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A cultural turnaround at Houlihan’s: a customer essay

5 min read

A cultural turnaround at Houlihan’s: a customer essay

Houlihan’s submitted this essay as a very candid look at the communications challenges they had, and the progress they’ve made with the help of Jostle.

Challenge: Needed more reliable communications, accountability, and a sense of fun
Impact: Rising sales, declining employee turnover 
Company: Houlihan’s Restaurants, Inc
Business: Operates three different restaurant concepts with approximately 100 total locations

When we announced that we were seeking nominations for the first ever Jostle Awards, we were worried. What If nobody sent us anything? That did not turn out to be the problem. Every day our inboxes delivered excitement as we opened all of the amazing stories and photos our customers sent in. This was certainly among our favorites, and why Houlihan’s Restaurants, Inc was one of 2 winners in the category “Biggest Cultural Turnaround.” Here is the essay exactly as they sent it to us.

A cultural turnaround

Houlihan’s Restaurants, Inc. owns and operates three different restaurant concepts with approximately 100 total locations. Houlihan’s Restaurant + Bar, the flagship brand, makes up 80 locations, 32 of which are corporately-owned and the rest being franchised. A rustic-modern steakhouse concept, J. Gilbert’s Wood-Fired Steaks & Seafood, consists of five corporately-owned locations with a franchise expansion effort underway. Its third concept is comprised of 11 upscale seafood restaurants under several brand names, depending on the region: Bristol Seafood Grill, Devon Seafood + Steak, and Chequers Seafood Grill. A support center based in Kansas City houses 50 employees and several operations directors have home offices across the county.

To say our internal communication is complicated is an understatement. Communication must be targeted by concept, ownership, region – and sometimes even to the unit level. That, coupled with the fact that restaurant managers need to be actively managing the floor (not on an office computer), makes reaching them a challenge. In addition, only higher-level managers are assigned a company email address; the rest have shared in-boxes.

In our ‘dark days’ (that’s code for pre-Jostle), we used a simple site built by our IT department to relay company news. Its design and functionality were incredibly basic: a white screen with black, 12-point text for news headlines in a vertical list fashion. It had no capability to add photos, video, or even color, save for the greenish headline text to **grab your attention.** You could link to a Microsoft document in a rudimentary way and that’s about it. There was a search feature that was tedious and unreliable, making it difficult to access historic information. 

Houlihan’s intranet before Jostle
Houlihan’s intranet before Jostle

With such basic functionality, people didn’t feel like they could get their messages across effectively on the platform. How do you get the field super jazzed about the next new marketing program or company benefit, for example? Before long, employees began skirting the system—sending direct emails to the intended audience in order to communicate more creatively or add visual content; making news announcements during conference calls and meetings, etc. And with no good way to share instructional communication, there was certainly no sharing of cultural stories or celebrations of the company’s people.

Several problems emerged from the company’s lack of process around internal communications and individual employees’ varying ‘workarounds’ to posting news in a central place. Operations rightly complained of inboxes being bombarded throughout the day from many different publishers’ piecemeal instructions and important news. With no central oversight on messaging, communication was not vetted for effectiveness or accuracy, and prioritizing these many pieces of communication became a challenge to store management. No clear chain of command meant store managers might contact one another directly and repeatedly to discuss or ask questions that arose. Historical information was very difficult to find. There was often valid cause for confusion, which made it difficult to hold people accountable to expectations. Poor communications and the resulting lack of accountability often fostered negativity between the field and the support center.

In 2012, the company made some significant changes to leadership—store-level execution was faltering and guest satisfaction scores had fallen below that of our competitors’ average for the first time in years. Employee turnover, likewise, was steadily rising and costing the company a great deal. Knowing these factors to be leading indicators for sales performance, changes had to be made. The CEO delivered a strong message that ‘we’re not average,’ and put new leadership in place, challenging them to identify and address the problems in the operation.

While the problems were many, communication was at the top of the list. It was clear that the company’s (lack of) communications infrastructure needed to be addressed and the search began for a new platform that would achieve the following needs for the organization:

  • Simple, reliable search
  • Image & video capabilities for dynamic, interesting and clear instruction
  • Ability to integrate cultural content to be experienced as an enhancement, not a distraction
  • Social features that would allow the posting of comments and questions – thereby clearing up any confusion quickly and publicly
  • Personal profiles to humanize everyone in the company and allow authentic connections
  • Create a master company calendar to display key dates and deadlines from all departments in one place
houlihans-joslte
Houlihan's vibrant new Jostle intranet


Jostle was selected as Houlihan’s new partner, and worked quickly in collaboration to populate news, build profiles and launch the new site with plenty of excitement and fanfare. The early days had its skeptics, and we learned that people can be resistant to change – even when changes are for the better! But after two years of new leadership, new strategic initiatives and an entirely new communications infrastructure with Jostle at its center, Houlihan’s corporate culture has seen quite a turnaround.

We’ve retrained the company’s key communicators (reporters) to disseminate all company news & initiatives only on Jostle—if it’s not on Jostle, it doesn’t exist. In turn, operators are holding their teams accountable knowing all deployments go through Jostle so everyone has the tools and information at their fingertips, 24/7.

We’ve also begun to show our ‘fun’ side as an organization by publishing cultural content and status updates/shout outs. We celebrate successes together and show appreciation for others with social posts, photos and video. The field particularly enjoys getting glimpses into what really goes on at the KC support center and in other restaurants outside of their own. All employees appreciate the feeling of knowing what the company’s working on, of having a platform to communicate with faces in the company and to feel their work is valued. Jostle allows for that.

"This is the best our Company has been running in my entire 13 years here."

Not surprisingly, improved communication and accountability has positively impacted virtually every aspect of our business. Our crewmembers are happier and turnover is declining. Our recipes are more consistent and we’re following uniform systems in every restaurant. Both guest satisfaction and same-store-sales have seen steady improvement in two years’ time. And the positive energy, sense of teamwork and company pride is palpable. Recently, operations management requested a company store be developed to house new Houlihan’s merchandise for recognition and rewards, and employees display Houli swag or apparel like a badge of honor. In a Director’s meeting recently, Houlihan’s CEO said, “this is the best our Company has been running in my entire 13 years here.”

It’s commonly said that a company’s greatest asset is its people. And it was the vision, leadership and sweat equity of many people at Houilhan’s that resulted in such positive change to the company’s culture. Still, organizations need the right tools and resources to enable and foster success, and without a doubt, Houlihan’s runs on Jostle for communicating and connecting from afar. THAT’s worthy of a big shout-out.

Read more by
Deb Lavoy

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