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The keys to solving a staff shortage? Cross-training and simplification

In October, the unemployment rate hit its lowest point since the Vietnam War, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And it’s a number that is significantly affecting foodservice hiring.

Not only are directors and chefs having a tough time filling jobs but they also can’t find enough skilled workers to execute the menu and provide good customer service. As operators continue to grapple with this problem, some are finding the solution lies in extensive cross-training.

Multitasking to stretch staff

“Every staff member is trained to multitask,” says Kory Samuels, executive director, dining services, at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate New York. “The lines of responsibility are graying.”

At RIT, the process starts with recruiting and hiring.

“We still advertise for cooks and chefs, but we also look to hire management supervisors who can do short-order cooking,” Samuels says. And instead of looking for production cooks, as in the past, Samuels now recruits for line cooks and sous chefs who bring more skills to the table. Once hired, though, “I take a litmus test to gauge a staff member’s ambitions and interests. No employee wants to be forced into a task,” he says.

While the university’s kitchens are organized with a traditional chain of command (head chef, chef de cuisine, sous chefs, junior sous chefs and cooks), every manager is trained in two positions, and assistant managers are in charge of cross training nonculinary staff and students. Dishwashers, receiving clerks and even the front-line servers are trained to help with prep work or retherming, and some cooks are trained in the POS system to do simple transactions as cashiers.

Samuels attributes “the new age of kitchen design” for facilitating this cross-utilization of workers. “There are fewer walls, and the distance between display cooking stations, serving lines and cashiers is only about 4 feet,” he says. “If the Mongolian grill cook gets busy, for example, it’s easy for a cross-trained server to step in and retherm or stir fry.”

Reworking the menu and service

Along with cross-training workers, operators are meeting the labor shortage by simplifying or adapting the menu. Build-your-own stations, which require less staffing, are proliferating in college and university, healthcare, and business and industry segments.

“We try to have students and guests create most of their dishes, and we finish the cooking process for them,” says Mark Miller, director of dining services at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. While scratch cooking is still the goal in many operations, high-quality value-added products such as precut produce and proteins, prepared soups and proprietary salad dressings can relieve labor pressures without reducing customer satisfaction.

“We make sure the time staff is spending on scratch production is used wisely,” says Aran Essig, executive chef at University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo. “Are there time-wasters that we do not need to be doing that customers don’t see the value in? Are there tasks staff are doing that a part-timer or student can do?” he says.

Paring down the menu is a growing strategy as well. “We have simplified our grab-and-go options to the top-10 sales leaders,” says Janna Traver, executive chef/assistant director of KU Dining at University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan. “Twelve months ago, the grab-and-go menu had over 60 options, but we trimmed it to 20 items. And after a semester, [we] discovered that 10 items made up 90% of sales.”

Traver also slimmed down the catering guide, removing redundant menu options and focusing on customization.

“Make sure to constantly review the way your staffing is structured,” Samuels of RIT advises. And give employees the tools not only to work different positions within one venue but to work across different operations—retail, grab-and-go, catering, a la carte and the all-you-care-to-eat dining halls. “Build a toolkit of skills for workers so they can be prepared for anything,” he says.

Photograph: Shutterstock

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