Paul Tuennerman: “It’s not about you, and it needs to start with you”

Model the behavior you expect on the frontline. — It’s as easy as making sure that those that work closest to you experience the same interaction and “Wow Experience” that you expect them to deliver all the way through the organization to the customer. This interaction can start with a personal note on a new employee’s workstation, […]

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Model the behavior you expect on the frontline. — It’s as easy as making sure that those that work closest to you experience the same interaction and “Wow Experience” that you expect them to deliver all the way through the organization to the customer. This interaction can start with a personal note on a new employee’s workstation, welcoming them on board, telling them where to find office supplies, and cheering them on.

As part of my series about the five things, a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Tuennerman. Paul is the CEO of Dat Dog, a New Orleans staple that specializes in customizable hot dogs in an unpolished environment. But before Paul became an executive in the restaurant industry, he faced adversity that taught him the importance of hard work and treating people with respect. Paul’s family faced many tragedies throughout his childhood, including the death of his older brother, the separation of his parents, and the loss of both parents shortly after. He attributes his ability to endure and overcome adversity to the experiences he went through, even living on the streets of Pittsburgh for a period of time. After high school, he joined the United States Navy where he served three deployments to the western Pacific and Indian Oceans, followed by two years at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. It was in San Diego that Paul met his mentor, Commander John G. Neeb, and together, they received numerous accolades for their work in Supply Chain Management, including several scholarships, a Marine Corps Navy Achievement Medal, and a Presidential Citation from then-President Ronald W. Reagan. In 1986, Paul embraced his transition from the military to the private sector, became a father to his daughter Rebecca, and adapted back to the restaurant industry where he first began.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I began my restaurant career at the age of fifteen when I took a job at Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips. After that, I got a job at the Sheraton Red Lion Inn, where I considered the move from the pot room to the dish room a promotion, and from there I moved to an independent, white-tablecloth restaurant called the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The success of any restaurant is dependent upon the associates pulling together, working towards a shared, well-defined goal, a happy paying customer. This camaraderie and nearly instant feedback had me hooked. Soon I discovered that the long, sometimes thankless hours spent slipping and sliding on quarry tile floors created a bond between my coworkers that I had never really experienced as a young adult.

These early jobs in the restaurant industry were formative. They contributed to my philosophy that success does not begin in the corporate office, but in the restaurant, where the interaction between the associates and the customer takes place. Throughout my career, I have gravitated towards operations and have a tremendous appreciation and admiration for the work people do, every day, in kitchens and dining rooms around the world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

In 1987 I had been placed in a temporary position as a district manager, responsible for the school lunch program at a school district in northeast Pennsylvania. I was filling in for an individual that was out on maternity leave, and given that it was summer, I guess the “powers that were” thought I couldn’t do too much damage, nor get in too much trouble. I had no idea what I was doing, and not one clue how the federal student lunch program worked. To say I was in over my head is an understatement. Fortunately, it was summer, and the schools were limited in their operations.

On my very first day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture arrived to audit one of the schools in my newly assigned district. At the ripe old age of twenty-five, I had no idea what I was doing. Panicked, I had no choice other than to “fess up,” declaring to both the Auditor, as well as the employees, that I had no idea what I was doing, and that failure was not an option. The last thing I wanted to have to do was tell the Regional Vice President how I screwed everything up on day one. Well, everyone stepped in and helped, and when the Auditor returned the next morning, we passed with “flying colors.”

That situation laid the groundwork for an excellent working relationship with all the dining service employees in the school district. It was then that I began to understand the benefits of authenticity and vulnerability. At no time during my career have I been solely responsible for the successes achieved; it has always been those I surrounded myself with, that were the keys to success. Inclusivity is important; everyone has something to contribute. Authenticity is essential when building trust, be it those you work with, or your customer.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

There are a few folks that have had a tremendous impact on me as a person and my career. Mr. Surface was my 9th and 10th grade industrial arts teacher at Blacksburg High School in Blacksburg, VA. In addition to teaching me the arts of woodworking, basic electrical, welding, and automotive repair, Mr. Surface taught me how to shake someone’s hand. Mr. Surface told me to shake someone’s hand as if I meant it, making eye contact while pausing for a personal connection. Little did I know at fourteen years old that what Mr. Surface was teaching me was authenticity. People who’ve dealt with me throughout my career and life will undoubtedly reaffirm that almost to a fault, I am authentic, and they never have to guess where they stand with me in our dealings. This lesson has proven valuable throughout my career, from my dealing in the dish room to the boardroom.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

First, let me be clear that I believe customer service is a component of the formula that makes up the customer experience. Customer service and delivering an exceptional experience is at the core of what we do in the restaurant industry. Yes, as a society, we patronize restaurants to save time, enjoy a specific cuisine that we may not know how to make at home, or to connect and interact with other human beings. Depending on the restaurant, it may even be to exhibit what we’ve achieved in life as a symbol of our social status.

Regardless of how we’ve arrived at the proverbial table, it has to be fun and enjoyable. Atmosphere, including aesthetics, noise level, cleanliness, and organization, as well as food quality, taste, and temperature, portion size, price, and the exchange between the customer and staff, etc., all contribute to the overall customer experience. Of these components, customer service is paramount in creating a memorable moment. I’d subscribe that for most of us, our favorite restaurant, the one that brings us a sense of overwhelming calm, the one we frequent most often, doesn’t offer up the most innovative cuisine, best value, or swanky surroundings. It’s most likely that one where they acknowledge us by name and interact at a level that is not merely transactional. I’d be willing to bet that the staff at this restaurant is adept at adjusting their approach to the personality and mood of each customer. Rarely will food quality or a comfortable booth make up for the shortcomings of an inattentive, rude staff member.

