Hamburger U. grills students on McDonald’s operations

Jessica Wohl
Chicago Tribune

Oak Brook, Ill. — Two boxes of french fries stacked on the kitchen floor, rather than stored in a freezer. An empty salt shaker at the fry station. A dry, unseasoned cheeseburger served on a hardened bun.

Those are just a few of the problems a McDonald’s manager is expected to spot in this mock kitchen. If they miss them, it’s probably a good bet that they won’t be making the dean’s list at Hamburger University in this Chicago suburb, where managers are graded on everything from handling customer complaints to hiring the best workers.

Each year, hundreds of new McDonald’s U.S. general managers spend five days at Hamburger University on the burger giant’s corporate campus, working toward an honorary bachelor’s degree in Hamburgerology. During their visits, they role play, have meetings with their boss and prepare to return home and make real improvements at the restaurants they run.

“If you think about it, each of them is running a multimillion-dollar business,” said Rob Lauber, vice president and chief learning officer of McDonald’s Restaurant Solutions Group. “So we want to make sure they have good business grounding.”

Every GM makes a run through Hamburger University, taking courses that include shift management, introduction to management and guest services before they get to the session known as GM Capstone. There are training classes for other leaders as well.

“We put a little bit of pressure on them to quickly make their decisions, just like they do back home,” said Jason Hamm, McDonald’s national training manager for the U.S. “We try to throw a lot of different things at them.”

HU opened in 1961 and has seen some 330,000 students take its courses around the world. But the need for training is especially urgent now as McDonald’s pushes to turn around its U.S. business, which has seen comparable sales and customer visits slip for two consecutive years. Average sales at a McDonald’s restaurant in the United States fell to nearly $2.5 million in 2014 after exceeding $2.5 million a year earlier.

On April 1, McDonald’s pledged to bolster educational opportunities for U.S. workers, including covering costs for certain high school and college courses. In making the announcement, which also includes wage increases at the company’s own U.S. restaurants, CEO Steve Easterbrook noted that focusing on people held the key to a turnaround.

“A motivated workforce leads to better customer service,” he said.

Fred Turner, who rose from working as a grill man to McDonald’s senior chairman, started Hamburger University in the basement of a McDonald’s restaurant in suburban Chicago. Fifteen students graduated from the first class in February 1961. There are seven Hamburger Universities around the world, including the newest in Shanghai, which opened in 2010.

Numerous McDonald’s executives have taken courses at Hamburger University, including McDonald’s USA President Mike Andres. Easterbrook took operations training at the school’s London location. Overall, 40 percent of McDonald’s global leadership has attended HU.

At the 130,000-square-foot learning lab in Oak Brook, called the Fred L. Turner Training Center, general managers learn leadership, teamwork and decision-making skills in classroom and restaurant settings. Ninety to 120 general managers graduate from each session of GM Capstone, which is set to be held about 20 times in 2015.

Franchisees pay $145 for a staff member to take the course.

During a recent class, students tried to identify what was wrong with a cheeseburger, fries and a smoothie.

The training at times appears intense. Students are given set amounts of time to complete their tasks, such as computerized scheduling sessions in which they try to set the proper staffing levels to meet sales, labor and profit goals. Students must assess their findings and come up with plans before presenting them to the professor in both oral and written form.

McDonald’s is not alone in running corporate training for managers. Companies such as Farmers Insurance and General Electric have their own training centers.