TV: Proper Gander

The pecking order
If you’ve ever staggered home from the pub, you may have been lured inside a branch of Southern Fried Chicken looking for something to soak up the alcohol. While the fast food chain is profitable overseas, its two hundred British branches are failing financially. Concerned that the SFC “brand could be damaged”, its owner and managing director Andrew Withers has enlisted the help of Channel Four’s Undercover Boss. This programme films the directors of different organisations as they pretend to be shop-floor staff in their own businesses.
Disguised as ‘Jim’, Andrew spends a week in several of his outlets to learn why they have stopped bringing him much money. Predictably, he sees health and safety guidelines being breached because it would be too expensive or otherwise impractical for the franchises to follow them. But at the same time he’s impressed by the efforts of his staff, especially their speed and patience when dealing with their less sober customers. At the end of a late-night shift behind the counter, Andrew says “I didn’t realise the type of customers that come in to these restaurants”. If the owner of a fast food takeaway chain doesn’t realise that many of its punters will be the post-pub crowd, you have to wonder what planet he’s living on.
So, Undercover Boss has some worth by highlighting the gulf between the upper and lower ranks of a business. Normally, this distance means that the bosses don’t have to see how their decisions affect those at the foot of the corporate ladder. And these decisions often mean taking away people’s livelihoods, even if they are disguised by euphemisms like ‘restructuring’ or ‘modernisation’. So, when Andrew visits the struggling South Shields outlet his first thought is to withdraw SFC’s involvement and make a report to the Health and Safety executive. Then he is invited to the home of the family who runs the outlet, and realises how hard they work for little financial reward. He’s in a quandary, as his business instincts tell him that the outlet should close, but he also realises that this would ruin the lives of at least half a dozen people. Fortunately for his staff, Andrew has an epiphany and offers to invest in the branch. Whether he would have done the same without meeting them personally or having the cameras film his decision is anybody’s guess.
Mike Foster

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