It's a common problem for leaders who want to know exactly what takes place in their companies: How do you determine reality from fiction spun for your benefit? In an upcoming episode of Undercover Boss, Fatburger CEO Andy Wiederhorn donned an elaborate disguise — complete with a full wig, a set of eyebrows, a mustache, glasses, gold jewelry and a hat — which took two to three hours to put on, and visited locations in Arizona, Nevada and L.A. in disguise. As for why he went to the trouble — it was Wiederhorn's idea.

Fatburger; Credit: Flickr/SimonDoggett

Fatburger; Credit: Flickr/SimonDoggett

“I wanted to check out what was going on inside the company, and I've seen Undercover Boss, so we approached the CBS production company and asked them if they'd consider letting me appear,” he says.

Wiederhorn found the experience of interacting with employees under a different identity altogether fun, enlightening — and hard work. “It's something I wouldn't be able to do walking in the front door with a suit on,” he says.

Squid Ink: What were your expectations going into the show?

Andy Wiederhorn: I thought I would focus more on whether the procedures in the restaurant were being followed properly and whether there was anything I can learn about how to do things better. What I ended up learning was that there weren't any procedural problems. It was really disarming. It was good to see that everybody is doing it the right way, but I discovered more HR-type issues, such as employee recognition issues that needed attention. I didn't expect to come in and find out that the franchisees in our system weren't really recognizing the employees the way they should be.

SI: What are you implementing to address these issues?

AW: Fatburger used to have about half of its stores as corporate and the other half were franchised. Today, 99 percent is franchised as we've grown. When we had all these corporate stores, we had all kinds of recognition programs in place. I thought the franchisees that acquired those stores from us and operate them now as their own stores were following those programs. But they're not; they've gotten into their own routines. I instituted a new employee-recognition program again for the franchisees to follow and also an employee feedback system where employees can get their ideas to the top. We created a type of hotline where they can give us their ideas and share what's going on, either anonymously or not.

SI: What was the most memorable part of the experience?

AW: It was working with employees I know with a disguise on and having them try to figure out what's going on. That's just entertaining in and of itself.

SI: What informs your approach as an executive today?

AW: The bottom line is that the customer has to have a great guest experience and the employee needs to feel like they're part of the family. We operate Fatburger like a family business. It's one of the things I've learned with my other businesses and along the way of my career, is that you need your employees be a part of the family. When you feel like you're part of a family, then you're connected to it.

SI: When you were undercover, did you find that your employees felt like Fatburger is a family?

AW: What was surprising to me was all these employees, just like everybody else you know in your life, have their own issues going on in their personal lives wherever they are and yet they come together at work. It's a safe place for them to work together and connect with each other. I've discovered, with some of the employees I've met, there are some really tough things going on in their lives, which you'll see on the show, and yet they're giving 100 percent when they're at work. At the end of the day, they have to hang up their aprons and go back to these personal problems. It's really heartwarming to see how committed they are to the company and their fellow employees while they're still dealing with all the other stuff in their lives.

SI: How were the locations selected?

Fatburger; Credit: Flickr/grahamc99

Fatburger; Credit: Flickr/grahamc99

AW: It was selected by the producers. However, I did target a few areas, such as Arizona, with a few underperforming stores, because the economy has been hit so hard. I'd suggest that's a market we should go see, because I wanted to see what's going on there.

SI: What defines the Fatburger experience in various regions?

AW: The U.S. market is pretty true to form in what you'd experience if you grew up in L.A. or Las Vegas eating Fatburgers. If you're in Canada, there are regional taste profile differences — like gravy on french fries. In China, we have more chicken items on the menu or rice available. In the Middle East, we have some spicier toppings you can add to your burger.

SI: What's on the horizon for Fatburger for 2013 and beyond?

AW: We have 150 restaurants opened and another 300 under development right now in 27 countries around the world. We'll open approximately 60 of those 300 this year. We just opened last week a restaurant in Amman, Jordan. In April, we will open in Abu Dhabi and Beirut. In May, we will be opening three locations in Istanbul; then in Lahore, Pakistan, Cairo and Manhattan.

SI: What's your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

AW: You may be more successful in an established business where you can take it to a whole different level, growing it and expanding it, than dealing with the trials and tribulations of a startup, because very few startups succeed. As much as I'm an entrepreneur, I'm pretty realistic about the difficulties. I generally don't advise people to jump into it because they have a good idea. If you really want to dig into it, then you have to be tenacious and you can't take it so seriously, because you're going to go through a lot of ups and downs. You better have a way to deal with that.

SI: How do people avoid taking things too seriously?

AW: I think you have to have a sense of humor about what you're trying to achieve. You have to have realistic expectations. You've got to be able to scale your business. People don't think about how scalable their business is when they come up with an idea. You can't take your problems home with you every night. There are going to be a lot of delays and challenges and roadblocks. You just have to be prepared to have a pretty good attitude to get through that, otherwise you're going to stress yourself out. I think that happens with a lot of entrepreneurs.

SI: How do you maintain balance for yourself?

AW: It took a while for me to realize you have to be able to turn it off at some point. I have six kids who keep me busy and distracted. The things that are important to my 12-year-old put in perspective the things that are important to me at work, and I learned quickly that there's just no connection to one of my problems. I need to leave it at my office, because it's not going to get solved talking about it with my 12-year-old. It's realizing that you have to adapt to the environment that you're in. When you're with your family, you can't be tackling your work problems at the same time.

Wiederhorn will appear in the episode of Undercover Boss scheduled to air Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m.

And in related news:

Free Food This Week: Fatburger, Buffalo Wings + Juice

Poll: The Underrated Burger Smackdown

Rustic Canyon Wine Bar and Seasonal Kitchen

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