How These Franchisees Keep Their Young Workforce Motivated

At their Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores, Dennis and Nicole Drake know that most young employees are temporary. But they invest in their future anyway.

This story appears in the September 2018 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Dennis and Nicole Drake know how to motivate a workforce. The husband-­and-wife team -- a Defense Department adviser and an aerospace engineer, respectively -- spend their days working in highly sensitive U.S. intelligence and defense facilities, managing projects and teams stretched across the globe. Then they turn to their side hustle, where those same skills are put to different use: They own and operate two Tropical Smoothie Cafe stores in Virginia, employing high school and college students preparing for their future. To keep their staff engaged and working hard, the Drakes have implemented programs, rewards systems and scholarships to set up their employees for success -- at Tropical Smoothie Cafe and beyond. 

Jon Norris

Related: 10 Tips to Motivate Employees Without Resorting to Money

Most of your staff are Gen Z. How do you recruit and hire? 

Dennis: In this industry, you have a lot of companies vying for the same people, and there’s high turnover. We have to understand the dynamic of how to hire right and keep our employees from moving simply for a dollar or two. 

Nicole: When I do interviews, I take the  “motherly approach.” If [the candidate is] still in school, I stress that the most important thing right now is their education. And I establish my expectations up front. I’ll tell them that I don’t like drama, but I’ll also let them know that I want them to come to work and feel safe and comfortable being who they are. That’s what we owe our employees. 

What have you learned about keeping this younger staff engaged?

Dennis: They like a healthy challenge and competition. We reward them with our “Atta Boy” employee-of-the-month program that comes with recognition and a bonus. They also value meaningful activities -- our guys and gals at our Gainesville location lost a friend to suicide because of bullying, and we took up that cause, with all our employees wearing buttons or shirts to raise awareness and show support. When you care about what they care about, you get great mileage when it comes to their commitment.

Related: 7 Ways Managers Motivate and Demotivate Employees

Image Credit: Jon Norris

How do you support their career development?

Nicole: We know this is a stepping-­stone for them, and we don’t want anyone to feel like we’re trying to trap them here. But I do want them to learn work ethic. If you’re a crew member and you have aspirations to be a leader, then there’s a shift-lead goal, an assistant manager goal and a manager goal. We’re extremely proud that both of our managers were some of our first hires.

Dennis: We also provide resume assistance for our college students and graduates, we provide letters of recommendation and we’ve hosted homework night for students going into final exams -- we keep the café open late in the evening so our team has a quiet place to study. We also hold scholarship challenges, certain days where a portion of our sales go toward a fund for our employees. 

Related: How to Motivate Employees in Less Than 5 Minutes

Do you keep in touch once they’ve moved on? 

Dennis: The other night, Nicole got a text from one of our ex-employees, who’s in college now, that said, “I’m in this business class. What were the methods of customer engagement we used?” It’s rewarding -- 

Nicole:  -- to know that they feel comfortable enough to text me at 10 o’clock at night to ask me that question. They know it’s OK!

Lydia Belanger

Written By

Lydia Belanger is a former associate editor at Entrepreneur. Follow her on Twitter: @LydiaBelanger.