Image Matters

By Joseph Carbonara, Editor in Chief, and Amelia Levin, Sr. Associate Editor

The way the foodservice industry presents itself, both to prospective employees and customers, needs to evolve as it struggles to fill a growing number of jobs and meet patrons’ ever-changing demands.

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Like some of the celebs you see on E! TV or read about in People magazine, the foodservice industry suffers from a major image problem. Just like drugs and eating disorders can plague Hollywood stars, the perception of long hours, low pay and low standards associated with some, repeat, some, foodservice jobs tends to give a bad rep to the industry as a whole.

Simultaneously, the style of service continues to change for many foodservice operators, specifically in the non-commercial segment. With more food being prepared to order out in the open, individual workers are fast-becoming the face of the overall operation to the customer.

For both of these reasons, image is becoming more important in all segments of the foodservice industry.

“You can’t just train somebody once and check it off the list. You have to go back repeatedly and check up on employees.” Georgie Shockey Principal, Ruck-Shockey Associates

Foodservice: the Industry of Choice or Chance? Many people, especially high school and college students, tend to enter the foodservice industry because they need a job. For some, this by-chance encounter becomes professional kismet. “We are an industry of choice to a lot of people because once you get hooked you don’t want to leave,” says Joleen Flory, president and chief executive officer of the Elliot Leadership Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the development and advancement of executives in the foodservice and hospitality industries. Flory made her comments during a December symposium hosted by the Foodservice Industry of America. “The challenge is getting them hooked.”

And when it comes to those students at the top of their classes, getting them hooked becomes even trickier. That’s because for these elite students the foodservice industry becomes an afterthought due to the fact that so many other industries snatch them up first, offering, in many cases, higher starting salaries with less required work hours.

“If you feel you have a very talented son or daughter, you probably don’t want to hear them say they want to be a restaurant manager,” says John Bowen, dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. Like Flory, Bowen made his remarks during the FIA symposium. “As a result, we are working with the parents as much as we are the students.”

At the same time, says Jay Treadwell, consultant and principal of Optimum Hospitality Services in Maryland, “There aren’t very many people who want to go into the business anymore except at the top, so there is a big gap in the middle for getting talented, qualified employees.”

As a result, many argue the labor pool has been slowly shrinking over the years, and it’s become more difficult for employers to both recruit as well as retain staff. According to figures supplied by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), the percentage of young foodservice industry workers between the ages of 16 and 24 decreased by 7 percent last year. At the same time, restaurant industry jobs are expected to grow, and sales figures are up.

The NRA estimates that from 2007 to 2017, the number of jobs in the restaurant and foodservice industry will increase by 2 million, approximately 47,000 of which will be management positions. The annual sales forecast for the restaurant industry currently stands at $558 billion, a gain of $24 billion since last year, and consumers spend 48 percent of their food dollars on meals prepared outside the home, according to the NRA.

“We have to be able to attract people because we have a lot of jobs,” Flory says. “But it’s an employee market for jobs. We have to understand that and be OK with it. People don’t need our jobs, they have to want it. And it’s our job to make sure they want it — especially the top talent.”

Essential Exposure Adding to these labor constraints seems to be a general lack of awareness about the foodservice industry, specifically the equipment and supplies segment. Unbeknownst to many young people and students, the E&S segment provides a whole host of exceptional opportunities for advancement and life-long success.

“I don’t think people my age realize all of the opportunities or challenges that are available in this market,” says John Nackley Jr., a marketing manager for MLB Advertising, referring to the 20- and low 30-something age group. MLB has many foodservice clients.

“Exposure is key,” Nackley says. A recent graduate who earned an MBA, Nackley pointed to his final days in college when the recruitment process took center stage. “There was not one equipment company that came to my campus to recruit.” But those other companies that did show up, Nackley says, succeeded in creating a positive buzz about working for them. The North American Association of Food Equipment Manufacturers (NAFEM), has worked to gain this type of exposure among college students. In 2003, the association teamed up with Purdue University to provide students the opportunity to gain more exposure to foodservice equipment and supplies through the university’s Hospitality Tourism Management program (HTM).

