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Flik Independent School Dining celebrates associates at Years of Service Awards Ceremony.

Six tips for better recruiting and retaining

Three experienced foodservice professionals share insights for finding and keeping good talent.

Finding good talent is a challenge in any industry. Finding and keeping good talent is particularly challenging in the foodservice industry. The state of the economy, geography, competition for talent with other employers in the area and the right cultural fit are just some of the factors that come into play.

We spoke to several foodservice professionals close to the hiring process, who shared the following tips for recruiting, building and retaining a talented team of professionals.

Recruit proactively and transparently

“You have to be proactive to recruit effectively; it is an ongoing process,” says Alan Wilson, district manager for Flik Independent School Dining, who oversees 12 independent school locations in the New York metropolitan area. “The object is to anticipate what is coming next. When you are in a situation where you are reactive, you may not be getting your best hire.”

Wilson also likes to rely on current employees and clients for referrals, as they recommend people they know and count on and whom they believe are a cultural fit.

Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS, school nutrition director at Gates Chili Schools, East Rochester Schools and East Irondequoit Schools in Rochester, N.Y., recommends being transparent about what the job entails. “Whenever possible, let [potential candidates] see a kitchen in action so they can envision themselves as a member of your team.”

Create a positive work environment and culture

Luiz Martinez, assistant director for the University of California Los Angeles Housing and Hospitality Services Dining Services, stresses the importance of creating the right environment and culture. Despite public transportation and competition for culinary talent being challenging issues in the Los Angeles area, turnover for UCLA Dining Services is very low.

At UCLA, associates are offered a yearlong Mentoring Program where they can be matched up with members of management to help build their development plan.

“Work-life balance is something that is valued by our team members and that is why many of them stay long term once they are on board,” says Martinez. “Stability offered in a university environment is appreciated, and the benefits package is also a plus.”
Beauvais also believes the right work environment can overcome some of the biggest recruiting challenges. She cites the fast food worker minimum wage, which is higher than what she can pay and the stigma of being a “lunch lady” as negatives to hiring. 

“Work has to have standards of practice and the team has to be accountable for the tasks that have to happen, but it can be fun,” says Beauvais. “Team members at all levels can have an active role in planning and rollout of the tasks at hand, be it a one-time event or a change in how the business operates.”

Prioritize inherent character traits

Every foodservice position requires a standard set of skills, but these can be learned on the job and through training. WIlson, Martinez and Beauvais all stress that it is the inherent character traits that are important to hiring a successful, long-term employees. 

“Of course, we want qualified applicants,” says Wilson. “However, focusing solely on their experience is a mistake. Are they passionate? Enthusiastic to go the extra mile? Approachable?  Those are the intangibles that you can’t teach.”

He also pursues candidates that are well spoken, efficient with their time, work well under pressure, and who anticipate the needs of and wants the best for their client. 

Martinez looks for a positive attitude, passion, as well as a commitment to the culinary arts, their craft and the service industry. 

Beauvais highlights the importance of liking the people you serve every day. As a school nutrition director, she always asks potential candidates if they like children. If not, she has an honest conversation with the candidate that a school nutrition position may not be the best fit. The same holds true for serving the elderly in nursing homes, sick patients in hospitals or corporate employees who are tight on time. 

Invest in your people

The adage “what you put in is what you get out” couldn’t be more true for the foodservice industry. In other words, invest and train your people and they are more likely to be satisfied employees that serve your customers well.

Wilson cites that at Flik Independent School Dining online training programs work well because associates can learn at a time that is best suited for them. They also have Center for Excellence accounts where operators can spend a day getting training and observing best practices.

At UCLA, Martinez and his team offer a two-day on-boarding program within the first two weeks of employment, a Leadership and Supervisory Series for management level positions and a year-long Mentoring Program so that team members can be mentored by management who help them with their development plan. 

In addition to providing training, Beauvais believes it’s important that the team member knows why they are being asked to do what they do. It might not be obvious to the associate. When the why of a task is explained, there tends to be a higher success rate for it being done properly.

Be open and inclusive

A top-down only management style may be ill received and may not serve you well in the long run. Wilson, Martinez and Beauvais all agree that associates appreciate engaging in a two-way dialogue.

“When an employee feels heard and validated and are engaged, they are much more willing to stay and even go above and beyond,” says Wilson. “This requires periodic conversations, perhaps in the form of weekly or bi-monthly meetings. It is in this context where you have the ability to cultivate a life-long employee.”

“As the boss you need to hear what your team is saying, both actually with words and in actions so that you can handle any issues that may be on a simmer before they come to a boil,” says Beauvais. “There is also more than one way to do a task. The folks that do the work day in and day out are a valuable resource to call upon if something needs adjusting or a new program or service needs to be added or revised.” 

Recognize…and repeat

“A thank you goes a long way,” says Martinez. “Constantly appreciate and reinforce their value to the organization. Listen to their concerns and value their contributions.”

At UCLA, associates are offered a yearlong Mentoring Program where they can be matched up with members of management to help build their development plan.At UCLA, they thank their associates via the Hat’s Off recognition program. Team members can be nominated in several categories for their achievement, including exemplary team effort, commitment to organizational excellence, excellence in customer service and pioneering innovative solutions. 

Beauvais recognizes employee birthdays with a card and small gift from management and they celebrate School Nutrition Hero Day so associates have a day where the rest of the school community thanks them. 

Flik Independent School Dining offers Stepping Up to the Plate awards and Length of Service recognition programs. 

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