Cross-training staff eases the labor crunch

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With labor the biggest challenge in the industry right now, restaurant positions can go unfilled for several months or longer. To fill the void, more operators are investing time and energy in cross-training programs, teaching workers to multitask so they can assume more than one role or develop multiple skill sets.

Lateral moves

“Employees are no longer siloed,” says Paul D’Amico, CEO of Naf Naf Grill. “We cross-train every team member except the shawarma builder and pita baker,” which require special training and certification. At the Middle Eastern fast-casual chain, an employee may be washing dishes at lunchtime, then grilling steak for the dinner crowd. The GMs at each of Naf Naf’s 39 locations are all certified trainers, earning that title through courses with the company’s training team.

At Velvet Taco, another fast casual with a scratch kitchen, dishwashers do prep, too, including making rubs and marinades for the brisket and starting chickens on the rotisserie, and prep cooks are trained to work the line, says Corporate Chef Grant Morgan. But there’s also fluidity between the front and back of house. “Counter servers not only help expedite orders, they clean up the dining room. And managers are trained to work the line,” he says. As Velvet Taco grows from its current nine locations, it will be setting up training restaurants where new managers will be trained in every aspect of FOH and BOH operations. “It takes six months for managers to grasp the complexities of our menu, so we plan to hire six months out before an opening of a new location,” Morgan adds.

The multifunctional role has crossed into full-service kitchens, too. While they were traditionally set up with cooks assigned to dedicated stations, the days of a saute cook and prep cook are over, says Josh Capon, executive chef and partner at Mercer Street Hospitality, which runs Lure Fishbar in New York and Miami. “We’re training each line cook to have responsibility for several dishes, from start to finish,” Capon says. “If it’s a chicken dish, for example, you’re responsible for butchering and filleting the chicken, cooking it, making the accompaniments and plating it. We have to maximize each station.”

Every position at Razzoo’s Cajun Cafe requires multiple skill sets too, says Jeff Powell, CEO of the 23-unit casual-dining concept. “We’ve always done cross-training, but there’s a greater sense of urgency now,” he says. In the kitchen, the prep people all have a role on the line and the dishwasher has a small prep list. In the front of house, many employees are trained as hosts, bartenders and servers. In addition, service assistants or busboys cross-train as dishwashers. “Our people really value that they become very well prepared to work anywhere,” says Powell, which he feels contributes to Razzoo’s high retention rate.

However, Powell cautions against putting inexperienced FOH staff in food prep roles. “People make mistakes and can get hurt,” he says. “There’s also the food safety issue. Starting with well-trained trainers is critical,” he adds.

In a vertical direction

Training the trainers takes place on a large scale at Shooters, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., restaurant with 250 employees. “We developed an internal program for training, with two executive chefs pinpointing development plans for cooks,” says Peter Lopez, director of operations for Shooters and Grateful Palate Catering. There are nine stations in Shooters’ kitchen, and once a cook gets certified on a station, (sushi, saute, broiler, etc.) they get 25 cents more in hourly pay and can move on to the next one. “Each station takes about three weeks and enables that cook to learn all nine stations,” says Lopez. “It also breaks up the monotony for those employees and we end up with a well-trained staff that knows all the stations and wants to stay.”

Shooters has a similar program of advancement for its dish team. The three dishwashers can move into five prep stations after they are sufficiently trained by the sous chefs. Once they are through with prep, they have the opportunity to move onto the hot line.

“Our training program not only teaches culinary systems, it teaches leadership,” says Lopez. “This builds longevity and our biggest recruiters turn out to be our employees, who recruit their friends.”

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