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When it comes to career prospects, the quick-service sector has long been plagued with ideas of dead-end jobs held solely by the unfortunate and the incapable. But foodservice represents a robust industry rich in opportunities beyond “burger flipping.” And with a new generation of eager workers looking to get involved with the food industry, experts say, quick-service operators must be ready to prove that their positions will lead somewhere.
“Despite the challenges in terms of the reputation of the industry externally, employees really do feel like they have an opportunity to move around and upscale pretty quickly,” says Steve Kramer, vice president of communications for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF). “Employees really feel like they’re rewarded for hard work.”
According to a recent survey by the NRAEF, 75 percent of employees believe that restaurants—including both limited and full service—offer a career path of upward mobility. This sentiment may be due in part to new initiatives, such as leadership training and education incentives, that operators have developed to invest in their employees.
But while several brands were decades ahead of the trend, the industry as a whole was not as proactive.
“When I got in … salary was a stigma,” says Steve Foltz, a Cinnabon franchisee based in Portland, Oregon, who has spent his entire career in the quick-service industry. “One, [people said,] ‘You’re in the restaurant business, and you have a college degree. Really?’ And then two, it was, ‘Hey you work 60, 70, 80 hours or as much as we can abuse you.’ It might not have been the standard, but there was a lot of it when I got into it. That’s changed.”
After graduating from college, Foltz started with an entry-level job at a quick-service brand. He and his business partners went on to found the franchise company Cinnamon Bums, a multi-brand portfolio that also includes Jamba Juice and Seattle’s Best Coffee.
“I didn’t graduate to get into restaurants. I just fell in love with the service business and worked my way into owning one,” Foltz says.
Room to grow
Restaurants can attract new workers by demonstrating routes for advancement and growth, but tools for doing so have not always been easily accessible.
However, late last summer, the NRAEF worked with industry representatives, state restaurant associations, educators, and workforce development officials, among others, to create a food and beverage competency model within the U.S. Department of Labor’s public career guide. Previously, restaurants and convenience stores had all been grouped under hospitality/hotel and lodging.
“In the training world, it’s all about KSAs: knowledge, skills, and abilities. That’s what will predict success,” Kramer says. “This will help guide employers, HR representatives, trainers, etc. on how to systematize how they’re looking for candidates.”
Shaped like a pyramid, the food and beverage model is comprised of six tiers and starts with the most basic skills at the base, such as motivation and professionalism. Each successive tier becomes more specific in its competencies, with the upper level emphasizing management skills such as purchasing, marketing, and managing daily operations.
“It’s not a curriculum; it’s to inform curriculum,” Kramer says. “Oftentimes the business is so rushed that the coaching aspect of working with an employee to bring them along is lost, and I think that’s critical.”
Long before the competency model was created, burger brand Pal’s Sudden Service developed its own training curriculum that started with candidates before they were even hired.
“We actually think training is the single most important element,” says Thom Crosby, Pal’s CEO. “We go through quite a bit of detail in the interview process to make sure people understand what the culture is like and what they’re getting themselves into.”
Pal’s based part of its curriculum on the Training Within Industry (TWI) program, which the U.S. government used to ramp up industry during World War II. Crosby also says interviewing, orientation, training, and coaching at Pal’s is rigorous. To complete training, new hires must make a perfect score on a final exam—but the training doesn’t stop there.
“We think graduation and a diploma are nice and cute, but they’re very irrelevant in the business world. What customers really want is somebody who is a certified expert to take care of them,” Crosby says. Training continues with special certifications and recertification. “Just like equipment, every human being goes out of calibration.”
This continual process of learning knowledge and skills might seem unnecessary, but the results are undeniably positive. Crosby says he can’t remember the last time the company had to post help-wanted ads because it is always fully staffed with high-quality people. Pal’s boasts a 27 percent employee turnover as opposed to the industry average of 61 percent. For assistant managers, the rate drops to 2 percent, and for general managers, it is zero.
“Within the sector in general, employee recruitment and retention is becoming more of a pain point in terms of the bottom line,” Kramer says. “The industry is going to have to adopt practices that show employees that even if they start at an entry level, there are paths to a stronger future ahead for them.”
At Pal’s, it doesn’t matter if an employee plans to stay with the brand or seek opportunities elsewhere. The company considers its high standards and thorough training to be part of a larger investment in its workforce.
“We’re known for holding people accountable, and that really plays to their advantage,” Crosby says. “You’re in a constant learning, upward spiral environment at Pal’s where we’re wanting to see everybody be the best they can be.”
Mentors and the ties that bind
Companywide hiring and training processes that invest in the worker can boost application and retention rates, but experts say mentoring and one-on-one interaction strengthens the bond between employer and employee, especially with young workers.
Melissa Winkfield started as a part-time crewmember at Chick-fil-A 23 years ago. After taking a break to complete her bachelor’s degree in accounting at DeVry Institute of Technology, she worked as the operator of the chain’s original location in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall before going on to manage another store in the area. Winkfield says she’s proof of the opportunities available at Chick-fil-A, and she credits her first boss with jump-starting her career.