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What Processes Make Taco Bell a Popular Restaurant Chain? Tips from Taco Bell's Head Of Operation

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About The Episode

Welcome back to the Food Service Growth Show, where we delve into the secrets behind the success of renowned restaurant chains. In this episode, Carl Jacobs, the Host and CEO of Apicbase will sit down with Misa Jarvinen, a distinguished figure from Taco Bell Finland.

Together, they unravel the mysteries of what makes Taco Bell such a beloved and iconic brand. It’s gonna be all about Taco Bell this time. Particularly, this episode will deep dive into what are the unique processes that make their products consistent and successful.

Join us as we explore the core processes that have propelled Taco Bell to the forefront of the restaurant world. We’ll uncover what truly makes a restaurant brand iconic, and how Taco Bell has mastered the art of capturing the hearts of millions of customers worldwide.

Read The Interview

Carl: Hello, I’m Carl Jacobs and I’m co-founder and CEO of Apicbase. At Apicbase, we are building the world’s best food and beverage management platform. But in this podcast series, it’s all about finding answers on how to grow and scale your food service business.

Hello, everybody, and welcome back to The Food Service Growth Show. My name is Carl, and today I am presenting the podcast in a very new studio. We did a big upgrade so we could actually keep the studio as is forever. So it’s a big upgrade for The Food Service Growth Show.

And the first one that is visiting the podcast in this new setting is Misa Järvinen. She’s head of operations of Restel in Finland. And as always, my first question, Misa, is, who are you and what have you been doing in the past?

Misa: Thank you, Carl. My name is Misa Järvinen, and I work for Restel, who operates Taco Bell Finland. And I have worked in the food industry, I would say more than 15 years. And all from fast casual to nightclubs to fast food. So you might say that I like things in the food industry that are fast, because nightclubs are also, like, you have to be really fast and fast food and then also casual.

Well, I have always had a really big passion for working in an international brand. So working for Taco Bell has been, I would like to say, like a dream come true, because in Taco Bell, you get to get to know people from different cultures and also work kind of abroad because we have the international side. And I think sometimes I say that this is not far from like my childhood dream, which was actually to be a pilot and I did not get to run airplanes, but I still get to see different cultures, different people, and I get to be a part of this amazing journey with Taco Bell. So I would say I still get to pilot this trip.

Carl: Yeah. In a way, as an operations manager, you are in the driver’s seat, I guess.

Misa: Yeah!

All right. So you say you’ve been in the food industry for 15 years, nightclubs, et cetera. I mean, was it always in an operational role, or did you start out as a waiter, or how did you get in there?

Misa: I started doing the dishes. That’s where I started. And it basically went like, we had this cafe. We used to hang out with friends, and then I heard the bar owner talking about how they’re short staffed and I was like, well, I can come to work if they need it for a weekend. And that’s how it started.

They were like, do you know how to do the dishes? I said, well yeah, that’s how it started. And then I got interested in doing more and found that I liked the hectic surroundings and liked the customer service. So, yeah, so it just started out by first doing something while I’m studying and then I went the normal way, so to speak, from cleaning tables to bartender, and then I went to food side and to waitress.

Carl: You’ve seen and done it all.

Misa: Indeed!

And of course, you mentioned it shortly, but you’re working, of course, for Taco Bell or for the brand Taco Bell, maybe of course this is a quite iconic brand, but still not so much in Europe.

Can you talk to us about what Taco Bell is? Why is Taco Bell such an iconic brand?

Misa: I’m really happy to say that Finland has been one of the first. I mean, in the Nordics, we are still the only. Let’s hope not for long. So I’m really happy that we get to go on this journey as one of the first countries and I would say makes it iconic is the people, and the people are kind of the touch of the brand and the brand is about always making something more. So we say that we put a bit more flavor, like mass flavor, mass heart into the customer service, into the product, and want to be a bit rebellious, I would say.

All right. And that actually brings me to the next question, basically, which is you talk about people.

Can you explain it a little bit? Because that’s a very unique kind of way of approaching what makes something unique. Because most people say it’s the concept or it’s the food, but you say it’s the people. Why is it the people?

