Meeting the Challenges of Smart Food Service Staffing and Training

Tips for Good Decisions

No matter the attraction, customers want to have a tasty, no-surprise food experience as part of the fun.  Regardless if they are cooks, frontline or wait staff, your staff has to deliver quality food all served up with a generous measure of consistently exceptional customer service. From hiring employees with the right stuff to turning customer complaints into opportunities, here’s how some professionals are ensuring their operation delivers quality with the right attitude.
Efficient food operations start with hiring the right staff.  This can be challenging in an industry that tends to be seasonal and is staffed primarily by students and part timers. If you start with identifying what’s important in a potential employee, though, the task becomes more manageable. Think demeanor.
“I always say you can’t teach personality,” said Steve Brown, the aquatics division manager of Splash in the Boro, in Statesboro, Ga. “That is one of the main attributes I look for when interviewing potential employees.  Of course, it can be hard to get a feel for someone’s true colors in a 20 or 30-minute interview.”
Part of the challenge is the nature of the potential workforce.  As Brown noted, “They have to be 16 to start and we get them up through college age.  Many have never had jobs before so there is no work experience or records on which to base hiring decisions.  As a result, it comes back to personality and how they conduct themselves during the interview.”
Fortunately, it’s a face-to-face process, because, as Brown advised, “You need to look for everything from the obvious to the more subtle. Are they respectful? Do they have good manners? Do they seem like good kids?”
Mike Jensen, the food and beverage manager at the Big Surf Waterpark in Tempe, Ariz., agreed and added, “I look at how they present themselves and I judge a lot just based on how they look appearance wise.  I also pay attention to how they speak when answering questions to try and determine where they might fit, for example, if they are more of a frontline-oriented type of a person or more suited for another position.”
Looking for the right signs can require making connections. “It’s all about service,” said Mark Montoya, the food and beverage manager at the Water Monkey Adventure in Albuquerque, N.M. “So, a good sign of the right personality is how involved they are.  We try to find out about the kinds of things they have done in their schools because if they are involved in school activities, then they tend to be doers and achievers and work hard.”
Yet, despite the typically young nature of the potential workforce, it’s important to attract key staff with some experience. “We try to hire people with the right experience, but most of the people we hire are either high school or college students since it is a seasonal job,” said Robert Talliaferro, the assistant park manager of Water World in Dothan, Ala.  “Sometimes the best you can hope for is to try and hire supervisors and those types of staff who may be older and more experienced.”
“Although they might not have the specific experience we might need, we look for people who can turn some of their life experiences into practical skill sets,” said Scott Carothers, the waterpark general manager at Wild Island in Sparks, Nev.  “They may, for example, have sports or babysitting experience. These result in skill sets and a place to start. I can teach them the professional side of work.”
Operations like Wild Island, which is larger than many parks, may require a more structured approach to maintaining full staffing.  According to Carothers, “We have a year-round operation that requires an off-season staff of about 125 and that swells up to about 450 during the summer season.”
He noted, “When we do our job fairs, there is obviously a portion of the people who show up with specific skill sets.  We spend a little bit more time to understand what they have or what they can offer, especially for positions like cook staff.  Whereas, if you hire for the frontline, it’s a little bit different style of interview.  Different questions.  So, when you hire, you can’t pigeon hole everything into one way. You have to set yourself up to look at skill positions and make sure the people you are hiring are capable of doing the work.”
An integral part of building a productive staff is training. Whether this takes the form of on-the-job training or something more formal is often a function of the nature of the food offered and the size of the operation.
Said Brown, “We start by conducting an orientation for all staff.  This includes an overview of the park, discussing guest services and policy, schedules, setting standards and expectations, and procedures that go along with the job. We also do some role play scenarios for the specific areas. It’s essential to train staff for all fundamental tasks, such as food preparation, food handling, cleanliness, hygiene, and customer service so our staff is prepared.”
Leveraging the experience of returning employees can also prove valuable.  “I have 15 to 20 percent retention from the previous year, so those employees help us with on-the-job training.  Take a cashier, for example, I may have that person train two or three others to develop some staff depth and capability.”
