It's increasingly crucial for grocers to hire good employees and to train them properly to keep them.
For everyday wisdom, it’s hard to top Homer Simpson’s “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true!”

In February, Whole Foods Market rolled out a series of TV ads highlighting the chain’s deli and prepared foods offerings. Dubbed “Whatever makes you whole,” the series includes two ads of a shopper interacting with an employee at a Whole Foods deli cheese case.

In the first ad, the shopper says to the clerk, “I hear you have a degree in cheese.” The clerk answers, “I do. I went to cheese school.” The shopper concludes the spot with, “I’d like to go to cheese school.” In the second, the same shopper delivers a speech to the same clerk about how he’s looking for a soft cheese, “but not too soft.”

Yes, the ads are funny. And, given today’s increasingly complex retail deli/bakery/foodservice world, there’s also a lot of truth to them. 

Maybe the clerk who gives you advice on which cheese to pair with your pinot noir or prosciutto didn’t really go to cheese school. But you can pretty much bank on the fact that she or he knows a lot more about cheese than the average deli clerk of yore.

As perimeter-store departments become more diverse and sophisticated — and more important for brick-and-mortar retailers’ bottom lines — it’s increasingly crucial for grocers and their suppliers to hire good employees, to train them properly and to keep them.

And as if their own rapidly changing worlds weren’t enough to contend with, today’s retailers and suppliers also must deal with the issues that confront all employers. Things like worker safety, benefit expectations and, certainly not least of all, the simple lack of qualified workers in a low-unemployment economy.

“Attracting and retaining great people has become more difficult because the environment is more competitive,” says Mike Tilden, director of deli and bakery for Kansas City, Kansas-based Ball’s Food Stores, owners of the Hen House and Price Chopper retail banners. “People have so many options of where, when and how they want to work.” 

It’s hard to find good workers. That’s one truth that’s not very funny. But retailers and their suppliers are working hard to find new answers to the perennial “people” question. Those that succeed are sure to thrive in today’s grocery retail environment.

New challenges, old values

Thanks in no small measure to the ascent of retail foodservice, “being a foodie is a bonus” if you’re looking to join the team at a retailer like Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market, says Leah Williams, the company’s director of human resources.

Fortunately for Dorothy Lane, “most often that happens on its own,” Williams says — even if the new hire wasn’t a foodie before he or she began working at one of the chain’s three gourmet stores. 

Words like “foodie” haven’t been in regular circulation for most of the 70 years Dorothy Lane has been in business. And while it’s important to keep up with the times, when it comes to getting and keeping good employees, Dorothy Lane hews close to traditions that have served it well since its founding. Sometimes, Williams says, staying the course is the best way to deal with change.

“Our industry is changing rapidly with acquisitions and e-commerce at an unprecedented rate,” Williams says. “As the grocery industry navigates these changes, we are still hiring for the same qualities we were when we first opened 70 years ago. Are you able to greet hostility with a smile? Can you think on your feet quick enough to turn around a customer’s experience?”

Those are the qualities Dorothy Lane looks for and then “refines” in its associates, Williams says. As a result, the company has been fortunate enough to keep many of its employees for longer than the industry average. “I believe it gives us a competitive advantage,” she says.

 Dorothy Lane is very democratic in its approach to hiring, Williams says. “We hire everyone from the 15 ½ year old high school student looking for a first job to the 70-year-old retired project manager. We welcome associates from all walks of life, and we’re always looking for enthusiastic applicants with big smiles.” 

Character can be a great place to start when looking for qualifications for new hires.
Of course, those smiles and that enthusiasm can’t be faked, Williams says. “Hire for character” are the first three words of Dorothy Lane’s employment motto. Outward appearance must be backed up by strong inner qualities. It’s far more important, Williams says, to hire people of good character than people of a certain age or skill set. Dorothy Lane will handle the skill part. In fact, it’s enshrined in the last three words of that motto: “Train for skill.”

Character is a great place to start when looking at qualifications for new hires. But Steve Gress, principal consultant for Atlanta-based consultancy North Highland, says that given today’s grocery retail environment —especially on the store perimeter —the 15 ½ year olds may not be as likely to get hired as they once were. 

“With the evolution in shopping preferences, stores are having to hire more employees that understand food preparation and hygiene, equipment operation and maintenance, and coordination of perishable and prepared foods timed to peak shopping times to maximize availability and minimize waste,” Gress says. “This is driving demand for food retailers to look beyond younger staff that stock shelves and run cash registers.  More experienced workers who can monitor and log foodservice equipment conditions, cut and prepare foods and interpret data on consumer traffic patterns are in rising demand.”

The “evolution” Gress describes is the growth in online shopping and its subsequent impact on deli, bakery and other perimeter-store departments. “The periphery is where customers still like to shop in person,” he says. “The bakery and deli, fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy. Grocers are adding more prepared or fresh food areas to keep customers coming into the store, such as take-and-bake prepared meals, salad bars, sandwich counters and even wine and beer bars.” And it’s those types of more sophisticated offerings that often require a more experienced hand, he says.

Training those new employees also isn’t what it used to be, Gress says. The traditional method of having new hires shadow their co-workers for a few days to learn the basics of checkout and stocking are largely a thing of the past.

“Now new employees can expect multi-week training sessions on proper food handling techniques and lessons for the various types of equipment used to heat, chill, package and serve foods,” he says. “As companies invest in-depth training in employees, retention becomes more important as well.”

