Meeting the hiring & training challenge

Meeting the hiring & training challenge

Donna Hood Crecca

Seasoned restaurant operators know that the quality of service staff can make or break a restaurant, a fact that is especially true for the beverage piece of the business. Hiring, training and retaining the right employees is challenging today, however. Restaurant industry job growth not only is outpacing other industries–we’ll add two million positions to our current 13.1 million by 2018, according to the National Restaurant Association–we’re also outpacing U.S. population growth, particularly in the key demographics of teens and young adults.


Couple that worker shortage with the changing demands of the bar, such as higher skill sets required to hand-craft quality cocktails and increasing pressure to produce greater revenue at lower cost, and staffing the beverage program suddenly becomes a truly daunting challenge.

To tackle this issue, Cheers assembled a group of leading operators and supplier representatives at the flagship Hard Rock Cafe Orlando in February.

Cheers: Where are you sourcing new employees, and how does recruiting differ from five years ago?

Doug Zeif: When I was with Cheesecake Factory, we hired from all of you! We’d stand outside your doors at shift change and offer them jobs. Now, I’m on the hotel side, dealing with remote locations with a core staff and four or five months of seasonal staffing needs. So, we recruit from other countries, and we work to bring the same people back year after year.

Bill Irvin: We’re also looking to other countries. We’ll hire more than 700 employees this year from outside the U.S. It used to be they’d come from Ireland or Russia, but now they have no incentive to come work here because of the weak dollar. So, we’re looking at Taiwan and deep in South America.

Christine Krenos: It’s definitely harder today to find people, let alone the right people. We just rolled out liquor to all our stores, and we’re not hiring bartenders, we’re training current staff to pour cocktails. Turnover’s been an issue [as a result], but we’re turning it around and saying that we’ll train them to become bartenders; they know there’s good money in bartending.

Kevin Boyer: You can have unique sets of problems in different markets. In Orlando, there’s no problem finding skilled labor. But if you tick them off, they’ll just go across the street and get a job there. In markets that aren’t booming quite the same way, they walk in with no prior training, but they’ll stay.

Irvin: Craigslist works wonders for us. We’ve gotten great, quality hires from there.

Jim Knight: We’re casting nets everywhere from MySpace to CD stores to comedy clubs, searching for people who fit our culture. That’s our approach–hire people who fit into the culture. Everything else can be trained.

Boyer: Things have really changed. We used to hire for skill and train hospitality. But you need that hospitality bone in the body, so about 10 years ago we switched to hiring for hospitality and training for skills.

Cheers: Where are you sourcing bartenders?

Krenos: In-house, but we’ve found a good server doesn’t always make a good bartender.

Stuart Melia: In a lot of casual restaurants, the bartender is the server who showed up when the bartender didn’t. That comes from a general lack of focus on the bar.

Irvin: Which is amazing, isn’t it, given that it’s such a big revenue source?

Cindy Busi: Take that a step further and ask yourself: How much time do managers spend behind the bar? They’d never let a food line shut down–they’ll put on whites and work the line themselves in a heartbeat. But if there’s a bartender problem, they’re not going back there. No way!

Bartending is a great job and we need to bring the career bartending found in Europe over here. We’re now starting to get our managers behind the bar. During our marketing manager calls with GMs, we’re asking, ‘How did you change your bar?’ The first call was scary–dead silence. Now they’re learning how to make drinks and are getting [behind the bar].

Zeif: We need to treat the bar the same way we treat culinary; it deserves the same management approach. At LXR, we take our F&B folks on a New York City trip, and last time we hit Pegu Club to see how cocktails really should be made. That sent a powerful message.

Cheers: What about at Disney?

Michael Oswald: We do a lot of internal hiring. Keep in mind that we’re in 90 countries and we’re union. So, we’ve tiered our system and tied it to experience level. The labor market for us is all of our internal people, from the seating host to the server and the bartender.

Knight: Disney does a great college hiring program. As an industry, we need to get better at school-to-work, and need to telegraph that this is a profession.

Oswald: Colleges are important sources for us, but training really creates our workforce. Stuart McGuire [director of beverage sales and standards] has done a great job with standardized training; we’re rolling it now to our California properties. In earlier years, F&B was not a big focus for us and we needed to refocus. Now, external hires into management go through 12 weeks of training, two of which are on the bar–written training, walk throughs and hands-on where they’re learning to pour, mix drinks and so on. It’s every aspect of the bar. There was a time when we had managers who couldn’t find a “born on” date. We’ve really come a long way.

Cheers: What about bartender compensation?

Irvin: Do we compensate bartenders the same as the back-of-house folks? In most operations they’re viewed as tipped employees, but they manage a huge chunk of the business. It’s different than a server.



Zeif: We need to pay these people like we do the cooks because in most operations, they’re not going to make the tips, especially the day bartender. We have to balance the need to drive profits and contain labor costs against our need to not be turning over our day bartenders or turning out bad drinks.

Irvin: That’s what I’m thinking–put a flair guy behind the bar and you’ll see a substantial sales jump. Get the passionate professionals, but to do that you have to pay them.

Cheers: Has the movement toward fresh bar programs impacted your ability to hire, train and retain?