“Most students gravitate toward food, beverage and hotel management thinking that’s the only opportunity for them in foodservice,” says Charlie Souhrada, NAFEM’s director of member services. “We’re really focused on showing them that there are positions such as consultants, dealers, service agents, manufacturers’ reps and others.”

The program, run by Dr. Doug Nelson, an HTM professor, has not made it an easy major for students, however. Dedicated to preserving and creating the high standards E&S companies seek from their employees, Nelson requires that students complete additional business courses as well as two internships in order to specialize in that field.

“The curriculum for the major admittedly is a little aggressive,” Souhrada says. “We want the students to get some business, finance, marketing and intern experience. This program is important because we need to make sure the next generation of leaders are moving up through the ranks to perpetuate the health and welfare of the industry.”

“It’s important to have a diverse labor pool because a diverse workforce equals more productivity and innovation within the organization.” Rolddy Leyva Senior Director of Diversity for Corporate and Government Services, Sodexho

Only six people have gone through the program in four years, most likely due to the aggressive nature of the requirements, Souhrada says, but he expects that with more exposure to the E&S segment, more students will apply.

Other than this program, no other clear-cut educational tracks to point students in the direction of the E&S segment exist. Their lack of knowledge tends to be limited to the culinary options in the field.

As a result, many foodservice E&S companies tend to get their best people from their operator customers because these individuals understand a foodservice operation well. Plus, they’re often the only ones who do. E&S companies might benefit, then, from helping guide college graduates to get the experience they need in order to be successful in such upper management or demanding sales jobs.

Building relationships is an important part of this guidance process, according to Bowen. “Many of the relationships between college graduate and employer are built through internships,” which, he adds, continue to grow stronger and more popular each year. “Consultants and financial companies use them a lot to find good, reliable team members.”

Of course, there’s not a blanket approach that will cure what ills the industry, Bowen says. “What makes sense for your organization?” he asks rhetorically. “What types of people are you looking for? How do you go about getting them? Once you identify them, then you can market to them where they can be in two or three years.”

Generation Gap Ken Wasco, a marketing executive with Gordon Food Service, views recruitment in a similar way as Bowen. The challenge is fixing the foodservice industry’s image problem, especially how it relates to the present generation gaps. “If we are going to be the industry of choice, how are we going to present ourselves to people coming out of the college programs?” Wasco asked while moderating the FIA symposium. And, just as importantly, how are we going to meld together the values, ideas and beliefs of younger generation workers with older generation ones to create harmony in the workplace?

“The values of people entering the workplace seem to be conflicting with the people or management already in the marketplace,” Wasco says. “We have a convergence of generations in the marketplace, and as a result, these individuals have different perspectives and values based on their life experiences. Their political views tend to be different, and the role information technology has played in their work life also tends to be different.”

For example, many of the more seasoned professionals have seen personal computers and their applications go from virtually non-existent in the marketplace to playing a key role in managing just about all aspects of their businesses. And many industry veterans have had their views of corporate America shaped by watching people work for the same company for long periods of time only to lose their position prior to retirement as a result of corporate downsizing.

