Where on-site foodservice has the edge in labor situations

Leveraging the strengths of university, school and hospital dining programs to get the best people for the jobs.
Training at Cornell Dining.
New employees at Cornell Dining get lots of training and support as soon as they start. | Photo courtesy of Cornell Dining.

A gig with on-site, noncommercial foodservice is something of a best-kept secret for chefs, directors, managers and hourly staff. The benefits and silver linings make onsite foodservice stand apart from local fine dining or hotels or amusement parks or whatever competition you’re up against to get the best and brightest people for your team.

“You always have competition as to where students and employees can find different jobs,” says Paul Muscente, director of Cornell Dining. “People working from home isn’t something we can provide. You can’t serve food from home. So how do we build excitement for coming in? How do we separate ourselves from other organizations, where people feel they want to be part of our department?”

Labor is definitely an issue in onsite dining programs, and it’s one of the top answers to, “What keeps you up at night?” that question journalists always seem to be asking foodservice operators. To better understand the labor crisis/opportunity, let’s take a peek inside the brains of foodservice masterminds dealing with labor on a day-to-day basis. The key points we noticed? Getting cultural buy-in, training that empowers employees, good old fashioned money, benefits and opportunities.

Culture shifts at Cornell Dining: ‘Workers want more’

No doubt about it, a seismic work culture shift is underway, and things have changed a lot even in the last few years. Cornell Dining’s Administrative Manager Matthew Johnson has seen many of these changes, and has an active role in shaping work-culture changes to come. An overarching theme: Employees, student employees in particular, are interested in learning how an operation really works from the ground up, not just knowing their own job within the organization.

“As new generations enter the workforce, they have different expectations of their employer,” Johnson says. “We have to make sure we do a good job of making a platform for their future careers.”

Part of this process is letting employees in on the big picture, “giving them the opportunity to co-create with you, in terms of having input,” Johnson says. “Student employees are very entrepreneurial and want to know all about how you run your organization. They really want to have more transparency, to learn how to build an organization from the ground up.”

That transparency can mean making employees more of a part of the experience. “In the past, it was more about what an employee could provide to an organization; now, it’s more what you can provide them.”

Healthcare foodservice has seen a similar shift in values and transparency in the workplace.

From his vantage point as System Director, Food & Nutrition Services and Environmental Services at ProHealth Care, Randy Sparrow, longtime healthcare foodservice professional and IFMA Silver Plate winner, finds that the atmosphere around labor changed during the pandemic and that’s affected the mindset moving forward.

“I believe the bigger issue is workers want more work-life balance than ever before, along with a competitive wage,” Sparrow says. “Covid brought to the forefront the importance of family and the fact that there is more to life than work.”

On the good-news front, Sparrow currently reports a steady stream of qualified candidates, so it seems like his tactics are working.

Making their mark

Cornell’s Muscente also points to the pandemic as a big accelerant for the lasting workplace culture change.

“I think priorities have shifted since the pandemic,” Muscente says. “We need to create that culture where people want to be here. You have to be creative to recruit, train and retain. There’s just a lot more creativity that goes into it.”

For Cornell Dining employees, “it’s a lot more than coming in and making food and serving food,” Muscente says. “They want to be part of the solution in their own voice .We’re spending a lot of time training (more on that later) and showing them a path to get them excited about working for dining.” That means being heard, so “engaging and connecting with people on a regular basis is important.”

Special events like culinary competitions also help build excitement beyond the day-to-day grind.

“Students are really mission-driven,” Johnson added. “They want to know that the mission of their organization aligns with their values. They want to make sure you’re just saying something; you’re doing it. If it’s an inclusive culture, that’s where their voice makes an impact.”

One change about working for dining is that the blinders are off when it comes to dining’s place in the campus community. “Now, they have a chance to work with nutrition experts, to be brand ambassadors…they can really leave their imprint. The biggest change really is that students want to make their mark and to know that you’re listening.”

Where onsite foodservice has the edge

While foodservice certainly isn’t the easiest thing in the world, the onsite dining segments offer some perks not found elsewhere, like health benefits, better scheduling and educational opportunities. But the fact is, nothing talks like money, and that’s a surefire way to give your program the edge in attracting employees, no matter what their views are.

“Employees are looking at the highest-paid jobs, money in their pockets versus the long-term benefits, i.e. healthcare, retirements, holidays, etc.,” says Jill Horst, executive director of Campus Dining at UC Santa Barbara and IFMA Silver Plate winner, a place where the location itself adds another layer to the labor situation.