A huge part of that training (and something retailers of yore didn’t have to pay nearly as much attention to) is often devoted to a single issue: food safety. “The biggest challenge in today’s grocery/convenience store business is food safety,” Gress says.  “We seem to hear about another listeria, salmonella or E. coli outbreak every other week in the news.  The growth in these types of incidents and more widespread reporting has created a need for more training and heightened safety procedures.”

The handling of higher amounts of fresh and prepared foods, he adds, necessitates the redesign of equipment and operations to make it easier to maintain clean working environments that better prevent these contamination outbreaks

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The evolution of bakery, deli and prepared foods departments means grocery stores must work harder than ever to find good employees.
Retail foodservice — challenges, opportunities

At the flagship Hen House store in Leawood, Kansas, which reopened in 2016 after a complete makeover, about 45 employees work in deli prepared, Tilden says. Another five are dedicated solely to the store’s huge salad bar. In addition to the three-sided salad bar, the store has a Mongolian grill, a sushi counter, other grilled foods, flatbreads, waffles, a pie pantry, a made-while-you-wait salad counter featuring the chain’s top salads and other retail foodservice offerings. Add to that a plethora of cheese, meat and other service deli offerings. 

It’s a department that requires a considerable amount of specialization when it comes to labor, Tilden says. “You have to compartmentalize —we look at the department in terms of stations.” Workers are trained for certain, specific tasks —the department of today is too complicated to run any other way, Tilden says.

That said, Hen House does need deli workers to fill in at other stations when needed. “You have to be flexible, and one of the challenges we have is getting people cross-trained.”

Jason Belcher, Dorothy Lane’s kitchen director, says the chain is constantly looking for ways to improve its training process. Currently, kitchen associates are trained by working with someone as a shadow or a buddy for at least a few days.  After that, they’ll continue to work with the person, but they’ll start making their own foods while being supervised by their buddy. “Training should be at least two weeks,” he says. “Some of that time will be spent making product on their own, but they will have help along the way.”

Dorothy Lane is constantly changing up its prepared food offerings, Belcher says. That means several things for the company’s kitchen workers. For one, they have to be able to handle a lot of work —and a wide variety of it. “We have a lot to do in the kitchens at DLM, and everyone knows that they are a part of a team that works together to get our daily lists done,” he says. “Each store’s kitchen gets daily orders from the deli department, and it is our job as a team to complete the lists. If the crew working on salads gets their list done first, they will then jump in to help others finish their list. Everyone should be part of the team working toward one goal.”

But Dorothy Lane is looking for more than just hard workers. They also value self-starters who aren’t afraid to throw in their two cents. “We need our associates to help come up with new ideas and then pass them along to our development team so that they can be put into play,” Belcher says.

The growth in Dorothy Lane’s deli, bakery and prepared foods sales has been great for business, Belcher says, but it can pose challenges when it comes to labor. 

“Labor expectations are always changing because of many variables,” he says.  “Our sales growth is sometimes in areas that require more labor.  All of our items we make in the kitchens — hot foods, salads, grab and go, soups, sandwiches —are growing rapidly.  Meanwhile, some of the less labor-intensive areas have been declining.” Another reason for the heightened importance of labor, Belcher says, is an increase in the tracking of product times and temperatures for food safety.  It’s a task that’s obviously very important, he says, but it takes extra time and labor to do it right. 

Keeping them motivated 

The right method of motivation can vary depending on the employee, Gress says. For some, interacting with customers is a direct, tangible way for employees to see appreciation for the work they do. Others, however, are driven to succeed by being given a chance to shape the products they sell and the ways in which they’re presented. 

“For some employees, motivation comes from the creative process of baking and designing food or building attractive displays to show off a given department’s offerings,” Gress says. “This also presents opportunities for employees to showcase new skills they’ve learned through training, potentially opening the door for additional ongoing education.”

Finding good employees in the first place is one thing. Keeping them, Gress says, can be easier said than done — particularly in today’s labor market. “Food retail and grocery are low margin businesses, so consistent increases in wages and salaries present ongoing challenges,” he says. 

One way to keep workers happy is to give them ownership. Try, for instance, giving them autonomy by letting them decide how products are displayed, or let them track and share store data for their departments. “Grocers and other food retailers can provide a fulfilling work environment by driving positive human experiences for workers, (making them) feel more connected to higher-level decisions.” Ongoing investment in education, training and skill-building are other ways to retain good employees, he says. 

Giving workers more autonomy, Gress says, is not only good for workers. It can also provide inestimable benefits to the companies they work for.  Employees, after all, typically have a better sense of what consumers want on a day-to-day basis. “Businesses will succeed if they leverage employees to drive the changes as they evolve,” he says. “Store employees are consistently closer to customers than any corporate management or consultant.  Every day, they hear what customers want and what’s missing from given departments across a store.”

Harnessing that connection between employees and customers can provide a channel for employees to share feedback and suggest innovative ideas within their department, which may in turn lead to many successful and incremental changes. “And if something takes off,” Gress says, “let employees share in the rewards.  This will motivate current employees, attract new prospects and encourage all to learn to embrace inevitable changes that impact every industry.”

The more retailers can do to stand out when it comes to creating a great workplace environment, Gress says, the better. “(There’s) a lot of competition that tends to pull from the same talent pool, and it’s challenging to find employees who will stay long enough for employers to realize a return on investment from education and training,” he says. “Any differentiators that attract ambitious talent and then provide them with incentives to stay longer-term will help businesses maintain retention.”