Review: Undercover Boss, Baja Fresh

Last night I watched an episode of Undercover Boss, the one where the CEO of Baja Fresh went out and made a fool of himself on the front line of his restaurant chain. That’s what is supposed to happen, though, as we’ve seen the formulaic show policy of thoroughly embarrassing corporate CEOs. This time, though, the show had the unusual effect of actually making me never want to go to a Baja Fresh restaurant ever again

If you have ever seen the show, it’s a pretty predictable formula. Even the opening narration explains it: “Corporate CEOs are out of touch.” The show appeals to those who have no idea what it takes to run a company, what kinds of long hours are put in, and the difficult decisions that need to be made that can affect hundreds, even thousands of people.

The format of the show takes the CEO to a different location on each day and are placed in menial jobs, acting as cashiers, cleaners, janitors, etc. in order to learn what the “real” people do to make their companies successful.

As someone who is as much of a Libertarian and Ayn Rand aficionado as I am, you may wonder why I watch the show at all. After all, the implied message is that no matter how hard these CEOs work, their individual efforts don’t amount to the lowest of their payroll.

The answer is that I find it fascinating to see “behind the scenes” at some companies and learn how things work (or don’t). I’ll put up with the heavy-handedness, the forced tear-jerker “rewards”, and the inevitable sob-story backgrounds that every “valued employee” has in order to get a glimpse of how these companies work. These are glimpses that I wouldn’t ever get, otherwise.

Plus I like to learn about the people who run these companies and find out who is running the show.

The Baja Fresh Episode

So what made this episode so especially problematic? Was it the fact that the food was something out of Kitchen Nightmares? No. The food was fine.

The issues began when our intrepid CEO, David Kim, who looks like an all-around good guy in the first place, appears to have been told by his PR people that he had to put himself down at every opportunity while accepting abuse and humiliation.

Humiliation? You betcha.

Let’s forget for the moment that these are CEOs and look at them as they are presented to the “unsuspecting” staff. They are playing out-of-work people who are on their first day. How would you treat someone on their first day?

Apparently at Baja Fresh, the answer is to abandon them completely.

Abandonment #1

At one of the stores in NM, Kim is introduced to the operations manager, Rami, who has him do typical prep work for the lunch rush. When the rush comes, however, Rami says to Kim, “Okay, I need you to make an Ultimo Steak sandwich.” He obviously hasn’t shown Kim how to make such a sandwich, and hasn’t left any instructions or guides on how to create the sandwich. Rami then leaves Kim with no supervision to go flirt with the girls at the cashier counter.

Kim, obviously unsure of what to do, and not getting any help from any of the other staff, inevitably (and understandably) makes a mistake in the sandwich. Rami returns from his flirting to poke fun at Kim for screwing up.

Rami’s reward for abandoning Kim on his first day to go flirt? $5000 for a golfing weekend with his father.

Abandonment #2

Anyone who has ever worked in a fast food restaurant knows that the lunch rush can be absolutely brutal. Customers are pressed for time and often they will take out their anxiety of being late on the poor shlub behind the counter. For this reason, and because of the fact that turnover is what makes the restaurant money, you would never place a first-day trainee on a cashier, especially unsupervised.

Abandoned.

Nevertheless, this is precisely what happened in the Cypress, California store. Kim is given barely a glance at the Point of Sale (POS) with arguably one of the worst UIs possible, and then the doors open for lunch. The manager pulls the trainer off of the cashier at that point in time to move umbrellas on the patio.

What kind of asshole would take someone who has never worked a Point of Sale (POS) system before and abandon them during the lunch rush. This is precisely what happens. This is what qualifies for a training program at Baja Fresh? The trainer disappears while the manager watches the guy on his first day of the job (doing nothing herself). The line gets backed up (naturally).

Join the Queue

Then it gets worse.

Kim calls for help, but other employees either ignore him or merely look on, almost as if he’s speaking a different language. The line gets longer and longer, which of course means death in a fast-food restaurant.

Finally the manager comes over and makes a show of pointing out just how foolish Kim was for accidentally pushing the wrong button on that terrible POS UI.