Misa: Well, the people when you come into a restaurant, what you’re going to meet, is the people. I would say you have to concentrate that what you kind of sell is what you believe in. So, of course, concept is really important, but it doesn’t matter if your people don’t believe in it. So that’s why I say that the people who are kind to your crew is the touch of the brand, because that is what you will feel as a customer when you come inside. And I would say in all businesses, it comes down to the people and the customer, because the customer has to come back.

So of course it matters about your product, how good it is, but if you have the wrong people selling it, it might kind of lose the meaning. But, yeah, that’s why I say the people are, and we are really good. Onboarding on Taco Bell, I was positively surprised that even a company this big, global, the support, the training was really good, and I felt like I was welcomed really strongly, which was really nice. But that, I would say, also makes it iconic, is the way we treat people.

Carl: Yeah. Nice. And then that means that hiring people is something that’s extremely important. Are you directly involved in the hiring of people in the businesses that you manage?

Misa: Yeah, of course. I help wherever there is needed help. And of course, with the restaurant managers, I take part. But I usually say that if the managers, they need to hire their own people because they need to feel the team and it needs to be built up. If I only hire people that look like me, we won’t grow. So we need to have different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas, and we welcome everybody, and that’s what makes us special.

Carl: All right. And then in terms of recruitment, what are the specifics you’re looking for when you recruit somebody? Do you have a specific set? Is it skills? Is it character? What is it that makes somebody suitable for working at Taco Bell?

Misa: I would say it’s the character that we can teach you anything. We have really good training. So I don’t feel that it’s ever a question if you will learn it or not. It’s more that you want to learn it. So, of course we want different kinds of skills and different kinds of people, but it’s more like kind of a yes, we can attitude is what we’re looking for.

And then, of course, the person also has to kind of buy us an idea, so they have to believe in the product we’re selling, the feeling we’re selling the experience. So it has to be like a match. It’s not about us choosing them. It’s also that they need to choose us.

Yeah, that’s a nice analogy, what you’re using there. Now back to head of operations. Can you elaborate a little bit on what a week or a month as a head of operations looks like at Taco Bell?

Misa: That’s a hard question. My day is like, how would I say my most important job is to make sure my team has everything they need to succeed? And you often hear me asking in the restaurants if there’s anything I can do for them, is there anything we can make easier? I love making things easier. And whatever they kind of need from me to make it sure that they can grow. And that is what, basically, I would say 50% of my time is other than that of course we also have to make profit and expand so those will take like half of the other time. But I would like to say that there’s always time for the people and the staff because without them there is no business.

Carl: Can you give me an example of if you ask the question how can I make your life easier? What are then the questions that you get or what are the things that. Or maybe the last thing you changed or the last thing you accommodated?

Misa: Well yeah actually one like this happened last year. Last year as a team member we had a really big campaign with aggregator for free delivery and I was in a restaurant and I was thinking like somehow we have to make this easier but if I don’t work on the line on a daily basis I don’t see the same things. And then a team member said that she doesn’t want her whole day to go by that she types from one machine to another. So we will get the information of the order to our kitchen so that she doesn’t feel that this is what she wants to do and it’s kind of stressful. And I said okay but there has to be some kind of programme to mean we’re not the only one in the world who is facing this. And then I basically googled it. What Google doesn’t know you don’t need to know.

So then I found these different kinds of solutions and then I gave it to our IT that hey I calculated that we can take this task off they can do something else and we will have less mistakes. And now we have now Deliverect who is now the program and we have had it for now I would like to say six months, seven months.

Carl: And it has solved the issue of the girl that asked this to you?

Misa: Yes it has.

Carl: That’s a fantastic story actually. And if you then talk about operations from let’s say a franchisee point of view because if I’m not mistaken you’re actually working for Restel or at least for Taco Bell but it’s operated by Restel so you’re actually taking the franchise into Finland.

Misa: Most of the time I talk to people that kind of want to franchise their business and that they are the owners of the idea. So now I’m talking to somebody who is actually executing on somebody else’s idea. 

Carl: How does that work? How difficult is it to make sure that every day again the wishes of the franchisor Taco Bell international in this case is actually that they are granted basically and that you’re doing what you need to do in order to be a good franchisee?

