Recruiting next-generation foodservice professionals begins with knowing what attributes a company values in their workforce and treating their current employees well.
While careers in the restaurant business have seemingly never been more in vogue, that's not the case for other foodservice industry segments.
In fact, attend meetings for non-commercial foodservice operators such as hospitals or colleges, consultants, dealers, service agents and even reps and you will hear a common refrain: how do we attract young people and recruit tomorrow's leaders? "It's not even the lack of young people. It's also the business' lack of visibility," says Sabrina Capannola, senior project manager for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. She is also president of the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management. "People don't realize there are a lot of great things you can do in this business and have a great quality of life, too."
Unfortunately, working as a hospital chef, a college foodservice director or as a foodservice equipment and supplies dealer tends not to be considered one of the industry's glamour positions. With the exception of those who had a family member that followed a similar path, any of these options would not likely be on someone's career radar.
"It is a concern for those of us working in this industry," says Randy Sparrow, director, food, nutrition, environmental services and grounds for Indiana University Health in Bloomington, Ind. "When I was in college we talked about our career options but they got away from it for a while and only talked about country clubs, casinos or other private sector jobs. But the kids today don't know their options, and I can say that because my son just went through the process."
In addition to addressing a lack of awareness, foodservice industry segments other than restaurants need to overcome some outdated and less than flattering perceptions about their businesses. Take, for example, hospital foodservice. "Hospital food still gets a bad rap in popular culture," says Eric Eisenberg, CEC, executive chef, Swedish Health Services in Seattle. "When you watch television there are still jokes about hospital food. But the amount of creativity we exhibit is not exactly at the forefront of the image we portray."
Further, many outside the industry fail to realize the scope of work and creativity that goes into each individual segment. Taking another look at hospital foodservice, many outsiders perceive it as simply patient feeding. Those in the know, though, realize it is a much bigger business than that. Eisenberg quickly points out that patient feeding accounts for only 30 percent of what his team serves each day. The remaining 70 percent is spread across multiple service outlets, including employee feeding, visitor feeding and more.
"We have people who eat with us every day," Eisenberg says. "It's not just about selling or delivering a plate of food. When someone walks into our café we want to exceed their expectations in terms of the food quality and experience. And there is something satisfying when a patient pulls that dome off their plate and the food shatters their expectations. That requires someone who has been in the service industry and understands the service industry."
In the event a foodservice company, be it an operator or member of the supply chain, overcomes the lack of awareness and glamour, the dynamic nature of the business will sell itself. "Our business is not glamorous so it can be tough to get them interested. But once you get them in and they see every day is different you can make them fall in love with it," says Andy Wueste, president of Mission Restaurant Supply, a San Antonio-based foodservice equipment and supplies dealer.
And once they fall in love with it? "There are just not very many people who leave after they enter this industry," says Bill Kelly, president/partner with Kelly-Mincks, a Woodinville, Wash.-based manufacturer's rep firm. "They may move around, from dealer to rep, for example, but they rarely leave."
Through lots of thoughtful and diligent effort, however, foodservice companies can break through and make their businesses shine brighter by incorporating the stars of tomorrow.
Understanding what attributes a foodservice organization seeks in a potential employee begins with knowing what the company aspires to be. Successful foodservice companies will use their vision statements as a filter by which to evaluate new hires. "Our vision is to provide unparalleled service with a highly qualified staff, be profitable and share those profits," says Bruce Hodge, president of General Parts, a Wisconsin-based service agency with branches in multiple states. General Parts is also a member of the Commercial Food Equipment Service Association. "We try to find people that buy into that."
It's equally important to find people that take ownership of their careers. "I am looking for people who have a vision and goal of their own," says Hodge, a 45-year veteran of the foodservice industry. "I want someone who looks at our business and says that's going to be my career and not a job."
Hodge raises what may seem like a small point but there's a big difference between the two. "A person who looks at this as their job really does not engage in the expansion or growth of the business. They will do what they do well but that's it," he says. "Someone who sees it as their career is looking for growth and advancement. They will speak up to offer an opinion and to ask questions."
It is important to know what your company values in a new hire. Wueste, for example, likes to learn as much about a candidate's background or pedigree, as he puts it, as possible. "Having good parents is critical. What do the parents do?" he says. "If this is someone coming out of school, are they used to being in a team situation? What's their work background? A lot of it is finding out what's in their bones. In the case of real success stories we have been able to get some background like that on them."