“Ken [the pseudonym Kim is using] is having trouble, holding up the line. I can see the faces of the customers getting frustrated. That’s not good.”

Well, why aren’t you giving someone to help him. It’s his first day, he’s not been trained properly, and you’re the manager for Chrissakes!

Which leads us to…

Abject Humiliation

The manager, Jakelyn, pulls Kim aside and says, “Okay, we’re now going to go out into the lobby and apologize to our customers for you being so slow.”

You’re going to do what!?

And she does! She carts him around the tables apologizing to customers, pointing out that it’s Ken’s fault, and giving out coupons for free burritos.

This is Ken. It's all his fault.

Is this what Baja Fresh does to its first day employees? Abandon them, and then humiliate them in front of customers?

Hi, welcome to working at Baja Fresh! I’m going to put you in impossible situations, humiliate you in front of complete strangers, and then rub salt in the wound by showing just how much money you cost us to boot!

Oh, and by the way, he rewarded the trainer who abandoned him with $15,000 to relocate his mother closer to where he lived. Not for anything that he did as part of his job, mind you, but just because this 20-year-old was also a Christian, just like Kim. I can’t help but wonder what he would have done if his trainer had been an Atheist.

Personally, this is not behavior I wish to encourage, and if the only discouragement I can make is to do so with my business, I’ll gladly take it elsewhere.

Pointless Manipulation

While I can put up with a bit of expected manipulation (especially of the heartstrings), this was a 43:37 commercial for Baja Fresh (and fodder for selling books) with non-events that was supposed to be “dramatic.”

For instance, a refrigeration table was suffering from a bad thermometer, which threatened the freshness of the vegetables. Not really a big deal. You place ice under the trays, call for a technician, and you make do until you can get him to come out.

Not here. Cue drama. David Kim, the CEO, must call Bill the Operations Manager and exclaim, “I’m not going to apologize for my disappointment.”

Really? You’re disappointed? Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Could he have suggested that they put ice under the trays? Yes. Could he have merely said, “Is there a technician you could call?” Yes. Does he do any of these things? Of course not.

"Not going to apologize for my disappointment."

Rami gets a phone call from Bill and immediately puts the plan into action. Kim is so impressed by this that he ultimately rewards Rami (for acting quickly and following the directions, not for thinking for himself and solving the problem on his own) with $5,000 for business classes so that he can eventually run his own business. No word on how many phone numbers Rami got as well during the taping of the show as an additional bonus.

Bottom Line

When the show started I found Kim to be an affable, likable guy. A dork, yes, but likable. By the end of the show the bizarre business practices and apparently institutional policy of abandonment and humiliation of first-day employees was enough to convince me that this was not a company that is ethical or moral.

Moreover, rewards are obviously based on capricious whims of management, rather than actual merit or ability of the employees. Your religious affiliation is a great way to get ahead, even if you happen to abandon your coworkers when they cry out for help. You don’t have to think for yourself, your mind is useless, but if you have great flirting capability there is room for you in our organization.

Thank you, Baja Fresh, for making it so clear as to how you run your business. I’ll be taking mine elsewhere.

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13 Comments

  • Rob June 29, 2011 at 10:12

    Have you not seen the show before? It only took me an episode or two to figure out that this was a complete PR stunt by the network and the companies they “feature”. In other words, a 60 minute paid advertisement that the network can also sell advertising on. Almost all of the situations seem staged and fake.

    Reply
  • J Michel Metz June 29, 2011 at 10:28

    Sure, absolutely.

    And, like I said, I was able to deal with the manipulative elements of the show… to a point. There are many, many philosophical problems I have with the show (not the least of which are the ridiculous rewards given out at the end of the show).

    This particular one took it to a whole ‘nother level, however. Recalling for the moment that the employees of each location were supposedly believing that this was a new, unemployed worker on his first day, the fact that he was abandoned twice, and humiliated three times (I didn’t even cover the last location due to space limitations), showed me that there must be something inherent to the company that endorses this behavior.

    That is, if it were one location, I could have dismissed it as atypical or an element of the program. It was, however, in three locations, in three different states, and as a result it appears to be far more systematic.