Misa: Because when we have a big brand, then we have to kind of feed on each other in that way that we cannot do something solo here in Finland. And let’s say the UK would do something different because the outcome is bad. Because when I travel to, let’s say, the UK, if I don’t work for Taco Bell, I go eat there, I come to Finland. If it’s totally different, it’s not good for either one of us. But we have a really good support system on the international side, people helping us, helping us to make tacos famous in Finland. And mostly we have to remember that we need to be globally consistent because we are a big brand, but we can still be locally relevant.

So of course there are market differences, and they need to also be market differences because people like different things. For example, when Taco Bell came to Finland, when we had the vegetarian meal, we had plant based, because in Finland, plant based was already a thing. But then again, overseas, they have beans, but the beans don’t work. So in these things, we have local differences. But I would say we’re still globally consistent. And of course, we’re always checking with the international side.

So if you talk then about this consistency, am I right in assuming that you have someone working for Taco Bell Finland to make new menus or to make new recipes or to adapt them or how do I have to imagine that?

Misa: No, we don’t invent anything totally new. If we do, we sometimes have these themes or limited time offers. We always check that. Is this something inside of our portfolio that we can do? So, no, we don’t have anybody making menus.

Carl: How does that come into being? Like, you have the plant based thing or vegan and you make it plant based, or how does this happen then? Is this internationally decided? Or is this you guys saying, this won’t work? Can we do something differently? Or how does the new recipe then come into existence?

Misa: It’s more like that we do it together. It’s usually from us that, hey, we feel like this would work better. And then, of course, you have to also ground it or something. There has to be some facts behind what you’re suggesting. Also that you don’t go, like, totally wild and then we suggest it and then we discuss it. And I would say it’s a joint decision that I don’t feel like neither one is pushing anything, that we always follow some kind of decision.

All right. Okay. And then in terms of support you get, is there kind of a weekly or a yearly or a monthly kind of way of working together with, let’s say, the headquarters or how is that structured?

Misa: Yeah, we have, of course, ongoing meetings, monthly, weekly. But I feel like whenever I need something, I can just pick up my phone and call or send WhatsApp. So there is a direct line to the Taco Bell business internationally.

That’s really nice, actually. Well, in terms of, we’ve talked a little bit about the head of operations team, and then you also mentioned the expansion.

Can you tell us a little bit about how you’re basically expanding the business and what are the steps that you take to open up a new restaurant? Are you involved in that?

Misa: Yeah, and we actually have an opening coming now in December. We’re opening our 17th store in Tampere. So we already have one store in Tampere, and a second one is coming. About expansion, Finland is not that big, so we also have to be. You don’t want to just take any kind of location just to have locations. You need to also make business, and it has to make sense in that way.

So what we are doing is that we’re looking at different places, and when we get something interesting, then, of course, we start calculating, will this be, what do we think it’s going to sell? What do we think about how long it’s going to take it to pay it back? And then either we go forward or we don’t. But I would say we’re really smart about it, that we don’t have a need to make a lot of stores. We want to make it like that they make sense.

Carl: Yeah. All right. And if you look then to Finland as a whole, and you say, now 17 outlets, what is the potential of Finland as a country? Can you elaborate on that? Or is this something we shouldn’t discuss? Totally fine if it’s not.

Misa: Yeah, I think the market is a bit different now than it was like 5-10 years ago so I can’t really comment on that. What we have in mind.

I understand. No problem whatsoever. Let’s move on to a question about food cost, something that is, of course, dear and near to me.

Can you tell me how important is food cost and how important is it that you monitor the food cost, or is this something that is extremely set and always the same, or is this something that you monitor from a week to week?

Misa: We monitor it and we try to keep the cost towards the customer low. So we don’t want to automatically bring the food cost rising towards the customer. If we can find another solution, but it’s really important that our meals are high quality and that the customer comes and they pay, that they will get what they paid for. So I don’t approve of the meals. That’s not the way to save. And if you’re building a brand, it’s really important that you’re consistent and the customer needs to know when they come to Taco Bell. So this is what you will get for your money. But of course, everybody’s worried about the food cost and going up.

