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Natural Foods Merchandiser
steven petusevsky

How do stores find and develop good foodservice employees?

Simple tactics to reduce turnover and create a labor-efficient foodservice program.

One of greatest challenges our industry faces today is finding qualified people to work in retail operations, particularly in prepared foods areas. Nearly every restaurant chain, quick-service restaurant and franchised foodservice company now grapples with this issue. In fact, in a recent survey of operators, more than half cited finding talent as their main obstacle. By comparison, only about 25 percent named minimum wage increases as a top challenge. Just 10 percent called increasing health care costs a problem.

This comes right amidst a barrage of other factors potentially affecting labor costs. Consider government regulations and the fact that, given the velocity of stores being built nationwide, there simply isn’t enough labor to go around. While retail construction increases, our labor pool shrinks—not a good formula. I’ve opened dozens of stores with 60 percent to 70 percent of the labor we really needed—simply because we couldn’t find people.

How we got here

In addition to retail operations growth, demographic changes have contributed to the labor shortage. Just a few decades ago, teenagers made up 50 percent to 70 percent of the workers in our industry, and they were all-but-guaranteed seasonal labor. Not anymore. Once the recession hit, these jobs were scooped up by out-of-work adults and seniors who didn’t have enough savings to retire. Even though the economy has improved, teens haven’t come back.

Our industry’s playing field has changed as well. Grocery stores used to sell groceries, but today many run full-fledged restaurants on top of their traditional departments. It’s safe to say stocking shelves is an easier task than preparing sophisticated dinners for thousands of customers daily, so where do stores find qualified foodservice employees? Culinary schools typically train chefs and cooks to run restaurants, not supermarkets, so the success rate of culinarians in retail stores has not been exceptionally high.

Meanwhile, consumer demands have changed radically. They shop and eat much differently than in years past. Now they expect to find products and services traditionally supplied by many different operations all under one roof at their neighborhood grocery store.

Collectively, these factors have created the perfect storm. So what can we do to solve this labor mess?

Love your labor force

The days of the 60- to 80-hour work week are largely over, although some stores still demand this grind from their employees. In those cases, however, the staff functions much like a revolving door, creating training nightmares, inconsistencies in execution and, ultimately, high labor costs.

A solid way to increase employee retention while keeping labor costs low is to throw your workers a little more love. Many companies are now adopting this approach and working harder to build a better workforce. Some are doing so by raising minimum pay to $12 an hour, thereby making a tangible investment in staff. This also puts businesses on the front side of impending labor laws and government-mandated wage changes.

But doing right by your workforce isn’t just about money. It’s also about hours, lifestyle and balance. Employees are looking for quality of life, future advancement and even careers. You can get them engaged in their work and deliver desirable perks without shelling out lots of money. For instance, granting occasional weekends off, handing out incentive gift cards and enabling employees to share in the potential success of the business are all effective strategies.

To get your managers invested and to encourage them to take ownership over increasing customer satisfaction, create a real bonus structure. I emphasize real because companies too often try to woo potential managers with bonus programs that are in consideration or development. Dangling a not-yet-established system in front of them almost always backfires. Don’t get me wrong: After working in this industry for decades, I am acutely sensitive to the bottom line, so I realize that bonus structures must work for employers, too. But a successful bonus program does both—increases profitability while also rewarding staff for their efforts.

To attract and retain good people, the importance of training staff properly goes without saying. We all know it’s a must, and many companies have made great strides in this area. I recently attended a talk given by one of the founders of the training program at Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Zingerman’s. She shared a saying I had never heard before but will never forget: A CEO asks, “What happens if we train them and they leave?” The answer: “What happens if we don’t and they stay?”

Zingerman’s owns this area, so it’s worth checking out Note that I have no affiliation with this company. I simply appreciate what it does for this industry and want to share these efforts with you.

Design foodservice for success

Despite the current labor squeeze, there are a number of ways you can plan your foodservice programs to improve labor percentages and operational ease. Have you noticed how many large retail markets now have self-service food stations? There’s a good reason for this: Self-serve salad bars, hot cases, sandwich units, dessert cases and the like are strategically designed to minimize labor. However, these offerings are too often way over the top, spanning hundreds of linear feet and featuring a dizzying array of items—all of which must be prepared and filled by labor. On the flip side, properly planned self-service can be an amazing labor saver.

One way to limit labor costs is to plan a menu that crosses multiple foodservice areas. For example, many items in chilled salad bars and hot bars can be recrafted into grab-and-go foods. Having the right equipment to meet your needs is also key to saving labor. Too often I see illogical setups that foster unnecessary costs, such as a walk-in placed on the opposite side of a store as it should be, or four employees chopping the same vegetables when a machine could complete the task much more efficiently.

Last but not least, don’t create or market anything you can’t execute 24/7. If you design a program to capture a certain look or trend but you can’t pull it off every moment your store is open, then just say no. Don’t do it. I’ve seen many stores with sophisticated restaurant-quality foodservice programs that look dreadful because they’re not run by an experienced chef. These situations baffle me. I often take pictures of these disasters so I can show clients what their foodservice will look like if not helmed properly.

Creating only what your labor force can manage daily—and never overlooking simplicity and consistency—will help you run a successful program, even with employees who are not necessarily fully trained chefs. Alternatively, if you want to offer elaborate, high-end cuisine—and you believe it’s the right fit for your clientele—then plan for it and invest in it properly before diving in. Remember, people really are the main ingredient, and if they’re properly trained and cultured, your foodservice operation stands to prosper.

Chef Steven Petusevsky is the author of The Whole Foods Market Cookbook—a Guide to Natural Foods with 350 Recipes (Clarkson Potter, 2002). He works as a culinary resource for several companies, can often be found squeezing fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables in produce sections and will travel long distances for the perfect meal.

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