Regardless of how it’s done, all of the professionals we talked with emphasized the need for staff preparation.  “I think in a service industry you would be kidding yourself if you didn’t invest in training,” said Carothers. “We spend a tremendous amount of time, starting with the basics so that employees understand what our standards are.  If you initially tackle things like where is your break, how do you get food, how do you clock in, we have a biometric time clock, then employees feel more comfortable and they can focus on their job specifics and what they are supposed to do.”
The experts advise parks to streamline procedures and have straightforward checklists. This can help to institutionalize both the training process and corresponding procedures that the various positions require, reducing training time and mistakes. Recognition is also important as an incentive to learn quickly and excel. It can take many forms as long as it makes people feel valued and appreciated.
“We have what we call reward cards,” said Brown. “Those are used if a manager or supervisor observes an employee doing something above and beyond or just being consistently on time.  It gives staff things like an extra 30-minute break or a free meal.”
“We usually have two employee parties after work during the summer,” said Jensen.  “We come up with about 8 or 10 awards to help recognize people in front of their peers.”
“We have developed a bead program,” said Carothers. “Younger employees tend to want to be recognized immediately. So, if an employee does something well, we give them a bead and they can wear it on their lanyard.  We also do a lot of other things, like something we call Baja Bonuses.  If they do three things above and beyond, they earn three bonuses, which is worth a free lunch and a raffle ticket for gifts we give away at employee parties. At the end of the year we do a real big one where we give away about $25,000 worth of gifts and merchandise.”
Of course, things don’t always go right. According to Brown, when it comes to customer complaints, “You need to empathize with the customer and put yourself in their shoes.  Understand that when some people complain they may go about it the wrong way, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a legitimate reason for complaining.”
“Always listen to the customer first,” advised Taliaferro.  “If there is one thing a customer wants it is to be listened to, understood and taken seriously. Try to be as helpful as possible. Train staff that if they can’t resolve the issue to take it to the next level, which is a supervisor or manager.”
Staff members also need to be taught when to bow out. “The main thing I tell the staff is that if they are upset with the customer for any reason, or if the customer is upset with them, don’t try to help the guest,” said Jensen. “At that point, get someone else to step in and handle the issue because once the customer is mad at you there is probably nothing you can do to make them happy.”
Teaching others how to handle complaints requires training. “If I’m trying to develop a supervisor and train them to handle customer complaints, the first thing we talk about is how to defuse the situation in the sense that you can’t be defensive,” said Carothers.  But he goes even a step further. “A lot of young people want to defend our policy or why the customer is wrong and we are right.  That’s not what it’s about.  For whatever reason that customer has taken the time to tell you that something is not right.  So, in our mind they are giving us the opportunity to address something.  We need to be grateful for that opportunity.”
He added, “You can’t have as many people as we have come to the park and expect everybody to be happy.  Even if you can do nothing about it, for example, lousy weather or the rudeness of other patrons, you can still listen.  We offer them the chance to come back at a different time on us and we will try again.  Amazing stuff can happen with you use that approach.”
The success of your attraction requires that all aspects of fielding a talented staff need to fit together. Toward that end, finding ways to keep things manageable is the key.  After all, food operational requirements are easier to address if you break them down into fundamental elements, hiring, training, rewarding, and what happens when things don’t go right. This will enable you to focus on the specifics of what is required to get each one right. –


When Things Don’t Go Right
Six Tips for Handling Customer Complaints

  1. The customer is always right, even when they express their dissatisfaction in a poor way.
  2. Empathize with the customer, listen more than you talk and don’t be defensive.
  3. Don’t try to handle a complaint if you are upset with the customer or they are upset with you.
  4. Don’t hesitate to elevate a complaint to higher management to ensure that it gets resolved.
  5. Turn complaints into opportunities to win fans for life or to correct something in your system that needs improvement.
  6. Finally, don’t forget to smile, keep things in perspective, and maintain balance and a sense of humor.

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