2011 August: New Recruits

Rick Wells has opened 19 different restaurants over his career, including Sauce on the Square, a 125-seat McKinney, Texas-based pizzeria that began welcoming guests in early 2009. Through it all, Wells has retained one clear perspective.

“I can’t pour all the whiskey and make all the pizzas,” he says.

Knowing steady employees are central to his success, Wells embraces any recruiting techniques that can help Sauce on the Square land capable team members. In fact, in today’s ultra-competitive foodservice environment, many believe recruiting and hiring the right personnel carries as much importance as the product itself.

“Ultimately, you’re talking about your reputation here,” says David Hyatt, president of Colorado Springs-based Corvirtus, a human resources consulting firm. “If you take a halfhearted approach to recruiting and hiring, then that’s likely the type of experience you’ll create for guests.”

As the economy has staggered and unemployment has climbed, the number of individuals seeking work suggests that pizzerias might hold the proverbial pick of the litter. Only one problem: it’s a massive litter.

“So many people are looking for work that it takes a lot of time and energy to whittle the pile down to the right ones,” Hyatt says.

Yet, the “right ones” seem to be available in greater supply today than five or six years ago, say many veteran operators. Wells knows a number of sharp restaurant staffers who, after leaving the industry to pursue their own professional agenda following their teen or college years, have returned to the restaurant world in today’s bearish economic climate.

“The challenge might soon move from recruiting to retaining, but there are some real qualified restaurant folks out there right now,” Wells says.

To attract capable candidates and secure solid workers, operators and employment experts offer these strategies:

Start internally. “You can come up with all the buzz words and Web sites, but at the end of the day recruiting is about the people you have working for you,” Wells says, echoing the sentiments of many operators.

If you build a reputation as an enjoyable, respectful place to work, then candidates will line up for opportunities, particularly those encouraged to apply by current staff who want to work with people they know, like and trust.

“Good people hang with good people, so broadcast any opening to your staff,” Hyatt says, adding that he believes current employees referring a friend have essentially pre-screened the candidate.

At Sauce on the Square, Wells’ staff actually drives the hiring process, a prime recruiting strategy he employs. After a job candidate interviews with the guest service manager, property GM and Wells, the candidate then shadows a current team member for a four-hour shift. Staff then provides input on the candidate’s potential.

“Giving staff ownership of the business and investing them in this process creates a culture that brings good people in,” Wells says, noting that Sauce on the Square only lost one employee during its opening year.

Investing staff in the recruiting process can also include referral bonuses.

Jason Shifflett, operator of 31 Domino’s pizzerias in the southeast, offers bonuses up to $100 for employees who bring a competent worker into the fold. In addition to securing the pizzeria a new employee, the bonus also invests staff in the success of the new hire, which Shifflett says creates a motivated, willing workforce grounded in positive peer pressure.

Leverage the “right” technology. Technology remains an important recruitment aide, specifically with Gen Y and the Millennials. Be careful though, as large job Web sites such as Monster or CareerBuilder might bring a flurry of unqualified, even disinterested applicants.

“Prepare for 180 resumes knowing that only two to three will work,” Wells says of the large job sites.

Rather, investigate more targeted job boards, specifically local outlets.

“From something as well known as craigslist to local churches and schools, there are a lot of smaller, niche job boards you can utilize for strong results,” Hyatt says.

Value the pre-interview. Interacting with an individual before any formal interview provides operators an immediate — though by no means concrete — sense of how a prospective employee might relate with guests. In such dealings, Domino’s franchisee Dave Melton seeks eye contact, a smile, and a compelling personality.

“This tells me if they can connect with people on a personal level, which is so important in our customer-focused culture,” says Melton, who is also the co-author of Hire the American Dream, a primer for attracting entry-level employees.

Shifflett also values the pre-interview, encouraging his managers to utilize the quick dialogue as a straightforward recruitment aide.

“How do they present themselves? Did they bring their own pen? How do they talk about their previous job experience? All of these help assess if this individual is worth investigating further as a potential employee,” Shifflett says.

Always be open. While some of Shifflett’s 31 Domino’s outlets have little turnover, others find themselves in a consistent staffing crunch. Either way, Shifflett offers consistent direction to managers: always accept applications.

“Like a good college football coach, your eyes always need to be open to great players you can add to your team,” he says.

Nearly 20 years ago, Wells enjoyed a positive experience during a personal meal, later handing his business card to the server and offering: “If you’re ever looking for a job, please look us up.” Last year, that server joined his staff.

“I’m certainly not suggesting you go into restaurants and poach their employees,” Wells cautions, “but I am saying you need to believe in recruiting wholeheartedly and be aware of opportunities to introduce your restaurant to qualified individuals.”

Extend that openness to guests, many of whom are familiar with the establishment, its vibe and have expressed an interest in your business.

“There’s nothing wrong with letting customers know you’re hiring,” Hyatt says.

Networking with high school counselors or teachers, athletic coaches, college employment offices, church groups, and nonprofits can also yield positive leads.

And finally, Hyatt says, don’t be afraid to go retro.

“The old help wanted sign in the window still works,” he says, adding that the signage frequently prompts the oft-telling personal interaction.

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.

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