Given the dynamic and changing nature of the industry, a commitment to learning and a customer-centric mindset represent two key qualities all foodservice professionals must possess. "We need a dedication to being flexible and knowing your customer," Kelly says. "It's all about your customer. It's not about you. You need to be there for your customer. That needs to be out there and not a surprise to people. If you are not that kind of person then this is not going to be the right place for you."
Learning is a two-way street, meaning business leaders need to help cultivate new ideas and approaches as they train new hires. "As consultants people pay us for our opinions," says Steve Carlson, president of Robert Rippe and Associates, a Minneapolis-based foodservice consulting firm. "When a member of your team wants to do something different you have to ask them why. If it makes sense you have to let them run with it. Eventually they need to learn to think on their own and that's not going to happen overnight."
When it comes to successful foodservice professionals, passion for the industry remains the tie that binds all of them. "The drive and commitment has to be there," Capannola says. "They have to be committed not only to the job but the industry, too. It's important for everyone to own a bit of their destiny and have the important conversations about where they want to be."
Hodge agrees. "We value experience, common sense and a sense of urgency because everything in the foodservice industry is urgent," he says. "In terms of our sense of urgency a service agent is not like a hospital but if a customer's fryer is out of commission on a Friday night they can't do business. And we have to help rectify that."
Being technologically savvy is important but not necessarily a defining quality in today's foodservice industry. "More information is being passed faster than ever, which is good. But you can't substitute technology for good interpersonal skills," Hodge says. "At the end of the day, business is conducted between two people."
With tablet computers fast becoming the norm for sales people, popping up in kitchens and even tableside in restaurants to help customers place their order and pay for their meals, current and future foodservice professionals will need to know how to harness technology and turn it into a potent tool, no matter their industry segment. For example, San Diego-based dealership R.W. Smith & Co. arms its sales team with tablet computers loaded with all of the apps they need to conduct their business. "There is no money in our office. So our strategy is to spend more time in the accounts," says Patrice Hagan, vice president at R.W. Smith. "When visiting their accounts, we want people spending time with the customers, not doing paper work. And the customers like it."
The Importance of Industry Experience
How important is previous foodservice industry experience for potential new hires? Well, it all depends on who you ask and what the company values. "We like the idea of taking someone from the industry, whether they have been in hotel and restaurant management or some other function," says Kelly. "A little more maturity is what we are looking for when hiring someone."
On the supply chain side of the foodservice industry, it can take a while to bring recent college graduates with little work experience up to speed. For example, R.W. Smith will have them spend time inside learning the business. "Having them work as a bench person and then putting them into sales territories has worked for us," Hagan says. "We prefer people not right out of college because they don't know what they don't know."
Members of the supply chain think experience on the operator side of the business unlocks the passion of potential new hires and provides a seasoning that prepares them for what comes next. "You have got to fall in love with this business," Wueste says. "You have to be able to take that call from an irate customer and to even be able to hear the employees cry. But as a GM of a restaurant you've already heard all of that and more."
That being said, restaurant industry experience is not the overriding factor most foodservice companies look for when recruiting new talent. "I would rather they have the work ethic and drive. We can teach them the business," Wueste says. "It is important they have that love of the industry, though. You have to know there is an art in watching that foodservice operator take that raw product and turn it into something special."
For his part, Hodge looks for people with a sense of confidence and passion. "You can teach a monkey to fly a rocket ship but you can't make it want to," he says. "We want them to feel they have a stake in what happens with the company."
Along those lines, R.W. Smith has been successful following what Hagan describes as the Southwest Airlines approach: "You hire for passion and train for skill," she says. "So we look for winners and that does not necessarily mean someone from within the industry. We look for a sense of urgency and passion. If they have a low sense of urgency or energy they are not going to make it in this industry."
The importance of industry experience comes down to the individual and the position. "When I was first out of school I did not have the skill set to sit in this seat. But there are a lot of entry level roles in this industry, too," Capannola says. "The great thing about this industry is that you don't have to be pigeon-holed, so to speak. There are a lot of opportunities for you to pursue. You get to do a lot of different things and get great experiences."
The savvy foodservice professional will be able to parlay their various experiences into a challenging and rewarding second career that helps them achieve a quality of life they desire. For example, compared to restaurant professionals, the benefits of working in non-commercial foodservice or as a dealer, consultant, or service agent begin with better scheduling and can expand to include paid time off, health insurance and, in some instances, tuition reimbursement.
