May 27, 2014 |

All Hands on Deck

By Pizza Today

Quality seasonal workers make the summer rush a lot easier

Keeping an even staff level throughout the year is a great thing. You know your employees, they know their roles and staff turnover is steady and predictable. But for some pizzerias, that’s not an option. Summer comes on strong, and with it, a huge spike in demand. Pizzerias in tourist areas have to bring in large numbers of temporary workers. Pizzerias in college towns can see half their workforce packing up and heading home for the summer. But how can you find good seasonal employees — and how can you train them efficiently?

Terry Perrella has found a way to avoid the problem entirely. The owner and manager of Sammy’s Pizza in downtown Duluth, Minnesota, is definitely familiar with the summer rush — he goes from eight tables a night in winter to around 30 on a busy summer evening. But to avoid the time and expense of training temporary workers, he asks his staff to work more instead. Since school is out for the summer, his part-time workers are able to work extra hours, and they’re often glad for the opportunity. “I got high school and college kids, they don’t work more than two shifts,” Perrella says. “In the summer they want to work five shifts.”

Giving your workers extra hours is a simple solution, but it’s not always an option. Many employees want time off for travel or vacations, and college students from out of town may go back home for the summer. This can leave gaps that are difficult to fill. As the co-owner of Bulldog Pizza and Grill, a Duluth pizzeria sandwiched between two colleges and a high school, Sue Wright has a lot of experience with student employees. She says that when graduations and summer plans start to shrink her pool of workers, she just takes out her Rolodex.

“When we’ve been in a bind we’ve called people who are former employees, who left on good terms,” Wright says. “These people who are leaving to go to college, they’re always welcome back if we feel they’re doing a great job.”

Of course, not everyone wants to come back. Dave Coleman is a founder and co-owner of Prospector’s Pizzeria and Alehouse and two other restaurants near Alaska’s Denali National Park. The three restaurants together go from seven employees in the winter to 200 in the summer, and only 25 percent return from previous years. “You really want to retain the best employees summer after summer, (but) a lot can happen in eight months,” Coleman says. “That’s what’s so challenging about seasonal hiring.”

Coleman and his partners start screening applications on January 1, and they conduct two rounds of phone interviews. They look for people who are truly determined to get the job, because those people are motivated to keep it.

“Eighty to 90 percent of all our hiring is done in those first couple weeks in February,” Coleman says. “The earlier hires usually are ones that have already determined they want to come here. What is key is getting the staff motivated.”

Motivation is especially important for seasonal employees, who are hired specifically to deal with thick crowds and long hours. For this reason, it’s important for owners to vet temporary employees themselves.

Brian Hutchinson has learned this the hard way. As manager and part owner of Pazzo’s Pizza, a three-unit chain in the mountains of Colorado, he’s seen his share of ski bums and the generally unmotivated. But some of his worst workers have come from a temp agency. “Last year I ended up with a couple of real duds,” Hutchinson says. “They started in November, they weren’t very good workers, (and) they wanted to leave in February. From then on I said, ‘I’m not hiring until they get here.’”

Even after you find motivated workers, you have to train them. Howard Cannon, CEO of Restaurant Consultants of America, recommends that operators keep training tightly focused for their temporary employees.

“Don’t cross-train the employees,” Cannon says. “Just hire them for one area in one specific time slot.”

Hutchinson, however, says that even temporary employees should have a full understanding of the business. His approach is trial by fire, and he expects short-term workers to know nearly as much as veterans.

“Just give them the standard training program,” he says. “If they’re not great in a couple days, we can kind of tell.”

A third option is group training. David McCarthy, also a founder and co-owner of Prospector’s Pizzeria, says that they’ve refined a system that allows them to train 200 one week before they open for the season. You probably won’t have the luxury of a dedicated training week, but you can apply the principles behind it. By providing hands-on training, matching less experienced workers with more experienced ones, and printing out step-by-step instructions for each and every position, you can give your temporary employees a chance to excel from their very first day.

“When guests show up, the No. 1 compliment we receive is ‘this feels like this has been open all year,’” McCarthy says. “That is the secret to success of a seasonal business.”

Robert Lillegard is a freelance writer in Duluth, Minnesota.