In the face of how the pandemic has dramatically altered the employment landscape, chefs and food-and-beverage managers at club and resort properties are pulling out all the stops to still attract and retain the best fits for their kitchen and dining-room staffs.
The entire hospitality industry is hurting for quality employees, and clubs and resorts have not been spared.
“We get loads of applications, but when we follow up, many don’t even respond—and even of those who do, fewer than 10% show up for the interview,” says Carlos Addarich, Executive Chef of Tampa (Fla.) Yacht & Country Club. “And of those we actually hire, many just don’t show up for their first day of work.”
Aside from pay rates (“Most candidates won’t even talk to you if your pay rate is less than $15 per hour,” Addarich states), many are now more leery of the hospitality industry because of the long hours and workweeks it requires.
“They’re looking for a consistent five-day week, because achieving a satisfying work-life balance has become increasingly important to people, especially since the pandemic,” Addarich notes. “They tend to be more concerned about their work hours and days than they are about their benefits package.”
Once everything is back to normal and COVID is under control, Addarich predicts, the entire hospitality industry will have to reinvent itself as a workplace to become more appealing to quality personnel.
The kitchen at Tampa Y&CC has an impressive employee retention rate, Addarich reports, with a senior banquet cook who has been with the club for 27 years, a line cook for 26 years, a sous chef for 20 years and a banquet chef for 15 years. But he is still considering creating some part-time positions in the yacht club’s back of the house, to be able to commit to giving staffers the two days off per week they want and fill in the gap times.
More Than a Job
Candidates are also looking for clearly defined career paths from hospitality employers, according to Harmen Rost van Tonningen, the Food and Beverage Director who is responsible for hiring front-of-the-house employees for Tampa Yacht & Country Club.
“We let candidates know that we promote from within and offer a great deal of training in various aspects of food-and-beverage service, to prepare them to move up and into different departments that might be of particular interest to them,” Rost van Tonningen explains.
For example, Tampa Y&CC recently arranged extensive food training with a new meat purveyor that was designed to give both the front- and back-of-the-house staff a better understanding of its products and how they should be handled. Team members also learn about wine and beer from Rost van Tonningen, who is a trained sommelier, and about bourbons and whiskies from of one the bar managers who is particularly knowledgeable about these spirits.
“We don’t want our staff to become simply order takers,” Rost van Tonningen emphasizes. “We want them to understand everything about the food and beverages we serve, so they can explain to the membership how dishes are prepared, what to avoid if they have allergies or specific food preferences, and what beverage pairs best with each dish.”
Training of this type, he adds, also allows employees to grow into well-rounded professionals, and demonstrates that the club can offer employees a rewarding lifelong profession, rather than just a temporary or dead-end job.
Worth the Investment
While attempting to staff up for kitchen and pool foodservice operations, Alexander Learned, Food and Beverage Director at Wichita (Kan.) Country Club, reports that out of 100 interviews scheduled for one recent month, only 10 of the applicants showed up. Only five of them were suitable for hiring, and of that five, only two brought back the paperwork—and those two then left after three weeks on the job.
According to Learned, the club is taking the steps needed to invest in building and retaining a quality team, even raising the pay rate as much as 20% for kitchen staff. Special attention is also being paid to the evening line cooks, to try to make the chef’s life easier.
To retain staff, the club was kept open during the pandemic. “We didn’t feel right not to take care of them,” Learned says.
Like Addarich and Rost van Tonningen, Learned has found that candidates highly value time flexibility. “We get a lot of college-age students, and they need to work around their class schedules,” he points out. “We work with them as much as we can to create a positive work environment.”
Full-time employees at Wichita CC get a benefits package that includes vacation days, health care and a 401(k). Hourly employees also get a 401(k), and the club matches the amount they put in.
And even when the club is fully staffed, Learned and his front-of-the-house manager and kitchen chef still take time to cast the net for candidates as part of their daily duties.
“I dedicate two hours every day to hiring,” he notes. “To find the best candidates, you have to make sure you’re in the right place at the right time.”
Doing More With Less
At Summit Hills Country Club in Crestview Hills, Ky., the staffing situation has been relatively stable for core full-timers. But hiring for supplemental positions for the summer kitchen and snack shack was such a challenge that Executive Chef Charles Myers had to operate with a relatively lean team, even though the pay rates were raised.
The few employees Myers was able to hire had worked at the club previously, so they knew what to expect in terms of work hours, he says.
“Our Board certified that we could use discretionary funds for overtime, so we’ve had some staffers working over 50 hours a week,” he reports. “We also keep the lines of communication open, so employees know we’re not trying to work them to death.”
Despite the difficulty of finding new hires, Summit Hills found ways to do better than 50 to 60% of clubs in the area, and 90% of independent restaurants, Myers believes.
“We emphasize our stronger hiring points such as competitive pay rates, benefits and no late nights, because we know candidates are talking to other clubs and restaurants as well as us,” he notes.
