Foodservice Operation of the Month

How to build a training program that gets staff inspired

Central Washington University has revamped its training initiatives by listening to workers and incorporating their feedback.
Photo courtesy of Central Washington University

Some foodservice employees may work in the industry for life, while others, particularly those at college and university operations, plan for the gig to last a semester or two. But no matter which category their workers fall into, foodservice leaders can develop training programs that are applicable to all.

Building a robust training schedule can not only make the operation run more smoothly, but also teach staffers skills that will benefit them for life in any field. Here are tips from Denise Payton, assistant director of dining services at Central Washington University, who leads the operation’s trainings—including unique offerings like Difficult Conversation Training.

Go to staffers for information and inspiration.

Payton came to CWU in large part to revamp the operation’s training program, and leadership told her to consider the opportunity a blank slate. She went straight to the staff, including the operation’s 400-plus student workers, to find out what they felt wasn’t working and where they might like to learn more.

“When I first got here, I focused on that bridging,” Payton says. “A lot of the students felt they weren’t being utilized enough, and they wanted more opportunities. They were craving more education.”

Based on those conversations, Payton and the team created a Coordinator Leadership Training: 16 hours of training on communication, mentorship and other skills that are crucial to all kinds of careers. Everyone noticed a difference in the 19 students who completed the inaugural program.

Listening to staff doesn’t stop with the initial creation of the programs. Payton continues to evolve them—for example, she added a “Using Your Voice” module to the next phase of the Coordinator Leadership program after a student worker told her that “people have good ideas but don’t speak up because they don’t think it’s their place.”

Mix in outside-of-the-box training topics.

After introducing courses on the basics, look to include new programs that solve current problems. Ask what’s relevant to the individuals on your current staff, where any program holes might be and what the major challenge of the present moment is.

The recent answer to that last question has of course been COVID.

CWU implemented a Difficult Conversation Training in September for all full-time staffers that “focused on how they were feeling talking about their emotions and handling those of customers,” Payton says. “They’ve had to ask people, can you wear a mask, can you distance please, while still making them feel welcome. That is a difficult conversation.”

CWU staff training

CWU Dining Services staff gather for training / photo courtesy of Central Washington University

While the first Difficult Conversation Training centered on giving staff support and conversational tools during COVID, Payton plans to continue the series even after the pandemic has abated. The core themes will remain the same: recognizing your emotions and those of the person you’re speaking to, having tough conversations with your supervisor or your employees and more.

“Tying [training topics] to the current times, whether that’s COVID or not, really shows people that you hear them and you want to help them do their best every day,” Payton says.

Plan hands-on activities to keep staffers engaged.

Payton learned this lesson the hard way: Because of COVID restrictions, the university told her the second iteration of the Coordinator Leadership program in January 2021 had to be done remotely. 

“I thought, oh, we’ll do the same things and have breakout rooms and it will be fun … but I quickly discovered you just cannot do 16 hours of online training in two days,” Payton says. “By the end, my eyes were glassy too!”

When pandemic restrictions allow, the energy of in-person, hands-on, collaborative activities is key—especially when it comes to team bonding. Jeopardy-style trivia and cooking show-inspired contests can be a lot of fun, for example, and even smaller activities can bring staffers together.

“One of the most successful activities we did was building Christmas ornaments,” Payton says. “They sat there for an hour building these little things, but the goal was really for them to spend time together and get to know each other as a team. And the people you’d think would never tie a bow or care about glitter were the most proud of their ornaments.”

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