    If we assume that the program is, in fact, a 43 minute commercial for the promoted company, then this becomes even *worse* as an issue. It means that the company sponsored and condoned this behavior as representative of its ethics and morals.

    Moreover, as the CEO of the company – and this is the key thing that perhaps I should have been clearer in my post – David Kim did not appear to be bothered by this at all. He didn’t seem to be picking up on the fact that abandoning and embarrassing a new employee is NOT the type of behavior a CEO should endorse.

    Not only that, but he seemed to be impressed with the behavior of the managers of the stores. Why wasn’t he concerned about how new employees are treated? Why wasn’t he bothered by the inactivity of the managers, not to mention the lack of problem-solving skills? Why wasn’t he troubled by the inability of a manager to solve an EXTREMELY simple, common issue with the cold table?

    Most importantly, why did he reward such ineptitude so handsomely?

    When it comes down to it, I can’t help but wonder what other kinds of problems occur within the Baja Fresh organization. Obviously the managers can’t think for themselves, and the company espouses treating employees like dirt. What kind of things happen when the cameras are off and Baja Fresh can’t manipulate the images?

    These are the impressions they leave with me, and I’d rather not find out the answers.

    Reply
  • Simon August 21, 2011 at 18:59

    Kim doesn’t even try to pretend it’s “reality”. When he and his Filipino Houseboy started talking about “Jesus” I turned it off. I agree totally with you; if this is how Baja runs a restaurant there is no way theu would still be in business. Just once I would like to see an “Undercover Boss” not only work one of their line jobs for a whole year, but also live on the slave wages they pay their people. Now THATS reality.

    Reply
  • Somebody Else's Problem November 14, 2011 at 21:21

    Welcome to corporate america. Its called “hazing.”. I don’t condone the behaivior, but I think its difficult to get all of the story of a 7 day trip in 46 minutes.

    I know a game few CEOs, and they would have reacted to the cooler not keeping temp the same way. A store is supposed to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time. Anything else is not acceptable.

    Then again, im just a store manager, so what do I know…

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz November 14, 2011 at 21:42

      I’ve worked in “Corporate America” for a long time, and hazing occurs a lot. But it’s always – without exception – considered hazing when it’s private pranks done within the company, not publicly humiliating someone on their first day.

      But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right. Kim is the CEO of the company. This is something that he condones? So he knew in advance (a reasonable assumption, given the lack of surprise on his part) of this as an internal policy; all the more reason to find it reprehensible.

      Reply
  • joe March 27, 2012 at 18:34

    I believe that the embarrassment of Kim is more for our benefit as the audience to entertain us. No doubt the director and or producer incorporates this as an attempt to show us how great the employees are and with out their efforts the franchise couldn’t succeed. But I agree that it seems to have backfired to some degree
    This part of the show must be staged and this is the part we watch the undercover boss fail with out the help of the team

    Reply
  • joe March 27, 2012 at 18:34

    I believe that the embarrassment of Kim is more for our benefit as the audience to entertain us. No doubt the director and or producer incorporates this as an attempt to show us how great the employees are and with out their efforts the franchise couldn’t succeed. But I agree that it seems to have backfired to some degree
    This part of the show must be staged and this is the part we watch the undercover boss fail with out the help of the team

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz March 27, 2012 at 21:17

      It seems to me that the nature of any TV show is to entertain the audience. To that end, though, the question remains as to what message it sends, even beyond the entertainment value.

      Kim, as the “boss,” must have thought that the embarrassment and humiliation of being subjected to such treatment would either 1) show him in a humble light and/or 2) delight audiences who only wish to see “the big man brought down to size.”

      But this is no dunk tank at the corporate picnic. According to the premise of the show, the staff had no idea he was anything other than a first-day job seeker. To that end, and within the values espoused by what seems to be corporate policy (for as the Boss he made no contradictory comment) I find it reprehensible.

      Reply
  • Carlos Eats (@carloseats) September 9, 2012 at 18:46

    Wow this is def. pretty shocking. I was just searching for blogs on Baja Fresh and found this.

