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New method of developing restaurant managers brings results

Photograph courtesy of NRAEF

After rising from cashier to shift leader to assistant restaurant manager, Odette Marin wondered if she’d hit a dead end in the restaurant business. By her mid-20s, she’d already worked for two sizable California chains: Round Table Pizza and Shakey’s Pizza. If she couldn’t find a way to keep bettering herself in those multiunit operations, maybe it was time to bolt for some greener field, or focus on school. The issues for her weren’t what she was making or doing, but the limited opportunities she faced to keep learning and growing. 

Then, Shakey’s training manager approached her about a program the venerable West Coast chain was trying. How would she like to work toward having her own store by going through an apprenticeship program? The company would pay for everything (funding actually came from a U.S. Department of Labor grant, so Shakey’s was forwarded $1,000 to cover the costs).  

“He said it was just like getting an education. You’d even get a certificate at the end,” Marin recalls. “I didn’t see it as a career, butanything I wentinto didn’t look like a career, either. At least I could keep learning things.”

Fast forward two years. Marin completed her apprenticeship, a detailed curriculum of on-the-job and practical classroom-style instructioncrafted by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) to turn restaurant crew members into general managers. 

“There are a lot of facts you think you know, but you don’t, so you can learn it all at once,” remarks Marin. “You’re put in a lot of situations. They help you feel more rounded.”  

At age 28, she now manages one of the busiest restaurants in the Shakey’s system, a branch in Anaheim, Calif., that serves an army of tourists and locals alike. She points out that she has her prized certificate, a “significantly” higher income and all the learning she wants.

“It’s different every day,” she confides to an interviewer. “Now I see it as a career.” 

Marin was the first graduate of the NRAEF’s fledgling program for easing the management component of the hospitality industry’s labor shortage, the Hospitality Sector Registered Apprenticeship Project (HSRAP). By opening a door to management where many hourly level employees see a wall, it also promises to curb crew-level turnover and the flight of young people to retailing, the gig economy and other competing fields.

Although “apprenticeship” is in the name, the HSRAP bears little resemblance to the industrial learn-by-doing programs that were once used to turn adults into welders, electricians, carpenters, cooks and other skilled craftsmen. The NRAEF spent years working with employers such as Brinker International to define what skills are needed for restaurant managers to succeed—hard and soft skills. That intelligence was distilled into a distance-learning curriculum that could complement a brand’s current training program and be tailored to the peculiar needs of an operation.

The end result is a very targeted process the DOL views as a model for other labor-starved industries, including trucking. The HSRAP was developed with a $1.8 million grant from the agency as part of a federal effort to forge alternate career paths for young people who were put off by the high cost of college. 

For the restaurant industry, the HSRAP provides a way of easing the industry’s struggle to fill its management ranks. About a third (35%) of restaurant chains saw their management vacancies grow during the first quarter of 2019, according to the labor researcher TDn2K. 

For Marin, the program was a reason to stay in the business. 

“It was pretty cool,” she says during an interview at the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention in Chicago. “It wasn’t as if you’d see it if you didn’t know it was an apprenticeship program. You’re learning, but it’s from what you’re doing.” Plus, she adds, “they pay you to do it.”

Overall, she says, “I feel more cared for.”

Most of the educational process was conducted at the store level, with a few jaunts to headquarters. “Some classes were long, but it was very interesting,” says Marin. She particularly appreciated the opportunity to spend time with corporate officers, including more than four hours with a senior member of Shakey’s marketing team.

Marin intends to encourage employees of her restaurant to consider the apprenticeship program, citing her experience as proof that

it works for employee and employer alike. Elsewhere, more than 1,000 are already enrolled, including 250 at Chili’s Grill & Bar, the largest operation of Brinker. 

It makes sense, says Marin. After all, “It got me in good shape.” 

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