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.


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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