    Reply
  • Aleesa ( AJ) September 26, 2015 at 21:52

    I just had the pleasure of watching the Baja episode show tonight for the first time. I’m not going to criticize anything about the show for I think they still have very valuable teaching lessons in them. We learn from watching/doing…we learn nothing from criticizing others. Thank you for providing a “entertainment” that touched my heart and made me think about my actions and choices. At the end of the day that is what it is about…choices. I choose to see the good in this episode. With many thanks.

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz September 27, 2015 at 06:12

      Thanks for your comment. It caused me to go back and reread the article (it’s been over 4 years since I wrote it).

      If what I wrote helped you (taking what you wrote at face value) re-examine the way that you treat people in your actions and choices, then I feel that the article is a success. I wish that David Kim, ex-CEO of Baja Fresh (IIRC he is no longer with the company, but that could be a faulty memory too) had learned that lesson as well.

      I was a bit surprised, after re-reading my blog, just how angry I found myself getting at the institutional policy for Baja Fresh. I don’t know why anyone would go to work for them after seeing this (assuming anyone has actually decided, after seeing this episode, that BF is a place they’d be willing to work). When someone does something wrong, like bullies or abuses others, I believe that it isn’t just okay to criticize them, but necessary. To me, bullies get away with what they do because people are not willing to criticize them.

      However, thanks again for reading and I hope there are other items you find interesting.

      Reply
  • Ryan March 4, 2017 at 16:20

    I realize this is years after the original Undercover Boss episode and your blog post, but I thought I’d just point out a little bit of possible insight on this. My mother and I watched this and other episodes, and we’ve thought that this sort of thing may well tie into the “competition” factor of the show. That is: in Undercover Boss all the employees are told that two people are going to be competing for an employment position–they have to have an explanation for the cameras to be filming their branches, after all. I think what may be going on behind the scenes is that the showrunners tell the employees that they should make it especially difficult for these two “competing” employees, in essence hazing them, in order to try to help them figure out which employee is better. This would explain the behavior sometimes seen on the show, as in this episode.

    In that context, the fact that Kim/Ken was abandoned during the lunch rush, and was told to make a burrito without being told the ingredients, makes more sense. I suppose all of this would be done for purposes of “drama,” to make things a little more interesting for us viewers back home. If that’s the case though, there’s probably uneven difficulty for the bosses–in some episodes the employees don’t seem like they’re going out of their way to make it difficult for the “competitor.” Maybe in some episodes the employees were told to this, and in other episodes they weren’t.

    HOPEFULLY Baja Fresh doesn’t treat all its new employees like this . . . just the ones that happen to be competing on TV for a position as a new employee.

    Anyway, this is just a little possible insight as to the rationale of what may be going on. (If so though, then why doesn’t the show come right out at the start and say “All the employees have been told to be tougher on the competitors than they normally would be on new employees?” Drama may be helpful for a TV show, but for a company trying to produce a 45-minute ad, you want to try to showcase that your company is improving, rather than treating its employees poorly, as you’ve pointed out.)

    Reply
    • J Michel Metz March 4, 2017 at 17:50

      It’s an excellent analysis. Thank you very much for writing all that – even if the episode aired a while ago, it’s still good to revisit it every once in a while.

      You may very well be correct that the producers told employees to make life difficult for the “candidates.” If so, this may very well be a case of the enthusiasm for the drama leading to unintended consequences. That is, they could have been thinking about what made for “good tv” without realizing what it actually looked like to a viewing audience.

      (I confess, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the episode, not to mention read my own blog on the matter, so I’m doing this from memory)

      I think part of the thing that bothered the hell out of me was the willingness for everyone involve to abandon basic human decency. Forcing Kim/Ken to “apologize” to each customer in the dining area was nothing short of abject humiliation. I find it really difficult to believe that a CEO – even one as detached and clueless as Kim was – would condone such behavior towards a new hire.

      That goes to your point, I suppose about how much leniency would have been given for the sake of the cameras.

      Nevertheless, the upshot of it was that Baja Fresh allowed the impression that it abuses its employees, and that the CEO of the company condoned (perhaps even endorsed) it. Even though Kim has left the company, I still have not gone to one of their franchises since that episode. For me, their 45-minute advertisement was very successful – for other restaurants. :-/

      But, thanks again for writing about your thoughts! I found them quite insightful.

      Reply

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