Building and Retaining a Diverse Labor Pool
Aside from changes in number and age, the labor pool has begun to and will continue to undergo another major change: in ethnic and cultural background.“We have been stepping up our diversity recruiting,” says Rolddy Leyva, senior director of diversity for corporate and government services at Sodexho. “It’s important to have a diverse labor pool because a diverse workforce equals more productivity and innovation within the organization. It stretches people’s thinking within the organization, but it also helps us be much more tuned into the needs of our diverse customers. Not only do we look like our customers, but we think like them as well.”This is particularly the case in the B&I sector, where, Leyva says, office workers coming into the cafeteria for lunch vary greatly in age, gender, race and ethnicity.The first step of Leyva’s challenge is recruiting diverse talent. “We align ourselves with various diversity organizations such as the National Black MBA Association, the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality, the Women’s Foodservice Forum (WFF), and others. We attend their career events, provide opportunities at job fairs, post information on web sites, and attend their membership events.”Sodexho also offers internship programs through partner organizations such as the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). Retention and encouraging development and advancement within the company is the next step. Sodexho institutes a formalized, companywide mentoring program, whereby newer employees learn from their peers as part of their training. “My role with that program is to make sure we have a diverse pool of participants,” Leyva says. However, he adds, people aren’t necessarily paired up with employees of similar ethnic backgrounds, unless they make that request.At the manager level, Sodexho uses diversity to track results and measure progress.“Even if managers don’t achieve the financial component of their bonus plan in a particular year, they’ll still receive a bonus based on their ability to achieve their diversity scorecard,” Leyva says. “The diversity component is fully funded, which I think really underscores how seriously the company takes diversity leadership.”The scorecard measures a manager’s ability to create, develop and retain a diverse workforce through a variety of programs and initiatives including mentoring and targeted stretch assignments. In a stretch assignment, for example, a talented employee may have an opportunity to develop new skills or competencies by being assigned a temporary assignment in another unit or through job enrichment in their existing role. These assignments “stretch” an individual’s leadership competency and can result in promotion and advancement for those who are successful, Leyva says. Networking is another powerful resource that Sodexho managers leverage to develop their diverse teams, but, Leyva says, “It’s a huge development tool we make available to all employees.” The company holds networking events within the organization to bring employees of all levels together, and Sodexho also has five different “employee network groups” that support the recruitment, retention, development and advancement of women, minorities and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender (LGBT) employees in the organization.“We take a top-down approach,” Leyva says. “Our diversity programs are available at all levels of the organization; with a customized offering for executives.” Maintaining a diverse, balanced and collaborative workforce no matter the level or background, he says, remains a priority for all Sodexho employees. “Companies can talk diversity all they want, but to walk the walk, diversity leadership must start at the top,” he says.

“The former school of thought used to call for an individual to refrain from telling a potential employer they’ve held more than three jobs,” Wasco says. “The perception was that person moved around too much, making them flighty. In contrast, today’s line of thinking encourages individuals to have lots of jobs because doing so enables them to gather lots of experiences.”

As a result of this, Wasco predicts that we will see more culinarians heading to the non-commercial segment as customers patronizing this segment continue to change.

Another presenter at the FIA symposium, Steve Berman, president of CEC Culinary Consulting, would agree. “When we start reaching outside the business, perhaps then that’s when the paradigm will start to change,” he says. “There are so many people that wind up in this industry after having gone through a whole procession of things.”

Waging a Recruitment Issue With the influx of immigrant workers in the restaurant industry, the question whether to raise the minimum wage has been a source of serious debate.

“If we treat employees like they are family or entrepreneurs, we will have lower turnover.” Jay Treadwell Consultant and Principal, Optimum Hospitality Services

Although Treadwell avoids getting into the thick of that debate for the purpose of this article, he does pose one idea for restaurants and foodservice companies. “The industry is going to have to look seriously at benefits and other considerations rather than just more money to retain staff, and they need to have the type of management that’s not autocratic, but rather inclusive and empowering, to encourage employees to stay,” he says. “If we treat employees like they are family or entrepreneurs, we will have lower turnover.”

This is especially important, he says, as more foreign workers eschew restaurant jobs for construction jobs, which tend to pay much more. “If people can get paid $25 or $30 an hour in construction, they’re not going to accept an $8 an hour or lower paying job at a restaurant,” Treadwell says.

Some companies go a step further in having their executives come to campus to participate in classes where students take a product from development to marketing to launch. This was part of Nackley’s experience as a student at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “As students, we got real world experience and real world exposure. And the companies got some exposure to us that they might not have had.”

This is precisely the job description for Wendy Safstrom, vice president of management development for the National Restaurant Association. Safstrom works with proprietary products and initiates programs designed to help get people’s feet wet and start their careers in the foodservice industry, she says.

Safstrom works on two successful programs, the ProStart and ManageFirst programs, to help recruit and retain staff. Through the ProStart program, the NRA works with state restaurant associations to offer high school classroom instruction about the foodservice industry, as well as companies willing to offer internships for students looking to build careers in the industry. At present, the program has 63,000 student participants in more than 1,600 schools across 47 states. The program offers instruction and internship opportunities in all areas of the foodservice industry, from the culinary arts to restaurant management, human resources and other hospitality positions. Many colleges and universities accept ProStart credit earned in high schools, and those who advance in the program can receive scholarships for higher education.