Carl: Yeah. Is it also the case for you guys? Can you tell us a little bit about maybe how much it has risen for you? And is this becoming an issue or are you keeping it under control?

Misa: We’re keeping it under control. Of course, it involves everybody. It involves you. If you go to a supermarket and buy food home, nobody can escape this. So we’re controlling it and we’re trying to find other ways to expand. And as I said, we don’t want to. You cannot indefinitely raise prices towards customers. So that’s an easy way, but it’s not the right way.

All right, let’s move then into technology. I heard you mentioning a little bit earlier about the technology you implemented to take care of all the orders that are incoming from customers.

How important is technology in today’s Taco Bell or within Restel? And how digital are you working today?

Misa: I would say technology gives you a lot of opportunities. And of course, you have to also choose the solutions that make it easier. There are also all kinds of solutions that can make it just harder. But for us, we try to do as much as possible digitally, so that it helps our team in the restaurants and kind of take these tasks out of their hands so that they don’t feel that they’re needed for them to kind of have a person to do that.

Carl: So. If you look into the ecosystem of Taco Bell or the businesses that you help running, what are the technologies that you are using in order to make life easier for both your customers and for your employees?

Misa: Well, food safety is through an app, which we check every day. So it’s really good because that also gives us opportunity when something is wrong. So they will send some kind of alarm to us. So we will find out. And then, as I said, Deliverect brings the orders. And then we have a lot of self service kiosks. Yes. And Finnish people love using this, so they’re not afraid of using technology, which is really good. And that, of course, also helps in that way that more customers can do. There is no, like, queuing that way.

Carl: Sorry to interrupt quickly there, because that intrigues me. If you look at the kiosks versus, let’s say, at the cashier orders, how is that percentage divided? Are there more people using the kiosks than they are using the waiter at the cash desk?

Misa: Yeah, kiosks. I think the kiosks are definitely more used and I think that changed during COVID.

Carl: Of course. Yeah. That is a typical thing that happened. Human contact has been removed.

Misa: Yeah. So it kind of forced you to use other ways. But as I said, Finnish people are not that hesitant with technology. They love using it. So for us, it’s mostly IP. We call it an IP kiosk. But a self service kiosk, that is really a big thing.

Carl: Yeah. And these kiosks, they for sure produce a lot of data. How are you working with that data? Is this something that you’re using on a daily basis or to improve ordering or inventory management or things like that, or how do you do that?

Misa: Yeah, of course we look at the whole data, but of course, from the self service kiosks, of course we investigate and think and could we make it also easier? But most in all, we try to listen to the customer. So I encourage if somebody sees a customer kind of wandering around on the self-serve, go and ask what it is like, do you need any help and so on. And most often then we also get kind of the feedback that it’s really hard to go from this section to that section. And then we’re like. Because it might prevent you from ordering if it’s too difficult. So customer feedback, of course, remains always very important in any case.

Carl: That’s interesting information indeed. Can you tell me or do you want to elaborate? What I find curious is to understand these kiosks. They are often seen as replacers of people. Is this something that is actually true? I mean, can you kind of cut in terms or not find the people that you would need in order to take all of the orders and that you now can replace by a machine. Is this something that is really true or is this a myth?

Misa: Of course, always when new things come in that way, of course it will reduce the time spent on the cashier, so to speak. But then also we have to remember that other things have also come kind of on the kitchen side. So I wouldn’t say for us it has not reduced the manpower because there has been increased on the other side, so to speak, tasks. So what has come more has been like food safety things has come more because of COVID and so one more thing has to be done.

So more tasks are kind of coming on that side and so it has more like shifted. And somebody also has to take care of our self kiosks. They don’t operate on themselves there. So I would say there is not a yes or no, because if we didn’t have those, maybe we should hire them also more, because more tasks have come. But that’s how evolution goes, that something is less, something is more.

Maybe back to Taco Bell, Finland. And in general, from a company perspective, can you tell us a little bit on how the business is structured?

Obviously, you probably have a CEO on the top and then a CFO in headquarters, but how is it then organised in terms of country managers or region managers? And how is the organisation structured from a human perspective?

