The Day the Meatballs Ran Out - A Cautionary Tale About Employee Empowerment

Kevin Watson - Director of Business Development ·

One day, I stopped by a local sandwich shop on the way home from work with the intent of grabbing a quick bite to eat. I proceeded to order a foot-long meatball marinara sub and waited for the employee to ladle the meatballs onto the sub bun. After his second scoop, you could hear the sound of the metal ladle scraping the bottom of the container. A panicked look swept over the employee’s face as he explained that they were out of meatballs.

“Not a big deal,” I told him. “You can just cut the sub in half and turn the other half into a cold cut combo.”

“I will have to charge you for two, six-inch subs then,” he replied.

“But then I would be paying an extra $1.25, because buying two six-inch subs is more expensive than buying one, foot-long sub. I feel like I’m being penalized because you ran out of the primary ingredient I ordered.”

“Because you have two different subs,” he replied. “The best I can do is charge you for a six-inch meatball sub AND a six-inch cold cut combo.”

I couldn’t help but stare back at him with a perplexed facial expression.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he continued. “You can order something else then.”

“If I order something else, are you just going to throw that entire sub in the garbage?”


“Is there someone else I can talk to?”

“No. The owner isn’t here.”

“Do you think the owner would want you to throw out a foot-long sub bun and six inches worth of meatballs, and make me a brand new sub rather than just make two separate six-inch subs and charge me for one, foot-long sub?” I asked, to which I was met with a shoulder shrug. “Never mind then. I will go across the street to your competitor and order a sub.”


Reflecting on this interaction, I couldn’t help but wonder if the primary force at play was that the employee did not feel like he was empowered to make on-the-spot decisions. It’s possible that as a result of not empowering their employees, the business owner; (1) lost revenue to a competitor, (2) lost product to unnecessary waste, and (3) lost out on future revenue. This sub shop was the closest sub shop to my house, and as a result of this experience, I decided not to go back there.

Fast forward to last week.

I was at a large retail store picking up a patio set. They were having a minor hiccup with their point-of-sale system, which caused me to spend 5-10 extra minutes in the checkout line. Unprompted, the checkout clerk apologized for the inconvenience, thanked me for my patience and handed me a $5 gift card. She didn’t have to talk to a supervisor or ask for permission. She simply did what she felt was right because my experience did not live up to their standard of what the customer experience should be.

Chances are, I will give the $5 gift card to my wife, which she will spend (and then some) during her next trip to the store. Think about that for a second. The $5 that they gave me for my “inconvenience” will likely result in increased revenue for them during our next visit. All because they empowered their employee to make a decision that they felt was in the best interest of the customer. In addition, I am much more likely to return to shop here, rather than go to one of their other big box store competitors.

In my position, I often spend time with our client’s employees in one-on-one, confidential settings, where a myriad of questions are asked. When I ask the question, “are employees empowered to make decisions critical for their job?” I’m often met with mixed responses. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is typically a significant correlation between whether or not employees feel empowered to make critical decisions, and their overall morale and job satisfaction levels.

I encourage you to ask yourself whether your employees feel empowered to make critical decisions, or at the very least, feel empowered to make decisions that pass the common sense sniff test. If the answer is no or you’re not sure, this may be a blind spot for your company. Let me know if you’d like to talk more about this or need help developing a harder working people plan for your organization.