Boyer: Many of our GMs came to us in the early 1990s; we didn’t have big bars then at Ruth’s Chris–the bar was a holding area off to the side. Now there is a shift and the bar is important.

We’ve found that longevity does create its own problems. We had to retrain the GMs and make them understand that they have to be in there and actively train and manage beverage. There is a completely different hiring process in place now for bartenders than there was four years ago; it’s a three-point interview process involving the regional manager, GM and then the lead bartender.

Irvin: How are they taking to your fresh bar program?

Boyer: Frankly, I wanted to stay out of the restaurants for the first few months because I think they wanted to kill me! It was more work in the beginning, but we’ve trained on the fact that if you make a better drink, you make more money. And it’s also cheaper to do fresh, so the GMs buy in.

Cheers: Who handles beverage training and how much weight does it get in the grand scheme of things?

Irvin: Our staff handles a lot of it, and we have WineQuest involved. Then it’s onto the shoulder of the management staff.

Krenos: We just downsized our director of training, so it’s now pushed to the store level.

Knight: Training is so important, but all the training in the world won’t help a bad hire. As an industry, we miss out on hiring right most of the time.

Melia: The key is to get the right GM in place, because that person drives a lot of the hiring and training.

Zief: The trick is to close the screen door and only let the right bugs in, those that will help beverages become a profit center, not a cost center.

Cheers: It sounds like it all hinges on the GM.

Boyer: There’s a better cost-to-profit ratio behind the bar; some GMs get that and some don’t. I mean, how many 42-ounce ribeyes can you sell a person? There are several drink opportunities throughout a meal, and we can and should capitalize on that.

Melia: Overall, I’ve seen a lack of business savvy among GMs in the last five years. They don’t drill down and ask, ‘Where is my profit center?’ If they did, the answer would be beverage. They’re disttacted by so many other things. Those are the GMs I wouldn’t mind losing.

Knight: Yes, there is good turnover, but don’t you also wish there didn’t have to be any of that turn? Look at a company like Monicals Pizza [Bradley, Ill.], which has something like more than two years of zero management turn and really good financial performance from the units. Monicals is using development tools like Harvard ManageMentor to teach managers and keep them engaged and growing.

Pamela Loch: Vesting and development programs sound like no-brainers, but a lot of organizations just can’t do that. Basic comp is always important. Go back 15 years or more and GMs [in casual chains] were well paid and knew the bar was important. The bars rocked, but then corporations pulled back on their salaries and shifted direction and the bar in America went away. It’s tough to get that focus back now.

Cheers: So how do we get the GM focused?

Krenos: We had to get upper management involved. To get our servers who are so behind beer to also get behind cocktails, well, the message had to come from the top.

Boyer: It’s tough to get everyone understanding the bar in terms of revenue generation. Some of our GMs had no idea that 30 percent of sales came out of their bar. But if you force the paradigm shift, make them look at the numbers, the light bulb goes on and they hire and train differently.

Ed Farley: It’s interesting, from the manufacturer’s side, to hear all this. In the training area we should be coming to you with support, and in many cases it is available. For example, we can train on proper pour to extract the most profit out of a draft keg.

Cheers: Do you see vendors as partners in training?

Melia: We used the A-B Draft Excellence program in 2007, and it was great. But, we’ve often found that distributors and wholesalers can be self-serving.


Knight: Stand-up facilitation is difficult; you must have the right facilitator, the space and the scheduling ability to pull it off, which is unlikely. We’re finding that e-learning, where content is king, is growing. We are working to identify the good communication conduits available from our partners.

Farley: What I’m hearing here is perhaps we could customize training programs, putting things into your vernacular and adjust to your employees’ learning curve.

Busi: We’ve done a lot of work with partners with our F&B programs, but nothing beverage specific. It’s worth looking at for 2009.

RELATED ARTICLE: Training that Rocks

Hard Rock International is one of the most recognized brands in the world. One reason is that the Orlando, Fla.-based operator of 127 Hard Rock Cafes and nine hotel/casinos in 48 countries hires individuals not just as servers and bartenders, but as brand ambassadors.

Jim Knight, senior director of training and development for the School of Hard Rocks, provided the Cheers Roundtable Discussion participants with an overview of the comprehensive training initiative at Hard Rock. Among the program’s highlights:

* New Hire Orientation with a personal touch, including lunch with the GM, who also facilitates all orientation training.

* Validation Materials that speak to the demographic and learning styles of the company’s young-minded employee set with Jeopardy-style quizzes, mix and match games and other interactive formats.

* Brand Collateral that establishes “internal branding,” according to Knight. The edgy, music-themed Story Book and Word Book convey the story of Hard Rock and draw employees into the culture.

* Bartender Training includes a drink rolodex, beverage specs guide and a training DVD, all presented with Hard Rock’s signature graphic style and attitude.


* Rock 101, the mandatory training program for all managers, immerses them in the brand, service style and culture of Hard Rock.

Hard Rock now is moving toward e-learning with the introduction of Rock U, an online university that will enable employees to take classes from home or the corner coffee shop, according to Knight. Thirty classes are in development.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Bev-AL Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning