Beware of the Brown M&M’s


In the early 1980’s rock fans were introduced to a rather interesting legal document called a tour rider. A rider is a list of stipulations within a contract that an artist demands of the promoter in order to perform. We learned about riders thanks to a unique and now famous provision in Van Halen’s tour contract at the time. In their reportedly 53-page, typewritten contract they included this specific request for their dressing room: “M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).”

The sentiment at the time was that this rider provision was another example of huge rock star egos demanding outlandish and often silly things. My friends believed this rider stipulation was leaked to the press by the band to enhance their rock star image. And, frankly we teenagers loved it.

The truth is less sexy and more practical. Van Halen toured with a huge stage show including a massive 850 parabolic aluminized reflector (par) lamp lighting system. Setting up and tearing down the show equipment in older arenas was often problematic. Many of these buildings couldn’t handle such a large production. If the equipment was not properly installed, it could be dangerous to both the band and its fans.

Van Halen front man David Lee Roth explains, “It was a little bit more cowboy back in the ‘80’s in the promotional field than it is today. Promoters frequently didn’t read the contract rider and we would have structural, physical issues because there wasn’t the proper electricity, load-bearing stress, etc.” Therefore, the band added the M&M provision in the middle of the rider as a test for promoters. If the musicians arrived to find brown M&M’s in their dressing room it probably meant the promoter had not read the contract. In that case, they would do a line check of the stage production to ensure safety. They would also trash their dressing room to send a message to future promoters (and because that’s what rocker stars did back then). Eventually word got around and promoters began reading the tour contract.

Brown M&Ms were a signal to Van Halen that the concert promoter did not pay attention to detail.

I see brown M&Ms all the time in the real world.

After spending a decade in the foodservice industry, I can assure you the dining room and service at a restaurant is a brown M&M. They are a direct reflection of how the entire operation is run. If the dining area is dirty or messy and the service is lousy, expect the kitchen to run likewise. In this case, inattention to detail can lead to unsanitary conditions and possibly food poisoning.

When I went on store visits while working for Victoria’s Secret, I noticed a strong correlation between the back room of a store and the shopping floor. For me, the back room was a brown M&M. Stores with neat, well-organized back rooms had their act together. Their staff was better trained, their displays were done correctly, the apparel was adequately folded or exhibited tidily, the prices were accurate and promotional signage and merchandising was properly displayed. Attention to detail was systematic. When the back room was a mess, I would get out my checklist and get to work.

Finally, when I was sixteen I worked for a small grocery store in Florida. Our young manager, Michael, always had a piece of trash or random product that he had found out of place in his hand (sometimes both hands). In addition to his managerial duties he was constantly tidying, straightening and cleaning. His message was clear: this store will be a clean, well-run grocery store. And it was.

Michael’s brown M&M was anything out of place on the shopping floor. If he walked the floor and found nothing out of place, he would return to his office at the front of the store. However, if he found something out of place, he would grab the nearest stock boy and have them walk around the store with him. He took notes on a little pad of paper of everything that needed to be “fixed” and hand it to the unfortunate employee. In about an hour’s time, he would walk the floor again to inspect the kid’s progress.

Michael ran a tight ship. We employees knew to keep everything in order or we might be the one walking around with Michael to tidy up. And that was no fun. It was easier to pay attention to detail as you go about your day. It was a lot of work to constantly remove the brown M&M’s left by shoppers and inattentive employees, but I actually enjoyed it. I was proud of our little store.

Attention to detail is not necessarily micro-managing. Attention to detail involves setting specific expectations of how your organization should run and then holding people accountable for meeting those expectations. My examples were retail oriented, but the same applies for any organization.

If you want a well-run company, beware of the brown M&M’s.

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