How a college in a restaurant-heavy city thinks about foodservice hiring

FoodService Director recently spoke with foodservice operators across the U.S. to see how they’re handling today’s labor challenges. One was Spiros Vergatos, director of operations for Vanderbilt Campus Dining in Nashville. Here are his thoughts. 

FSD: Speaking of staying power, what’s the secret to having one-third of staff remain on board so long?

SV: It starts with the fact we have one of the best tuition reimbursement programs in the country. One example is if you are a worker with college-age children, the university will pay 55% of tuition—whichever college they attend—and it’s a big advantage. We try to get people to think long term [to remain] with us because, for the majority of staff, this benefit takes effect after five years of service. We have a lot of workers who’ve been with us for 10, 20 years—one has been on board for 55. We also offer a starting pay rate that’s higher than it is at many commercial local establishments.

How else do you engage staff in the way of incentives?

Often, the little things add up. On Fridays, we sponsor Vandy-wear day, where staff can come to work in any type of university apparel, caps, jerseys and more. We sponsor the traditional Halloween costume event, and during holidays it’s about festive sweaters. We distribute commemorative pins to employees reaching milestone anniversaries. We like to dole out $25 gift cards randomly to staff members who go above and beyond the call of duty. We like to look at Vanderbilt Campus Dining as one big family.

What’s your general short- and long-term outlook in terms of staffing?

Nashville is one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, so our biggest challenge is vying for workers in competition with many commercial restaurants and hotels in Davidson County. We are not expecting to find a sous chef coming in off the street, so our approach is hiring entry-level workers where we can train and groom them to move up the ranks—maybe move from dishwasher or cashier to prep cook and beyond. The strategy is about internal workers moving into those higher positions. It’s all a work in progress.

You recently expanded hours of operation at Munchie Mart convenience store. How did this shake out from a workforce standpoint?

We had a built-in advantage because, over the past 10 to 12 years, we have offered late-night hours at other dining formats. We already had an affinity for proper staffing. What you want to do at the outset is to identify staff who, over time, have displayed a willingness to work the third shift. Plus, we pay $1.25 more per hour to work it, so that’s an attractive incentive. We have several employees who always inquire about overtime opportunities.


What hiring channels do you tap to find the best candidates?

We conduct job fairs, and also do outreach to organizations in the city who specialize in job placement for immigrants. We offer current employees a $100 bonus for every new and successful worker they recommend. High schools are another recruitment target but, unfortunately, we have had limited success engaging with culinary schools. At least one locally no longer exists. Opryland also formerly had that as a resource, but no longer. There’s a growing number of people who opt not to attend an expensive culinary school but instead get a lower-level restaurant position and over time move up the ranks.

What is your impression of artificial intelligence, and how do you think it will affect staffing in the future? 

Looking at the labor situation along with mass production (in the dining halls) makes something like robotics more appealing. And it’s something that we’re looking at because our biggest expense is labor. Prep cooks who are cutting in six different locations (in a single dining venue) … maybe you need to look at automation as a way to improve efficiencies.

What’s your approach to staff training to handle or disarm a potential threat or crisis?

We work in collaboration with the university police department on these critical situations and have the right protocols in place. In our own dining realm, we to this point have not had any internal violence occur, knock on wood. But if I field a complaint from an employee about someone (from employee to customer) talking trash or making derogatory comments, that’s a potential red flag and we take those very seriously.

If employees opt to leave, do you seek feedback from them about their impressions of the organization and ways to improve it?

We do an exit interview with every employee who leaves—even if it’s a termination. We know that in this scenario, you have people who are armed with some criticism, and we take that with a grain of salt. But you typically learn something in an exit interview about your program. You pick up something from it and look to respond to the feedback.   

What has been your greatest staffing success story over the past few years?

One of our executive chefs who was hired 12 years ago moved up the ranks on a regular basis—prep cook, cook assistant, senior level position—and ultimately attended culinary school, which the university helped finance. He graduated and became a sous chef, was promoted again and is currently an executive chef. We always try to … promote from within.

How do you handle a shorthanded workforce?

We start by cross-training staff to be able to work across various platforms. We have stockroom clerks all trained to work in the dish room, for example. Staff is eager to be cross-trained because they know it could lead to overtime opportunities if we’re short staff. We’ve seen workers who automatically pick up the slack if they see we’re short staff. It’s all a matter of instinct.


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