Workforce

Allegheny Health Network taps Pittsburgh Community Kitchen to meet the labor challenge

A Cura Hospitality culinary director partners with the nonprofit to hire trained but hard-to-place workers.
Photo courtesy of Cura Hospitality

Chef Ryan Sonson, culinary director for Allegheny Health Network (AHN) in Western Pennsylvania, is trying to fill about 100 foodservice jobs at the nine hospitals he manages. Although he goes through the usual channels—help wanted ads, recruiting at schools and job fairs—today’s competitive labor market makes it very tough.

“You can’t just place an ad and hope to get a candidate,” he says. “I now have to dig deeper to find employees.”

The healthcare network is currently looking for hostesses, pod servers, cooks, foodservice attendants and utility workers. So Sonson forged a partnership with Pittsburgh Community Kitchen, a nonprofit that provides a two-month culinary training program for people who experience barriers to employment.

“The individuals may have been incarcerated, overcome addiction or have a slight disability,” says Sonson. “These challenges make them hard to place in jobs.”

The training teaches essential back-of-house skills that help these people get back on their feet, he adds.

The Cura chef first connected with Pittsburgh Community Kitchen when he was asked to do a cooking demo for the trainees. “I made a taco with a Mexican-inspired pierogi filling—kind of a Mexican-Polish hybrid,” says Sonson. Pierogis are a regional favorite, and Sonson filled his with roasted corn, poblano peppers, potato puree and Oaxaca cheese.

During the demo, the trainees followed along, preparing the tacos from scratch with a mole sauce and topping them with avocado and cilantro. The results were served for lunch, accompanied with spiced black beans and basmati rice.

Tacos with pierogi fillingA Pittsburgh Community Kitchen trainee holds the completed taco lunch/Photo courtesy of Cura Hospitality

“That class helped us cement a relationship with this tremendous local organization and has already led to an externship program within our network,” says Sonson.

What’s more, he was able to land a job for Andre, one of the program’s graduates, at AHN’s West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh.

“Andre has trouble gripping objects, but we were able to employ him as a utility worker,” Sonson says. “He breaks down boxes after delivery, takes out trash and washes dishes.”

West Penn is easily accessible by city transit and is close to where Andre lives, so the placement was a good fit. He has now been employed for two months.

Sonson laments the fact that hospital foodservice jobs are no longer coveted for their better hours, benefits and other perks. “Since COVID, people are not as interested in these positions,” he says.

So during his visit to Pittsburgh Community Kitchen, he also shared the benefits employees receive when working with a contract foodservice company like Cura. He played up the flexible schedules, family-friendly culture, tuition reimbursement and more advanced culinary and hospitality training.

“It’s truly a win-win,” says Sonson. “It allows us to not only strengthen the Cura brand within the [Western Pennsylvania] community, but it helps us source potential new employees in a depleted market.”

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