When it comes to winning young hearts, Taco Bell has long been in a league of its own. Now the category leader is applying its pop-culture savvy to the realm of workforce recruitment and retention. Two years ago, the company launched its Start With Us, Stay With Us platform as a way to help employees grow their careers within Taco Bell and beyond. Since then, Start With Us, Stay With Us has been bolstered by new initiatives, including the Live Más Scholarship; the Guild Education program, which is open to all 210,000 employees; and an ambitious plan to create 100,000 new jobs by 2022.

READ MORE: Taco Bell hints at big changes in 2019.

Last July, the brand tested its latest buzz-worthy program, Hiring Parties, at four Indiana locations. A far cry from the typical job interview, the events included free food, party games, immediate job interviews, and gift-card signing bonuses. The Hiring Parties were such a success that the Yum! Brands chain plans to roll them out nationwide this year.

Bjorn Erland, Taco Bell’s vice president of people and experience, offers an inside peek into the company’s one-of-a-kind approach to the workforce conundrum.

What was the impetus behind Start With Us, Stay With Us?

We know the reality of the industry is that people are going to leave and move onto different things, and changes in life happen. People can come work for us for a couple of years, learn some great skills, get some great training, move onto something else, and hopefully be a brand advocate for us down the road.

The other way we look at it is, if you want to stay with us, we have amazing career paths and tons of examples of people who started as team members and moved all the way up to executive-level roles. In a very tight labor market, we’re trying to appeal to as many people as we can versus saying we just want people who are going to stay with us long-term, because we know that’s not the reality.

Tell me about the idea and execution of a “Hiring Party.”

Edelman, our PR agency, came to us with this idea of taking a spin on the old job fairs and having this hiring party. It’s casual; people can learn about the brand, and they can have some fun. Then, if they want to apply for a job, they can do on-site interviews and we would hire them right there.

The people were really a mix from all different demographics. We ended up getting 40 new hires. We had almost a 50 percent hire rate with the people that we interviewed. We’ve had over 400 applicants online, and that was an added benefit that we didn’t realize would happen. Our local operators did an amazing job building relationships with the local community, Boys & Girls Club, and different organizations, and really got the word out. To get 40 new hires between four stores in a day is pretty amazing.

Are the Hiring Parties a viable long-term strategy?

It’s definitely a pillar within a broad strategy. I think in this day and age you have to have a few different, unique ways to recruit and talk about your brand to external candidates. So this is one great way that can be employed once, twice, maybe three times a year to pull some people in and talk about the brand.
We also need a really strong online presence as well, because that’s where many people are looking for jobs—no matter the industry.

What does the future hold for the restaurant workforce?

I don’t have my crystal ball out right now, but I think it’s hard to predict. Things are changing so fast today, with technology and the economy making it harder to predict. With the gig economy, it’s just becoming more competitive, and I think it’s going to continue down the road. The competition for talent will continue to be high, which will force us to innovate in this area and think about how we differentiate ourselves.

Even without the crystal ball, Taco Bell has an uncanny knack for anticipating trends. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of these things?

I’m a big believer in talking to the people in our restaurants and finding out what they’re looking for. We do an engagement survey a couple times a year, and that’s how we started our education program. We heard from employees that they wanted help getting their high school or college degree, so we took that data and built this partnership with Guild, which launched last March.

I also think you should stay up to date on what’s going on outside of the brand and outside the industry. Go to conferences, stay up to date with what’s going on via social media and news publications, and then think about how trends will potentially impact your restaurants down the road.

Employee Management, Story, Taco Bell