Misa: Yeah. So we have, of course a CEO and a company, and under him are then our chain CEOs and then we head of operations are then under them.

Carl: So you directly report to the chain CEO?

Misa: Yeah.

Carl: And how many chains are operated by Restel?

Misa: We have totally I have to calculate, think like would say like five or six, because we have all different kinds of branches. I think a good saying is that we offer service, food services from morning to dawn. So you can find us in arenas, you can find us in malls, you can find us wherever you’re hungry. You should find us somewhere close. 

Carl: Train stations as well?

Misa: Yeah, Taco Bell doesn’t have train stations, but Restel has train stations also. We know how the build up is, it’s a bit more difficult, but we have fast food and we have bars and events. You should survive by eating in our places.

That’s great to hear. So can you give me maybe for the listeners in your role as head of operations. I mean, what is one of the most important learnings you’ve had in the past years as head of operations and what people need to know if they ever come in this position like yours?

Misa: I would say the most important thing to learn is to believe in yourself. And when you have a vision, you should be courageous enough to go after it. And the workplace, and the people you work with is really important, because when you’re in that great workplace, you’re more courageous to try new things and express your opinion. And that way everybody grows. And don’t be afraid to hire people that are better than you, because that’s the only way you can, as a team, grow.

Nice. And then is there maybe a question to finalise our conversation and also one that I ask to all of my podcast guests? How do you see the future of F&B. What’s the next trend that we have to keep in mind?

Misa: Oh, my God. This is a hard question because I feel like the world is kind of moving really fast, but I feel that that is also like a trend. And I feel that at the moment, what we’re seeing is kind of what is kind of pushing from overseas towards us is kind of this do it for me trend. So what customers want is when they come to a restaurant, they want that fast. They want it to be easy, and it also needs to be done for them. And we want to enjoy life.

So I can see that people don’t really want to maybe take down on the cost of life per se. They still want to travel. And even now when all interests are going high and people are talking about the inflation in Finland was just a few weeks ago, the most busiest day on the airport in what, last three years. And this, I think, kind of brings it all together that we are ready to kind of put the heat down a few degrees and be home in a sweater, but we won’t give up traveling.

Carl: No no. Yeah.

Misa: So this is maybe that wasn’t before. And I also feel like people still want to go out and eat, and they need to be fast, be high tempo. So you don’t really. When I was in my 20s, I had to come home at 09:00 to watch desperate housewives because that was the time it was shown. Now it doesn’t matter. When I come home, I can watch it on Netflix. I feel it’s really strong and people don’t want to give up on the experience, which I also think is great because I think we need to live life also.

Carl: Yeah. And how do you think that a company like Taco Bell will play into that trend? I mean, how will your role be influenced by this?

Misa: Yeah, I think for us at the moment it is to make tacos famous. That is what we are saying, that it’s different, for example, a hamburger brand, because everybody knows what a hamburger is. So Taco Bell is still in Finland, not that known people come to us and they don’t really know what they should eat. So I want them to come to us and know that, okay, I want that crunch wrap supreme or I want that taco supreme.

So my number one job now, is to get everybody to taste Taco Bell and then also to be fast, because people are on the clock all the time, so we need to be fast, the food needs to be good, and everything kind of needs to work smoothly for the customer. So everything when you come into the restaurant needs to just click.

All right, last question. What is your favorite Taco Bell dish?

Misa: I just told a coworker today that my favorite is the crunchy taco and crunchy taco supreme, which means it has sour cream on it. So I know it’s boring in that way, but I think that’s the ultimate best one and it’s also quick and fast, so I love that about it.

Carl: All right, and is this also the most sold Taco Bell dish or what is the most sold Taco Bell dish?

Misa: Well, it’s funny because it actually depends on the city, but it’s in the top three. Then we also have our crunch wrap, so that and crunchy taco, I would say, is depending on the city, but, yeah, those two are most popular and they’re both really delicious, but I’m a sucker for classics. Yeah. So crunchy taco. 

Carl: Misa Järvinen, thank you very much for this chat and to my listeners, see you next time!

Guest & Host

Misa Järvinen

Head of Operations
Taco Bell

Carl Jacobs

Co-founder & CEO

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