The relationship between professional chefs and retailers can be good for everyone.
When the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its 2012 data, there was no category for supermarket food preparation and serving. When that category was first introduced a year later, it accounted for 312, 500 employees. The latest Occupational Employment Statistics release shows 336,460 people are employed by supermarkets to prepare and serve fresh.

Nearly 10 percent of those employees — 3,090 — are chefs or head cooks.

The shift has been drastic, and it has, not surprisingly, coincided with the industry’s move toward high-end retail foodservice and renewed competition with the restaurant world.

“We are still seeing, on the recruiting side, a good amount of growth with supermarkets coming to us, looking for their next employees,” says Ronald Hayes, associate director of career services for the Culinary Institute of America. “They know these potential employees have a lot to offer, and they have a lot to offer them.”

The chef-supermarket relationship can be a mutually beneficial one, especially as the store perimeter continues to evolve. But retailers must work to get past still-lingering stigmas while shining a light on the future of the industry.

“Folks at the senior level in their academic programs at a culinary institution, if you take them aside and talk to them about their career ambitions and what they want to do and where they want to go, you’re not going to hear ‘my ambition is to be an executive chef at a supermarket,’” says Charlie Baggs, president and executive chef at Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations, a consulting company based in Chicago. “We’re not quite there yet with respect to the culinary academic system having fully embraced the growing need for talent in this channel and, perceptually, for there to be among these students a sense that there’s a real, valid, strong and attractive career pathway for them in food retail.”

That’s a hurdle that needs crossed sooner rather than later.

Proactive moves

While the trend lines have been in place for a while now, Baggs says retail foodservice is about to become even more important.

“Food shopping online may be the slowest category to evolve in the e-commerce world, but it’s happening. It’s coming. It’s unstoppable,” he says. “It’s better to get ahead of it than not.”

Strategically, he asks retailers, what does the food retail business plan look like? The answer better be something that includes the experience of food.

“You’re not just selling ingredients now, you’re selling menus and food experiences. You’re a partner and companion with consumers in their efforts to do great things in their home kitchens,” he says. “If I buy into that, then I’m obligated to really up my game and how I handle that internally. That means who is back in the kitchen and what kind of training do they have? You have to look at it differently.”

There are two ways to approach the retail kitchen of the future, Baggs says. One way is to view it as a shrink modification opportunity: taking products in the fresh areas that are close to their pull day and repurposing them.

“A better way to look at it is as an alternative to foodservice; a more convenient alternative with a better price line that solves more problems for consumers than just dinner,” he says. “Then it’s really necessary to start making investments in the talent arena and building relationships with culinary colleges and do things that say you’re trying to advance the ball on the quality of the food you put out there.”

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New culinary professionals often put job security above most other aspects when looking for an employer.
Filling a need

Finding kitchen help can be a major challenge for all foodservice outlets, including supermarkets. Much has been written about the struggle for restaurants and retailers to fill their kitchens with reliable employees. Civil Eats pointed out historically low unemployment as a reason for that struggle. Fortune, meanwhile, claims that the stronger economy creates more entitled restaurants and millennials that don’t want to put in the work necessary to make it to the top, especially when starting line cook jobs don’t pay well.

Whatever the reason, retailers need trained employees to fill voids in the kitchens. And Hayes — who recently spoke to grocery retailers as part of the CIA’s Appetites in Innovation conference, giving a presentation on creating recruitment strategies for hiring culinary talent — says they sometimes go about it all wrong.

“We’ve all seen pretty much everywhere that there’s this vast shortage of culinary talent,” he says. “Because I work for talent, the main focus is to educate potential employers what the talent is looking for. The biggest thing that I see in reading all these articles and hearing people ask questions, it’s all about ‘there’s no labor, there’s no labor.’ Nobody is talking about the talent.”

That approach, he says, is the equivalent of a server walking up to a table, introducing himself, listing the ways he is great at his job, and then demanding a tip.

“That’s the absolute opposite of the hospitality industry,” Hayes says. “Instead, you have to anticipate the needs of the guests, or in this case, your employees. You have to understand who the talent is and what their mindset us, and then find ways to adapt and use what the talent is looking for to your advantage.”

So what is that talent looking for? Hayes points to the most recent Student Survey Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“Within the top five is job security,” he says. “That’s something students more and more are thinking of. They’re worried when they graduate. They saw their parents lose their jobs in 2008. They like the idea of having an employer they can grow with and learn from.”

Students preparing to graduate don’t always know what steps two, three or four might be, but they’re quickly learning that the retail foodservice industry can offer a step two, three or four.

“And that’s a good start,” Hayes says.

Selling the supermarket

When Baggs begins to list the ways retailers can position themselves to better attract young culinary talent, he says he’s reminded of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

“When he was running for president, there’s a story that he had a sign on the wall of his campaign headquarters that became the driving idea behind his candidacy,” Baggs says. “It simply said ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”

That popular James Carville slogan can easily be modified to fit retailers’ need to build an ecosystem of high-quality food while attracting the talent to create it.

“You can use that as an example of what’s going on here,” Baggs says. “It’s the food, stupid.”

To a certain extent, Baggs says, prepared foods has had this legacy of being about rotisserie chicken and meatloaf. If supermarkets are about culinary experience, then the quality of the food and the menus needs to elevate. And if that’s going to happen, the talent needs to go up with it.

Consumers are very discerning about what constitutes quality preparations,” he says. “If you can get chef-y food at the corner bar now, that doesn’t give the supermarket a hall pass to do something less than that. This is a business opportunity as much as it is anything else.”

Once the quality and creativity of the menu is improved upon, it takes away some of the stigma attached to supermarkets among chefs-in-training, Hayes says, but it won’t totally be gone.

“Students are starting to learn more about the opportunities with retailers, but I think there is still some stigma,” he says. “ It’s definitely lessened. The idea of just reheating frozen food is like the old stigma of going into healthcare and just opening tin cans and plopping stuff on a tray. It’s not like that anymore.”

Retailers need to approach young talent with an eye toward the future, not toward immediate needs. Currently, chefs might not be looking at the supermarket industry until they have put in five years of high-stress, low-pay work and are seeking something more stable.

“I still think as somebody who is graduating and going into the industry there still needs to be a little long-term,” Hayes says. “We’re still at a point where the retail sector is a Stage Two. When they realize they need more quality of life and need long-term growth and have already gone out and done that first and second job to continue to build skills.”

Selling the long-term career opportunities becomes even more important. Hayes points out that many retailers are too wrapped up in immediate ROI, visiting a career fair in an attempt to find soon-to-be grads and talking them into joining the retail world.

A better approach, he says, would be to cultivate relationships with underclassmen. Throughout their education, the student will see that your company cares about them and is a good option for a long and fruitful career.

“That’s a good way to convert a candidate into an employee,” Hayes says.