To identify the most promising candidates, Myers listens closely to the questions they ask during the initial interview.
“We expect them to be concerned with pay rate and working hours, but if that’s all they ask about during the interview, I don’t think they’re right for us,” he says. “We look for people who have a genuine interest in the profession, instead of those just looking for a paycheck.”
For full-time positions, candidates who ask about procedures and how many people work on the line, and also express interest in the food and menu, are likely to be the investments that yield the best returns for the club, Myers notes. With summer college help, it is more a matter of discovering their strengths, to identify the niches where they would be most effective and happy during their two- or three-month tenures.
Once new people are on board, Myers watches closely during their first few weeks, to see who shows initiative and a willingness to jump in and learn new things. He also makes note of those who just stand around.
To incentivize staffers to stay, Myers asks them for their “ideal schedule” and tries to give them those days and times whenever possible. Whether they have family obligations or even just want to attend Friday-night football games, he does his best to work around them.
“Letting them know that we care about their quality of life makes them happy,” he says. “I haven’t had to turn down a single request for time off all summer, despite being short-staffed.”
Tapping the Sources at Hand
For Rost van Tonningen, Addarich and Myers, the best source of quality candidates—before as well as during and after the pandemic—has continued to be current employees.
In addition to relying on employment websites like Indeed for qualified leads, all of their clubs offer incentives to referring staffers, who can receive a finder’s fee for each new employee who stays on the job for a specified period.
“One of our bartenders brought us eight people who we hired, completely outfitting our bar during the summer,” Myers reports. “That bartender stands to earn $4,000 in referral bonuses, and the bar was one area we didn’t have to worry about.”
One of the first things Rost van Tonningen looks for in a candidate, even more than foodservice experience, is a pleasant demeaner and a willingness to learn. Addarich prefers candidates who have resort or country-club experience instead of having worked for independent restaurants.
“There are fewer bad habits to break when their background is similar to the way we do things at the club,” he says.
Foodservice experience helps for kitchen staff, but Learned emphasizes that the club is not a corporate kitchen and that everything is made from scratch. Enthusiasm for learning can go a long way.
Learned actually prefers to hire candidates for dining-room servers, food runners and pool staff who have not worked in the foodservice industry before.
“They’re more open and apt to learn our way of doing things,” he notes.
Recently, Myers has also had good luck hiring candidates whose training had to start from scratch.
“In the past six months we have hired two phenomenal kitchen employees, one who had no foodservice experience at all, and the other who had worked in fast food,” he said. “We trained them from the ground up.”
Even candidates with no prior foodservice experience are given a chance for a position at Tampa (Fla.) Yacht & Country Club if they show up at the interview looking presentable and are polite, says Executive Chef Carlos Addarich. Overall attention to image is important to him, from the shoes up to the smile.
“A person who takes care of their shoes shows pride and attention to detail,” he explains. “Friendliness is also key; you can’t teach someone how to smile.”
Alexander Learned, Food and Beverage Director at Wichita (Kan.) Country Club, looks for two major attributes: work ethic and front-of-the-house personality.
“Either you’re born with them, or you’re not,” he says. “Having a server who is an introvert is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”
Humility is important to Charles Myers, Executive Chef of Summit Hills Country Club in Crestview Hills, Ky.
“New employees have to be teachable,” he said. “The hardest thing to deal with is a know-it-all.”
Satisfaction and retention soars when employees know their efforts are noticed and appreciated. For Charles Myers, Executive Chef at Summit Hills Country Club in Crestview Hills, Ky., expressing that to staffers begins with thanking each one for their exemplary service every day before he leaves the kitchen.
During the summer, Myers also distributes cash tips to staffers. And when the summer season ends, club members, under Myers’ guidance, volunteer to cook and tend bar for a party to show the staff their gratitude.
At the party, the employees can play golf while enjoying refreshments from the beverage cart, swim and have drinks by the pool, or just eat and have a good time. Every employee also receives a donated raffle prize.
Beyond special recognition events, Harmen Rost van Tonningen, Food and Beverage Director at Tampa Yacht & Country Club, does not wait until high-performing employees’ annual reviews to increase their pay. “That surprise personal acknowledgement of their performance means a lot to them,” he notes.
Summing It Up
> Hiring can’t be done on just an as-needed basis anymore; time should be devoted each day to checking and developing sources for finding and recruiting possible candidates.
> The best source for finding qualified candidates remains current employees and giving them incentives for recommending people who will fit in and stay.
> Put as much emphasis on the questions that candidates ask during interviews as to how they answer the ones posed to them.
> Give as much weight to desirable attributes that candidates display, such as attention to detail in their appearance, friendliness, and humility, as to their experience and knowledge.
> Once new people are on board, watch them closely during their first few weeks to see who shows initiative and a willingness to jump in and learn new things—and who just stands around.
> Find ways to show your best-performing employees that their efforts are noticed and appreciated on an ongoing basis, and not just as part of periodic reviews.