however, is treating employees with dignity, putting procedures in place that protect them, and rewarding them when they do treat the business like it's their own.