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.


“He invested time in me, teaching me the different systems of our store and also Chick-fil-A itself,” she says. “He allowed me to go out to seminars and learn more about becoming a leader.”

Similarly, Foltz encourages interested employees to “get a set of keys” through an in-house certification process that starts with a “100 Pennies of Business” course, in which he explains general and store-specific P&L statements to employees.

“We always shared all the way to the bottom line with our general managers,” he says. “Then it became our assistants. Now anyone that wants to go through our class [can].”

In total, Cinnamon Bums developed a roster of eight training classes for lead supervisors through general managers, including “Helping Hand,” which details a five-step program to training new hires, and “Crucial Confrontations,” which teaches how to engage in both positive and tough confrontations with a win/win result in mind.

Cinnamon Bums pays for the courses, and once the employee passes, he or she gets a pay bump and a certificate.

Despite a serious approach to training, Foltz’s employees also bring a sense of fun to their jobs, which can make customers feel more welcomed and better attended.

“It should be fun,” says Cinnabon president Joe Guith. He points to Foltz’s Cinnabon locations as a good example of the type of atmosphere that both prospective employees and consumers seek. “You walk into his bakery, they’re having fun, they’re friends with each other, they’re joking around. Yes, it is work, but they’re having fun.”

Foltz says that his younger employees are especially enthusiastic to learn about the business and take on more duties and responsibilities.

Like her mentor, Winkfield now makes it her mission to advance her employees. When one crewmember, who was in college at the time, expressed interest in being an operator, Winkfleld took him through the various channels to learn everything from marketing and training to payroll and operations. He is now the operator of the original Greenbriar Mall store, where Winkfield first started.

Now, Winkfield says, other crewmembers are interested in mentoring new hires.

“They come on as team members, they learn different areas … of the restaurant—from cooking to serving to cashier to hosting—and a lot of them perfect it to the point where they want to be able to train other team members,” she says. “It also encourages them to become leaders. They begin to make an impact and influence on their own team.”

Winkfield acknowledges that her first boss had an enormous impact on her life, and she says she has spoken with other Chick-fil-A operators who had similar experiences. The brand’s sterling reputation for customer service is heavily rooted within a nurturing company culture, she adds.

“I meet monthly with my team one on one to talk about their personal growth, to talk about their professional growth,” she says. “We’re not just a fast-food company; we’re an opportunity to grow.”

Listen up

Operators who wish to invest in their employees may face a dilemma in deciding how to go about doing it. The options run the gamut: Chick-fil-A offers scholarships to its crewmembers, while Cinnabon invites employees to participate in WOW University for management development. Soliciting feedback from their workforce can help employers home in on what is most important to their people.

“We can come up with ideas that we think will be relevant to our workforce, but you’re going to find the answer by just asking them,” says Laurel Harper, global corporate communications manager for Starbucks. “I think it’s important to understand what is most meaningful, relevant, and valuable to your workforce. We do that by having regular conversations or going to where they’re having conversations.”

Starbucks has a storied history of policies and programs benefiting its employees, whom the company calls “partners.” In 1988, decades before the Affordable Care Act was passed, Starbucks offered health insurance and 401(k) investment options to its partners. When the company became profitable three years later, it added stock equity (“bean stock”) to its benefits mix. In the past, these benefits have earned it a spot on Fortune’s Top 100 Companies.

Last year, the company partnered with Arizona State University to launch the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, which helps its partners to earn their college degrees online.

“We did surveys [and] we did focus groups, [and] what we heard loud and clear from our partners was one of their top priorities was their education and to finish a college degree,” Harper says.

Education is a big piece to the employment puzzle; limited-service restaurants have long been staffed by students who wish to work part- or full-time while studying.

“Oftentimes, they’re pursuing education, whether it’s secondary or post-secondary education. They appreciate the fact that the industry has flexibility in terms of scheduling and in terms of when hours are available for them to work,” says the NRAEF’s Kramer. A recent study by the NRAEF found that 89 percent of employees under 18 were enrolled in school, while 49 percent of restaurant managers were enrolled in a four-year college or university program. The study also reported that 72 percent of business operations employees planned to continue working in the industry after graduation.

“Quite a few people that were working in the sector were pursuing post-secondary studies to continue working in the sector,” Kramer adds. “Not only were they studying for more of an advanced degree, they intended to apply that to their career moving forward.”

Through the new College Achievement Plan, Starbucks partners can start and complete their degree online. Incoming freshman and sophomore employees receive an ASU scholarship and financial aid, which covers about half the tuition; juniors and seniors also receive a scholarship and financial aid, and Starbucks will reimburse the employee for any remaining amount so that their tuition is completely covered.

The partners have no obligation to stay with the company after they graduate.

“Offering this program is enabling us to increase our retention and keep those partners with us while they’re studying and pursuing their bachelor’s degree, and we feel like we’ll be better off having those partners with us longer,” Harper says. “I think that’s a way you can show that you unconditionally believe in and care about your workers.” She adds that since launching the program last fall, some partners have said that they are more likely to stay with Starbucks given how the company has invested in and supported them.

The next generation

Employers will have to upgrade their incentives to attract younger workers, particularly those in the Millennial generation—and it’s not just other quick-service operators they’re up against. “Every industry has to curry favor with the next generation to recruit a workforce,” Kramer says.

But experts believe the effort will be worthwhile.

“It really is a pretty great generation that’s coming up right now,” says Cinnabon franchisee Foltz. “They work harder, smarter, and if they’ve bought into you—whether it’s work, community—if they’ve bought into it, they’re in. And I love that about this generation.”

In addition to a fierce loyalty, Millennials bring with them a natural ease to learning and using new technologies that could especially benefit operators who are less familiar with the tools.

“When you look at how a typical quick-service position has changed over the past 10 years, that typical employee is certainly dealing with more technology on a daily basis,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association (NRA). “When we talk to quick-service operators about technology integration, they definitely are much more likely to use technology in their operation than compared to the industry overall.”

In its 2015 Industry Forecast, the NRA found that while half of consumers still prefer to interface with a person rather than technology, a whopping 79 percent believe that technology increases convenience.

Although negative labels have orbited Millennials—lazy, entitled, socially inexperienced due to social media—operators including Foltz, Chick-fil-A’s Winkfield, and Starbucks’s Harper have nothing but praise for their young workers.

“In our opinion, in no time in history has there been a smarter workforce than today,” says Crosby of Pal’s Sudden Service. “There’s so much agility that they bring because of their understanding and use of technology … and that’s helping to change our business, make it smarter with how we can interact with our customers.”

Back of House, Employee Management, Restaurant Operations, Story, Chick-fil-A, Cinnabon