Some workdays are so challenging or frustrating that it’s easy to fantasize about starting over from scratch. FoodService Director asked operators to do just that: to imagine how, if they could blow it all up and start again—on the same budget—they would solve their most pressing labor problems.
Veteran leaders answered with both honesty and imagination. Many said they would increase pay if they could. Barring budget increases, however, these creative leaders had already implemented many of their own ideas to ease the shortage and find, train and continue developing quality workers.
Here are the ideas they offered, from the immediately doable to the complex but worthwhile.
Director of Culinary and Wellness Services
Minneapolis Public Schools
Blasting past the old hairnet stereotypes. “As we’re looking to attract more people from the culinary world and restaurant industry or even higher ed, we face the old perception of school food as lunch ladies working part time,” Weber says. “The challenge is really changing the marketing approach of what noncommercial food is. The kid who wants to go to culinary school has a notion of creativity and freedom and being the next James Beard-winning chef. Noncommercial food has the perception of being structured, working from standardized recipes with no creativity.”
- Collaborate with area chefs. Weber recently helped form a True Food Chef Council with 28 Twin Cities restaurants. In October, the council co-sponsored a Junior Iron Chef: Super Bowl Edition competition emceed by TV personality Andrew Zimmern, gaining exposure for Minneapolis Public Schools as a culinary force.
- Become a presence at culinary events, including farmers markets, restaurant promotions and awards. “It exposes us, showing that we’re not just school food,” Weber says. “We’re actually a fabulous opportunity to work in a restaurant that specializes in students.”
- Return to vocational training, including apprenticeships. “Vocational schools tied with apprenticeship programming would be fabulous. ... Once you learn that craft, if you want to go into management, you have the option to take secondary courses to lead into management or entrepreneurship.”
- Cultivate societal respect and appreciation for craft. “The issue starts with stigmatizing manual labor as bad and highlighting [that] the only way to succeed in life is through secondary education and college, bypassing the old ways of apprenticeship and craft, whether for a cabinetmaker or cook. Not all careers are driven by a college education.”
Associate Vice President
Yale Hospitality; New Haven, Conn.
Finding team members who can not only prepare great food, but also interact at a more memorable level with student customers. “We are differentiated from QSRs and casual dining—they’re looking at a temporary workforce and high turnover. We’re no longer just looking at quality service and quality food—now it’s all about quality experience, which requires a different level of engagement from our employees. How do you teach creating memories?”
- “Audition” potential employees instead of interviewing them, screening for a positive attitude, interpersonal skills and willingness to learn rather than an existing skill set. “The No. 1 thing is not hiring for a dishwasher or general maintenance employee. You look and fast-forward this person: In two or three years of training, can they have upward mobility?”
- Improve the built environment. Make workstations ergonomic and pleasant. “Our dishwashing system, for instance, is fantastic. It’s well-ventilated [and] process-oriented, and requires the least number of body motions. There’s music and nice finishes on the walls, so it’s a good place to be.”
- Manage wisely and well. Properly managed employees tell others that work is fun, and word of mouth is the best way to attract quality workers. “The best recruitment tool you can have is if you create an environment that is rewarding and fun.”
Executive Chef and Food Service Director
Hays Medical Center; Hays, Kan.
Getting potential workers to reconsider hospital food—or even think of it in the first place. “I think foodservice departments and noncommercial kitchens need to get the word out about what we’re doing. People don’t realize you can come to the hospital and eat. They don’t know we’re being creative in the hospital, serving a prime rib dinner, or clams and linguine in Rock Garden Cafe. And we’re a nonprofit, so we can’t advertise.”
- Recruit at culinary schools, with beautifully plated food on hand. “We always bring food and present it well—as simple as making a basket out of a watermelon for your fruit tray presentation. We’re able to show that we can multitask or create multiple positions and it won’t become monotonous.”
- Hold public cooking classes. After the Hays Medical Center Foundation purchased 10 induction stoves, Fitzthum and his team sponsored an “I Can Cook” series that allows 20 adults to come in once a month for a class at a minimal cost of $10 per person. “We’ve had a few applications and have hired some folks in relation to that. It’s all about creating community interest.”
Food and Nutrition Services Director
Mexia State Supported Living Center; Mexia, Texas
Finding workers even when they lack sufficient community and public support. “It’s a tough place to work sometimes. There’s a lot of personalities, shifts and people. It’s a little overwhelming, especially at the beginning. We hire and rehire, and all the training’s on us. It’s a lot of burden and expense on us as a facility, the constant turnover for us.”
- In-school training for local students who want to stay in the area. “I would love to see the local school districts do more with educating students for the foodservice industry. The burden is totally on us to provide all levels of training.”
- Public and community support, including transit and affordable child care options. “If [employees] had places in town to meet and have a bus system, that would help them get to work. A day care system on or near campus for our employees would also be a big help. Many don’t make their probationary period, as they have a very difficult time making it to work or they have excessive tardiness.”
- Driver’s licenses for all workers, including immigrants. Employees are often needed to drive delivery trucks, especially when a regular driver is out sick.