"When I worked in restaurants, my family would have to have Christmas dinner there so they could see me on that holiday," Capannola says. "And this past Thanksgiving I had a four-day holiday. You get to pursue the passion and creativity that fueled your interest in the culinary arts and have a better quality of life."
Of course, commercial restaurant professionals looking to make a change should realize that other industry segments are not without their challenges. "Our business can be greasy. It can be hot. You might find yourself lying on a floor covered in water trying to fix a problem," Wueste says. "This is work. Real work. You can plan some family time, sure. But you have to be prepared to make that occasional delivery at 8 o'clock on a Friday night."
In some cases having operator experience can be a real benefit in a second career. Take, for example, foodservice consultants. "Someone with that experience understands foodservice operations and can be a good first line of feedback when reviewing designs by offering comments based on their experience," Carlson points out. "Plus, they are used to working with challenging people. We can teach them our business faster than we can teach them how to deal with people and foodservice operations."
When it comes to the changing nature of healthcare foodservice, Eisenberg is even more direct. "The best candidates for our operation are people on their second careers," he says. "I really love the person who has been in the restaurant business and burned out. They can still pursue their passion for the business and maintain their commitment to quality without the same pressures in the restaurant business because the pace and style of cooking is different."
So how can other members of the foodservice industry find restaurant professionals and others looking to make a career change? Ryan Conklin, executive chef for Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., has found a lot of culinary professionals will check Craigslist when looking for work. So he will post an ad there, being as a realistic as possible about the job requirements. He also will work with the alumni groups of culinary schools such as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
But make no mistake: finding the right people to take a foodservice company to the next level, be they an operator or member of the supply chain, requires some recruiting. "I have to do what's necessary to get the quality chef we need here," Conklin says.
Indiana University Health takes a proactive approach to finding potential new foodservice hires, including participating in career fairs and offering internships to college students. According to Sparrow these little steps make a big difference. "Last fall we went to a career day at Purdue University and we had someone at our booth asking questions the entire time," Sparrow says. "We had about 100 students sign up to get information on attending the Association for Healthcare Foodservice conference and to learn more about our internship. In contrast, there was a contract feeder across the aisle from us and they were not as busy."
Like many industry organizations, The Society of Hospitality and Foodservice Management's outreach programs continue to fund courses at a number of academic institutions that will also help build awareness about the career opportunities available. SHFM also offers scholarships to military veterans to help make it easier for them to attend the organization's conference and pursue a career in this field. "We have people who have served our country and need careers," Capannola says. "Who would not want to support that?"
Another key step to attracting the right people is making sure the company, no matter its role in the foodservice industry, maintains a positive and high profile within the communities it serves. For example, chefs at Rex Healthcare regularly perform cooking demonstrations that promote healthy eating. "This is an important step to showcase your team's capabilities and to create a buzz," Conklin says. "It creates opportunities that you might never have known were out there. Now we have people lining up to work here."
Retention Leads to Recruitment
Finding the right people often starts with treating current employees well. "Your current employees will help you get more employees," Wueste says. "You have to have a nice place for them to work and make sure they feel respected. If you feel happy and that the job is fun you will not want to go somewhere else. You have to make it fun because it is a lot of hard work."
Carlson agrees. "There are challenging clients and deadlines but that does not mean you can't have fun. Look for those opportunities to laugh with one another. Yes, you have to be professional but that does not mean you can't joke around once in a while."
Indeed, employee retention is crucial and it starts at the top of any organization. "I visit each branch at least once a year," Hodge says. "Because I have done every job in the company, I can sit at any desk in the company and do that job. It's nice for them to know that the guy sending them out there knows what they do and I try to demonstrate that. I won't ask someone to do something I can't or won't do myself. And that makes a big difference."
Promoting from within can help with retention, too. "You have to identify the right people and have room for them to grow," Wueste says. Equally as important as promoting from within is understanding each employee's strengths and weaknesses. "We can work someone into being a great salesperson but that does not mean they will be a great manager."
Reading the book "Good to Great" really drove home the need to maximize an employee's skills and minimize their weaknesses for Carlson. "That was an epiphany for me," he says. "If someone is not good in that role then get them out of that role. Or you can outline an acceptable level of performance and get them the tools they need to achieve it. There's a lot of things that need to be done, so if you can get people to leverage their strengths they are going to be happier doing their job."