“The cost of living in Santa Barbara adds additional challenges,” Horst says. “Many staff are commuting from other cities. California has seen a lot of professionals leave the state, finding other, more affordable areas to live. We’ve also seen people leave the foodservice industry as a whole.”

In addition to plenty of competing local restaurants and hotels, those above factors have contributed to challenges at UCSB in finding enough staff, both full-time and part-time. But once time is spent training, the benefits quickly begin to reveal themselves to new team members, Horst says. “In the C&U segment, the work-life balance is a huge benefit. It’s hard for staff to understand that at first but once they see the benefits like flexibility with scheduling and paid holidays, it is a huge advantage.”

At ProHealth, “we have increased our pay scale/wages to offer very competitive wages in addition to attractive benefits such as tuition assistance, English as a second language classes and job sharing in addition to health coverage,” Sparrow says, adding that, “Our beginning wage is $20 an hour, before experience is considered. We also offer shift differential for weekends/holidays and nights, paid time off and holiday pay…and work-life balance.”

At Cornell, students who work for the dining team go on to become many different things when they graduate, and not all are “Hotelies,” Johnson says.

“We attract different types of students. A lot of our student-managers go into HR; a lot go on to become engineers and are looking to learn how to project manage and food safety knowledge transfers to a lot of different fields,” he says. “The power of the program is that they can find something with us that you wouldn’t normally find.”

For those dining employees who are (or find themselves becoming) culinary-minded, “Higher-ed institutions like ours and dining programs like are are uniquely positioned,” Johnson says. “We have really great facilities, mentoring by high quality chefs and more opportunities to do things once you get hired here. There are different positions within dining, you can work with the sustainability coordinator, the nutrition team, the marketing team…they can get experience that’s so much more than just ‘working in the dining hall.’”

New hires at Cornell Dining meet each other and watch presentations to learn about the organization.

When new hires start training at Cornell Dining, they get to know the organization and each other.

Training comes in clutch

With intangibles like aligning values and transparency in the conversation, there’s something to be says about a work experience that reflects a job well done and a hard day’s work you can be proud of. An intentional training program makes is infinitely more possible that employees know how to actually do a great job, and in the long term, know exactly how they can move up and what opportunities are there for them to pursue.

At Cornell, Senior Training and Development Manager Brandon Fortenberry is responsible for the Union and Leadership team members, and has the entire process mapped out, with specifics. It begins with a two-day orientation where Fortenberry meets with all new team members to get them up to speed on organizational structure, benefits of employment, polices, food safety and allergy protocols and required university training.

From there, it’s off to the races for employees, so to speak, but not without several guideposts in the form of regular sessions when units are closed for school breaks and information at the forefront on opportunities for staff members. In addition, Fortenberry hosts semester kick-offs, all-staff events, that “provide high-level updates and details about what we have accomplished, as well as updates to new processes or procedures,” he says.

At the heart of training, though, is a monthly skills development symposium, in which team members can choose to attend programs on everything from basic knife skills to addressing mental health concerns with peers and customers.

“We are always evolving our training methods and approaches to meet the needs of our staff and customers,” Fortenberry says. “There is no one-size-fits-all approach, as every person we hire has their own set of skills, knowledge and experiences that impact how they work, learn and grow. I focus on listening to what the team wants to learn as well as how they want to learn it.”

That approach has paid off in getting buy-in from the team members on training programs, Fortenberry says, and also yields another benefit: “Team members feel valued and appreciated for their input and involvement in our training programs.”

Johnson makes an important point about good leadership: Knowing when to take the training wheels off and trust employees with the big picture.

“What gives us another advantage is our program is student-driven. They know all the touch points. They know how to connect with each other,” he says. “It’s not just me with pom-poms. It’s the students themselves that are driving the program. They’re aligned on our mission and they champion it for you. Many managers are good with words but not with actions. Students recognize who’s authentic and who’s not.”

And finally: What’s AI got to do with it?

“AI is being used in food service on college campuses nationwide to bring enhanced convenience to students’ busy lives and enhance their overall campus dining experience. For example, we’ve deployed Amazon Just Walk Out stores on campuses across the country such as the University of Pittsburg, the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and Bowling Green State University. Using AI-powered computer vision technology and advanced sensors, these stores eliminate traditional checkout lines and create an effortless purchasing process. Students can simply walk in, take what they want, and ‘just walk out’ without ever needing to scan anything or wait in line, which perfectly caters to their on-the-go lifestyles while providing them with a tech-forward dining experience.” – Ben Anderson, VP, Digital Strategy, Chartwells Higher Education



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