The NRA launched the ManageFirst program in 2006, catering to college students and other individuals currently working in the foodservice industry, to help with retention and advancement. The program allows college students currently studying restaurant management or hospitality to earn professional credit for exceptional school work and demonstrated work experience, coupled with a certification exam.

In addition, the program works with colleges to supply textbooks and other learning resources for hospitality and restaurant management courses. “We have worked to identify key skill sets that students need to know to be successful in the restaurant and foodservice industry,” Safstrom says.

In addition to the ProStart and ManageFirst programs, experienced foodservice professionals have the option of sitting for an exam to receive the Foodservice Management Professional (FMP) certification to use in distinguishing themselves and furthering their success in the industry, Safstrom says.

The programs have been a success, according to an impact metrics study conducted by the NRAEF. The study is a three-to-five year research project that follows randomly sampled NRAEF scholarship recipients from 2003 and 2004 for the purpose of understanding the impact that NRAEF programs have on attracting students to the restaurant and foodservice industry, including high school graduates, undergraduate students, ProStart National Certificate of Achievement recipients, and NRAEF/State Restaurant Association Education Foundation co-branded scholarship recipients.

“Three years into the study into the success of these scholarship programs, the NRA is still seeing very exciting and positive results,” Safstrom says. “Across all NRAEF scholarship and program categories, we see that an astonishing 75 percent to 94 percent are still working and/or studying in the industry three years after receiving their scholarship.” The study also found that the most popular course in the ManageFirst program is customer-service, according to Safstrom. As a result, employers would benefit best by identifying and seeking out those individuals who have that “hospitality attitude.”

As far as holding onto those great workers, a basic, caring philosophy works best. “By investing in employees’ ongoing training and development, expressing appreciation, creating philanthropic and team-building opportunities, and by paying them fairly and well, companies make their workers feel good about coming into work every day,” Safstrom says. It’s a simple idea, but one that cannot be overlooked as companies also strive to increase their bottom line. For how are they going to increase their bottom line without a productive and well-qualified staff?

Labor and Non-Commercial Foodservice The non-commercial sector, like the commercial one, faces a host of labor issues, but it extends even beyond in some ways. Historically, B&I, hospital and school cafeterias were set up so most of the cooking took place in the back of the house, out of the customers’ view.

These days, as these segments have strove to improve the food they serve as well as the atmosphere in which they serve it, many have shifted to open, exhibition kitchens to provide that home-cooked, customized and made-fresh feel. This means that customers can now see everything a cook is doing in preparing their food. And that means the type of staff that’s needed to perform this sort of hands-on, interactive job has also changed.

“Cooking has become more sophisticated in the non-commercial sector,” says Georgie Shockey, principal of Ruck-Shockey Associates. “When you cook in front of people, you need to have an element of customer interaction ability as well as stronger cooking skills. These jobs are 50-percent service and 50-percent culinary.”

This applies to hospitals, when it comes to both cafeteria and patient room service. “There is customer interaction when a tray is delivered to a patient,” Shockey says. “So, employers must train their staff to have that good quality interaction. And when they’re hiring people, they need to run the applicant through some questions to see if they really have a serviceminded outlook because without that, they can’t train them.”

In addition, she says, “You can’t just train somebody once and check it off the list. You have to go back repeatedly and check up on employees. Somewhere in between you have to make their jobs interesting and engaging, and your work environment a place where employees feel supported when they come to work, not alienated.”

For example, Shockey says, “If I have a waitstaff but I’m short in the dishroom and I keep throwing them in the dishroom, I will eventually lose them. The philosophy has to be, “If I hired you to be x, I need you to be x and start to grow you at the next level.’” Those employees that encourage continual training and growth tend to have a better retention rate. All segments of the foodservice industry will continue to face mounting pressures to recruit and retain the best people. Doing so will be critical to not only creating a positive image but also maintaining one in the eyes of their customers.

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