Regular communication that's both clear and concise is another key element in retaining top performers. "Once a year we have a strategic meeting to review what we as a company are doing well and where we can improve. And we measure our performance every month," Hagan says. "Everyone has a strategic initiative they are responsible for and they have to report on it each month."
When it comes to employee retention, Carlson offers some practical advice. "Keep your employees challenged. Don't let them get bored," he says. "I think back to my first two jobs working for an equipment dealer and a fabricator. I was under employed and always looking for more to do. Since I came here, I have not had to look for more to do."
Training can play a key role in keeping employees engaged. "Training and retention go together," Carlson says. "You have to put on your employee hat to remember that people want to feel they have some control over their decisions. So we have a program called "Expert in the Room" where a member of our team becomes the resource for the office on a specific topic. We will have a lunch and learn session where they can bring everyone up to speed about a specific topic or product and we can come to them with questions. In some instances, they can even play a role in influencing company standards. That's a huge help to the overall company because you don't have everyone doing that research and that person gets a sense of accomplishment."
Carlson also looks for meaningful external training opportunities, such as conferences, to send members of the Rippe team. "I've had jobs where they keep you in the dark and hope you grow like a mushroom," he says. "But if I bring them to a conference or a meeting I don't have to tell them what happened when we get back to the office because they were there. Now they can just take the ball and run with it."
Raising the Industry's Profile
Overcoming the lack of awareness about the countless opportunities beyond restaurants will require an old-fashioned grassroots effort by everyone involved. "It is important for all of us to start talking to our family members, people in college and more about the future of the industry," Wueste says. "As a whole, we need to be talking to more people to let them know there is more to this industry than fast food."
Word of mouth represents one of the most powerful ways to build awareness about the career opportunities in the many aspects of the foodservice industry and employees represent the most potent and credible messengers. "There's a team that helps you get where you want to be and you have to reward them. They then go out to the people they know in the business and help promote what you are doing," Conklin says. "Our last three hires have been people who came from referrals from existing employees."
Sparrow agrees. "We rely on our team of people to help us recruit from the community and we have a pretty good screening process set up through human resources," he says. And finding the right fit has many benefits, including lowering turnover. "We have a waiting list of people wanting to work here," Sparrow adds.
Sometimes the best options are right in front of you. "The difficulty is not finding the right people," Hodge says. "The challenge is recognizing the good people when they work for you."
An Operator's Options
In order to upgrade their menus, operators like Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., had to upgrade their personnel and, in this instance, restaurant experience was an important prerequisite. "We are trying to change the label of hospital food. Our mission is to reinvent healthcare cuisines," says Ryan Conklin, executive chef for Rex Healthcare. "Typically, the menus in healthcare were pretty simple because the talent you need to develop them is not there. So we are not hiring the cook that has healthcare experience. We want a seasoned culinary professional that is in a different stage in their career and help provide them a quality of life they have been lacking. In return, we want them to bring that intensity and work ethic they are known for in the restaurant industry."
Indeed, the idea of better hours, healthcare and other benefits can help sweeten the deal when it comes to luring a chef to the non-commercial side of the operator community from restaurants. But operators looking to make a career change should not be fooled: the non-commercial segment is fast-paced in its own right. "I am looking for someone with high-volume experience, coming from somewhere they have had to multi-task throughout the day," Conklin says. "We have multiple locations and need someone that understands how to produce for a variety of outlets."
Beyond a candidate's background, getting an idea as to how they think can be helpful. For example, during interviews Conklin will ask culinary professionals if they were to prepare one dish what would it be. "That right there tells me a lot about their skill level, and how they talk about their food tells me about their passion and professionalism," he says. "We want someone with a little confidence that can take a recipe and execute it at a high level."
Part of the recruiting process is getting commercial chefs to understand the many opportunities they will have to showcase their talents in a non-commercial or institutional setting. "It is important to show young people there is more to healthcare foodservice than just plopping mashed potatoes on a plate," Conklin says. "For example, if we have a catering event and roll out a sushi station the chef really has a chance to shine."
In addition, organizations such as the Association for Healthcare Foodservice will host culinary competitions that showcase the industry's best and brightest performers. "I try to sell the younger chefs on that so they see there is some chance for publicity on this side of the business," Conklin says.