August 27, 2012 |

Jack Of All Trades

By David La Martina

pizza make lineSave on labor by cross-training employees

For Mia’s Pizza and Eats, a small mom-and-pop shop in Georgia, cross-training is a cost-cutting necessity. “There really isn’t a time at Mia’s when an employee can claim ‘That’s not my job,’ ” says owner Clori Rose-Geiger. “We try to instill in them the idea that everything that needs to be done should be done, regardless of who you are or what you’re doing on any given day.”

A versatile team is just as helpful for larger stores and chains. “In a business with take-out, delivery, and dine-in, it’s all-important,” says Scott Anthony, a franchisee for Fox’s Pizza Den and a marketing consultant. To ramp up efficiency, he ensures that his waiters and cooks are constantly occupied, and that his drivers are uniformed and ready to lend a hand during lulls.

Low turnover and reduced labor costs are the greatest advantages of a cross-trained crew. Lori Karpman, former master franchisee for Pizza Hut in Quebec, says larger skill-sets allow employees to work longer, more lucrative shifts. Cooks can stay busy throughout the day, and waiters can bus, clean, and even prep food between ser- vices. In the long run, everyone wins: employees get the hours they need, and proprietors don’t have to waste time and money to constantly train new people.

Karpman notes that a wide variety of tasks also reduces boredom and makes workers feel more invested in the success of their shops. Though their short- term training costs may be higher, a few multitalented employees can be even more helpful than a much larger but less-experienced group. Rose-Geiger keeps her payroll down with a skeleton crew of just nine people, four of whom have been with her for several years.

Not every worker is suited for every job, however. “When I hire employees for the front of the house, I’m hiring for personality, people that automatically smile,” says Jon Jameson, a founding partner of the Bellwether Food Group. On the other hand, the people he picks for the back of the house “need to understand process and have stamina.” He doesn’t care whether they’re introverted or extroverted –– they simply need to prep food quickly and correctly.

Karpman also strictly separates cook- ing and serving responsibilities. “I don’t believe in training the back-of-the-house staff to be waiters or barmen,” she says. She trains her cooks to prepare every- thing on the menu and her servers to handle every task up front. Overall, each worker “needs to be skilled in their job and what’s ancillary to it.”

“The best managers are people who work their way up through the system, people who know all the operations of the store,” says Anthony. They have to be the “go-to” workers who can jump in on any station, front or back, in case of call-offs or unexpected rushes.

That kind of adaptability doesn’t come without a price. To encourage it, Jameson offers wage increases based on the number of stations an employee can work. Regardless of tenure, people who can host, serve and supervise earn more than those confined to singular roles. The same is true for head cooks who take on managerial tasks.

In fact, some owners coordinate multiple rates for each cross-trained employee. Karpman has workers who may serve, host, and supervise in the same shift, and they’ll record separate hours for each task. This is especially important in shops where tips comprise large portions of employees’ incomes and where some positions are eligible for lower than minimum wage-rates.

Still, smaller operations often require greater versatility. At Nikoli’s Pizza in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, owner Jeannette Magaro has employees who can handle the oven, serve customers and work the register during the dinner rush. Deliveries account for nearly three quarters of her business, and she needs people who can take on every in-store responsibility while her drivers are out.

Though Rose-Geiger usually separates her cooks and waitstaff, she also says her servers “can do a lot when push comes to shove.” They’re all trained to make salads, sandwiches, and other simple fare, and some will even help out with desserts when the cooks are swamped.

It’s especially important for higher- ups to prepare for every situation.

As with any strategy, great customer service should be the impetus for cross- training. Anthony notes that servers trained to cook “can better sell a dish and share the cooking process with a guest.” Even Karpman, who rarely mixes the front and back of house, says: “customer service is my No. 1 priority.”

When a problem arises, “I don’t want the floor to tell me it was the kitchen, or for the kitchen to tell me it was the floor,” she adds. Whether or not they normally share responsibilities, her cooks and servers are all focused on delivering consistent, quality products to customers. Cross-training doesn’t just save money –– it fosters an involved, dedicated and customer-friendly staff.

Up To Speed

Cross-training current employees can be tricky, especially when you’re already short-staffed. You need to be as time-efficient as possible and focus on the most critical tasks. A few tips for smooth implementation:

  • Start from the bottom. Dish-washers and bussers have the most to learn — and the highest turnover rates. Pave the way for promotions by involving them in simple prep work, stocking and other quick-to-learn tasks.
  • Focus on cash-up. Customers hate waiting at dirty tables when their meals are finished. To reduce turnaround time, train as many people as possible to deliver checks and use the registers.
  • Talk to your staff. You’ll invariably have employees who excel on certain stations and perform poorly on others. When you’re working with little time and a low budget, cross-train people for the tasks they’ll enjoy.
  • Offer incentives. The most versatile employees are usually the busiest. Reward their hard work — and encourage extra effort from others — with raises and bonuses. The efficiency of a cost-trained crew should offset the cost.
  • Maximize time. Slow days and mid-afternoon lulls are perfect opportunities for newbies to learn new jobs. Impromptu training sessions are also cheaper than formal, day-long affairs.

David La Martina is a Kansas City-based freelance writer specializing in food, health, and fitness.