Staff size fluctuates by segment

Colleges only market that reports an uptick.

Overall, many staffs have remained the same size for the past two years, with 46% of respondents to The Big Picture research reporting this. More operators in every market segment—with the exception of colleges—report that their staffs had remained constant in size.

Bucking the overall trend, 45% of college and university operators report that their staffs have increased in the past two years. By comparison, 27% of schools and 36% of hospitals reported workforce cuts.

For those colleges that added staff, reasons for doing so included an increased customer base (62%), expanded menu options (62%), increased number of foodservice locations (46%) and increased hours of operation (46%).

Rich Turnbull, associate director of University Housing & Dining Services at Oregon State University in Corvallis, says new operations were a big reason for the increase in his workforce.

“We opened a licensed Peet’s Coffee Shop and also built a full-service grocery store [that also offers prepared foods],” Turnbull says. “We added about 12 positions with these added locations.”

Turnbull’s department also expanded hours of operation to account for the 350 beds that were added with the residence hall, which was built in conjunction with the foodservice operations. An increasing customer base is one area colleges have a leg up over other market segments, adds Turnbull.

“I think even in the recession, the university systems have had strong enrollments,” he says. “If anything they’ve been positively impacted because more people are going back to school.”

At Unity (Maine) College, Lorey Duprey, dining manager, says expanding menu options has required her department to add more student labor.

“We have two cook-to-order stations now. One is a stir-fry/deli, and then we have what we call Border to Border, where each day has a different type of menu, from Mexican to Greek, Italian and Asian. We brought in students to man those stations. We’ve probably added the equivalent of two positions with this expanded menu.”
Duprey says customer demands are a driving force behind the increased options, which in turn require more employees. “We have to meet people’s eating habits,” she says. “They don’t want to be limited with what they can have. Increased choice usually means an increase in staff.”

School and hospital operators both reported more decreases than increases in foodservice personnel during the past two years. Schools (73%) and hospitals (85%) cited budget cuts as the No. 1 reason for their decline in staff.

And unlike their college counterparts, schools (50%) and hospitals (30%) report that a declining customer base was a major contributing factor to their employee cuts.

K-12 schools (36%) cited using more prepared foods as a reason for smaller teams, significantly more than all other segments.

At Good Samaritan Hospital, in Dayton, Ohio, the foodservice department has experienced a decrease in staff, which Deborah Girvin, director of nutrition services, attributes to a declining customer base.

“[In the past two years] we’ve been decreasing our patients’ length of stay and re-
admissions,” Girvin says.

Girvin expects her foodservice personnel to continue to decline in the next 12 months.

“Pay for performance is going to affect us,” Girvin says. “We’re expecting our reimbursement to go down, so we have to decrease our costs. For my department labor is a very large cost. Luckily, we have been able to place people in other jobs in the larger health system. I haven’t had to tell anyone that they have no job.”

Doing more with less seems to be a common theme in those market segments that report staff shrinkage. One change that has helped schools meet that more-with-less mandate is a move away from scratch cooking, according to David Caldwell, director of food services at Marana (Ariz.) Unified School District.

“We were overstaffed when I came to the district four years ago and we’ve been cutting ever since,” Caldwell says. “With all the new products that are available from vendors, it’s becoming easier to prepare our meals without scratch cooking. We also installed more self-service, such as fruit and vegetable bars, which also decrease the need for staff. Over the last couple of years, we’ve decreased about 20 three-hour-or-more positions.”

An increased usage of frozen food was the catalyst behind a decline in staff at Fox C-6 School District in Arnold, Mo., according to Candy Gruenewald, nutrition director. Gruenewald says the district began decreasing staff about five years ago and got to the point in the last two years where it simply couldn’t cut anymore.

“When I first came here we did cookies, pizza and rolls from scratch,” Gruenewald says. “Now we buy all those frozen. With the new meal regs, some people say, ‘we’re going to need more staff,’ but with the amount of items we’re going to do from scratch, we’re going to be OK.”

Although Gruenewald expects her workforce to stay the same next year, she thinks a reliance on convenience foods is here to stay for schools.

“You pay more for the convenience food, but you don’t need as many staff members to prepare it, and if you are doing a lot of scratch cooking, you are not paying as much,” she says. “Food prices versus labor prices seems to be the choice schools have to make. In schools, it seems the convenience products are winning right now.” 

Fast Facts

  • Among those operators who cut staff, 75% cited budget cuts as the No. 1 reason for their reduction in workforce.
  • In those operations that increased their workforce, a growth in customer base was the No. 1 reason cited, with 56% of operators saying this caused them to add staff. The South was significantly more likely than the other regions to see a larger customer base.