Personally, when I think of some of my favorite restaurants, they don’t necessarily check every box, but they always check one; excellent customer service. In describing Dat Dog, I use such terminology as “unapologetically authentic,” and “unpolished environment.” While we may not check the box when it comes to our design and aesthetics, with our concrete floors, rusty corrugated tin and wooden picnic tables, we certainly do so when it comes to the interaction between our crew and our customers.

We have all had times either in a store or online when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

I’d argue that while most companies understand the importance of a good customer experience, fewer and fewer know that it needs to be woven into the fabric of their company’s DNA; it is imperative that customer service, that one essential component of a good customer experience, seep into every pore of the company’s culture.

Except for those companies that value excellent customer service, most invest in training hard-skills, product innovation, infrastructure, marketing, and pricing. Customer service plays a fundamental role in a restaurant’s ability to create a loyal following, growing revenue organically, and therefore needs to be a cornerstone of the restaurant’s culture. Those organizations that excel in delivering exceptional customer experiences invest in doing so, and it starts with reinforcing the soft-skills and the provision of resources.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

First, I’ve always viewed competition as being healthy for a business. It forces you to get honest with who you are and the direction you’re heading. It’s when times are good that companies can get lost and forget why they ended up in business, to begin with; it’s essential to stay true to who you are. I feel like economic downturns, such as that which we experienced in 2008/2009, forced a lot of companies to assess where they were heading and why. Changes in the market, in general, are always opportune times to pause, take stock, and ensure that you’ve not lost your way and just haven’t realized it yet. I believe every restaurant chain in the market started with a single, great idea. Unfortunately, along the way, some have forgotten that, be it ego or succumbing to external pressures.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I can’t recall precisely the situation that led to the customer complaint, however, in response, I sent the individual a note apologizing for the failure to deliver and a small gift card, asking for them to give Dat Dog another shot. This customer was so blown away by a note from a CEO that they sent me an immediate reply and declared such, expressing that more CEOs should do just that: personally field complaints as they arise, even on the frontline.

Did that Wow! experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Today, much to the chagrin of our Director of Marketing, I reply to most of our customer complaints and compliments. I often provide them with my personal contact information so they can follow-up, should they choose. Since becoming more involved with our customer engagement, we’ve seen an uptick in our scores. Our goal is to reply to every comment, whether it is a 1-Star or a 5-Star, within twenty-four hours.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

1) It’s not about you, and it needs to start with you. — That “Wow Experience” begins at home, and the CEO sets the tone for the company’s culture.

2) Model the behavior you expect on the frontline. — It’s as easy as making sure that those that work closest to you experience the same interaction and “Wow Experience” that you expect them to deliver all the way through the organization to the customer. This interaction can start with a personal note on a new employee’s workstation, welcoming them on board, telling them where to find office supplies, and cheering them on.

3) Encourage everyone to raise their expectations. — Recently I had an interaction with a frontline crewmember who complained about the response time of a mid-level manager. I encouraged that individual to raise their expectations of each other and to challenge that mid-level manager to do better. Don’t expect less of anyone.

4) Don’t confuse efforts with results. — In the end, all that matters is the outcome. Our customers need to leave, wanting to return for more. Even on our worst day, we have nothing but opportunities to make it our best, so long as we keep an open mind and don’t succumb to excuses. To steal a line from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, “do…or do not. There is no try.”

5) Approach every day, every interaction, as if the existence of your company depended upon the outcome. — If there’s one key learning having worked for one company emerging from bankruptcy and another teetering on edge, every moment matters. There are no “do-overs” in life and certainly not when it comes to delighting our customers. Every interaction, be it between senior- and mid-level managers, mid-level managers, and crew, or anyone interacting with our customers, it’s imperative that they approach this as if it was the defining moment between failure and success.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

I think it is essential to find ways for customers to advocate for the brand. One thing I noticed early on at Dat Dog was that a lot of our customers posted pictures of themselves, with our food, on social media. Indeed, I am aware that a lot of people, myself included, post pictures of their food online. However, if you study it, few include themselves in the photograph. At Dat Dog, our customers are so passionate about our food that they want to be part of the picture as well. This phenomenon has led us to launch a campaign, “show us your dog,” where we encourage our customers and crew, to post photographs of their favorite hot dog. This customer advocacy goes a long way towards propagating the cult-like following that we’ve been cultivating.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

When I took the helm at Dat Dog, a top-down culture was firmly entrenched. Folks were frozen and afraid to take the initiative in any aspect of the business. In some of my earliest interactions with our frontline crew, the corporate office was often referred to as the “ivory tower.” Honestly, it was heartbreaking. It was then that I gathered up the team for an honest assessment of our mindset.

We changed the terminology from the corporate office to the restaurant support office (RSO) so that there was no mistake what our purpose was, and who our direct customers were; it was the frontline crew working day-after-day in our restaurants. While this move was somewhat symbolic, to reinforce this culture shift, I also began cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash. I made a point to ensure that when doing so, not only did those working in our restaurants get to see this but that those in the RSO did as well.

This cleaning of the bathrooms and taking out of the trash created a bond between our crew and those in the RSO, unlike anything I had experienced in some time. The message of “it’s a new day at Dat Dog” was real and not just lip service. My movement would be to encourage other leaders to humble themselves, roll-up their sleeves, and do the most seemingly menial tasks, so that they too could experience the type of bond I enjoy with those I work for, at Dat Dog. The payoff is that our entire organization is focused and no longer afraid to do what it takes to achieve success. We all share a clear understanding of what’s important and why.

How can our readers follow you on social media?



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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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