Foodservice Workers: How to Hire the Best

As convenience stores evolved from quick stops to full-blown foodservice centers that compete with the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s, the need for top-notch employees has become as important as ever.

Despite the increased demand required of employees, experts believe leading convenience store operators are in a good position to attract outstanding employees, they just need to alter their foodservice employee hiring practices.

As the category expands, many hiring managers are still using the same hiring criteria they’ve long employed to successfully hire store associates and cashiers, said Mel Kleiman, president of Humetrics Inc., one of the country’s leading human resources firms.

Kleiman, who also serves as a consultant for Convenience Store Decisions’ Supplier Advisory Board, believes exemplary foodservice workers are, however, an entirely different breed. "Hiring practices and objectives should be reexamined and adjusted to facilitate better hiring decisions," he said.

Kleiman discussed with CSD the characteristics of finding the right foodservice employees.

CSD: What are the differences between foodservice workers and store associates?

Kleiman: First, both jobs share several mandatory requirements. Two of the most important are customer service skills and dependability. Other traits we look for are honesty, values and teamwork. These similarities make it seem like the same interviewing and selection process would work for both positions, but, in most cases, they don’t.

On closer examination, the differences run deep, however. First and foremost, exemplary foodservice workers must able to learn safe food handling knowledge and skills. Also, there are many more variables in a foodservice position than the typical store associate deals with in a day. When it comes to food preparation, it’s a production or manufacturing job so workers need to be detail oriented, organized, and able to multitask. They need to be able to use and maintain lots of different equipment as well as care about food presentation. The best ones are "foodies." They love everything about food—the preparation, cooking and serving. Simply put, it’s more like hiring someone for a restaurant or deli rather than a c-store.

CSD: Is it possible to hire one person to do both jobs? Kleiman: Sure, but I’d hire for foodservice experience first and then train for the associate’s job. Holding down both jobs has great appeal to those workers who love multitasking and prefer jobs where the time flies by because they’re always busy.

What I’d do is list all foodservice operations tasks and compare it a list of the tasks and responsibilities of an associate. That will tell you whether you can hire one person for both jobs.

CSD: Where can managers find these kinds of people?

Kleiman: The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us most foodservice jobs are part-time, have few educational requirements, and attract many young people. More than one-fifth of these workers are 16 to 19 years old, about five times the proportion for all workers. And you can find them everywhere there’s a fast food outlet, restaurant or grocery store with a deli or meat counter.

The recruitment obstacle to overcome is the fact that convenience stores don’t come to mind when fast food, restaurant, and grocery store employees look for work. So, don’t recruit for the store, recruit for the position. Posters, fliers or ads could be headlined: "Love Food and a Fast Pace?"

CSD: Once managers recruit experienced people, how do they screen for the best?

Kleiman: Here are my favorite interview questions that will give you the information you need to make the best hiring decisions:

• We have a number of different job positions in this store (list the positions.) Which one are you most interested in and why? If the applicant wants to be an associate and you need foodservice, you just saved a lot of time.

• Tell me about your first foodservice job and what you learned there? Have the applicant tell you about each successive position and what was learned at each.

• At your last foodservice job, what was the company policy regarding safety and cleanliness? How did you feel about it? How were you trained?

And I love this interview screening test I picked up from a client in the industry. At the end of the interview, if he felt he wanted to make an offer of employment, he would first give the candidate some money, about $5 or $10, and ask that person to come back later to buy a sandwich and a drink and then report back on the experience. This simple exercise has huge returns.

First, should you hire the person, it’s the last time he or she will ever see the store through a customer’s eyes again. The experience will stick and positively influence future behaviors on the job. Second, you just got a very inexpensive shopping report. Third, if the applicant brings you the change and the receipt, it tells you a lot about honesty. Fourth, if the applicant talks in depth about what was right and what was wrong, what could be changed and how to make it better, you’ve found an employee who thinks like a manager, not just another employee. And finally, if the applicant never returns, it’s the biggest favor ever. You’ve just been saved a world of grief.

CSD: What about the all important customer service skills?

Kleiman: While the industry attempts to train store associates in customer service skills, for the most part, stores can get by with less than perfection because the competition is not that much better. One of the few places where customers still expect and even demand high levels of customer service, however, is at the foodservice counter. Interestingly, foodservice positions have higher turnover rates too. This is partly due to the number of young people who go back to school or move on for other reasons.

But when I did some informal research with industry professionals to try to better figure out why though, I found that many stores were routinely recruiting, screening, and hiring for foodservice in the exact same ways as they hired for all hourly positions. We’ve already covered why that might not be such a good idea.

If a store can’t do it for every position, at the very least, when it comes to foodservice, you’ve got to hire for attitude and train for the specific skills you need. While you can train almost anyone your food storage, handling and preparation techniques, how do you train someone to care about the customer and smile? Attitudes can’t be trained. They are, instead, shaped by our role models and our life experiences. A person either believes it’s important to smile and take good care of customers or they don’t.

CSD: Turnover continues to be a problem for many operators. Is there a way to screen employees to reduce turnover?

Kleiman: If you’re tired of dealing with incessant turnover and you want foodservice to flourish, stop hiring for any hourly position and write a job analysis specific to the job. You can’t find what you need if you don’t know what it looks like, so spell out the capacities and attitudes a person has to have in order to be successful. Simply put, the mental and physical capacities are how smart and strong or dexterous a person needs to be to learn and do what the job requires. Can they learn to be conversant with ounces and pounds, pints and quarts? Are they physically able to operate the equipment?

There are lots of good customer service questions too. If you ask applicants "Why do you want to work here?" and they say, "Because I live close," that’s not the sign of a good attitude. Look for people who like helping people. When you ask them about their past foodservice experience and what they learned from it, the answer will tell you about their work ethic. Most importantly, ask them about a time when they’ve experienced good customer service and bad customer service. People who appreciate customer service enough to notice the difference usually deliver good customer service. Once you identify the kinds of attitudes you want, you can think of all kinds of questions to help you identify your best candidates.

CSD: Are standardized or customized tests effective?

Kleiman: There are a variety of straightforward paper and pencil or computerized tests you can buy to evaluate attitudes. The results are reliable and these tools save you lots of time otherwise spent in lengthy interviews. I developed another simple tool to match the right person for the job. It’s a Job Compatibility Matrix. It can be modified to suit any hourly position. The one we developed for foodservice [available for free download for CSD readers at www.kleimanhr.com] will give store operators a great deal of information using the applicant’s time instead of your own.

For larger employers, there are a myriad of automated hiring systems on the market that can screen precisely for the capacities, attitudes, personality traits and skills unique to each position.

No organization can be greater than the sum of its parts. That means the most important decisions are hiring decisions. The companies that take hiring seriously, the ones that screen carefully for each unique position, are routinely more profitable, more successful and enjoy lower employee turnover.

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