Staffing For Your Catering Business
CAROL GODSMARK food journalist, restaurant critic and consultant. She is also the author of How to Start and Run Your Own Restaurant and a caterer with twenty years experience. She is based in Chichester, West Sussex.
Staff, as most caterers and restaurateurs will testify, are both the biggest problem and the biggest asset a business can have.
No matter how good your catering business is, it cannot survive without good staff. Your staff will enhance and reflect the qualities your business offers to clients. Nothing will do more damage to your reputation than having unhelpful, slovenly, couldn’t-care-less, rude staff – apart from bad food, that is! Your clients will expect – rightly – consistent, welcoming, professional, calm, knowledgeable staff at their function.
Choose your staff with care. Surly, lazy attitudes rub off on other staff. Intimidating verbal behaviour and especially physical abuse are not to be tolerated. These traits rightly belong to the past.
562,700 jobs were taken by catering staff in 2004, employment in Britain topping 25 million. Nearly 142,000 full-time catering jobs were filled by men, over 93,000 by women. This was reversed by part timers (117,700 by men, 209,800 by women).
This chapter deals with:
- staffing for solo caterers and growing catering businesses;
- staffing problems;
- college and agency recruitment, casual and agency staff;
- catering management;
- job descriptions and analysis, and interviewing;
- explanation of kitchen hierarchy;
- staff organisation and training;
- job details, including cleaning rotas, dress code, meals, holidays, smoking, overtime, behaviour;
- pay legalities;
- basic waiting skills and management skills;
- communicating effectively with guests and clients.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SERVICE
Service, service, service is of paramount importance to the catering industry. As standards rise in quality produce, so must the service which, of course, covers all kitchen, waiting and cleaning staff and any other employees in a catering business.
We have entered a period of high demand of good staffing due to the booming hospitality industry but this labour supply needs to come from somewhere. Will potential employees be trained sufficiently to offer good service and high standards? This is of concern for all those engaged in the industry.
There is no doubt that the work is demanding and can be seen – still – as a dead end job by some. But, thankfully, others see it as a stimulating and rewarding challenge.
The hospitality industry is sometimes seen as theatre: catering staff forming a bond with customers (cast members), the venue itself the stage and the work as lines to be learnt. Some exponents of this profession love to entertain, but they must always remember their serious professional stance coupled with humour, good judgement and sensitivity.
Staff need direction, motivation and an incentive to carry out their work and to understand the need to be very flexible. This comes from management. All staff need to be accepted by both sexes, have the ability to make customers feel at ease and to be respected by employers.
WAITING AND KITCHEN STAFF
Waiters and waitresses – skilled ones – offer service. They are not servants. They have talked to the caterer about the composition of the food. They are aware when and how to clear a table and when not to. When to pour wine. How to work with the client.
Kitchen staff are creative in different ways. Chefs have the ability to prepare food, timing cooking to a split second with speed and accuracy. They can cook and present all dishes coming out of the kitchen with skill. And they must be able to do it time and time again to the same high standard. Consistency is all.
Even if you are a one-man band, you will still need to find good waiting staff for your functions. You may have friends and family who wish to earn some pocket money or you may prefer to find professional staff. For a larger catering company, it will be necessary to find kitchen and waiting staff.
These are one source of kitchen and waiting staff, but the standard in some is decidedly questionable. The teaching focuses on hotel-like service which is past its sell-by date, according to employers.
Flour-based sauces, soups and stocks made from packets and heavy, stodgy food are out of kilter to today’s food styles. Silver service, although not favoured by restaurants these days, is useful for banqueting and is to the caterer’s advantage. Folding napkins into unnecessary shapes is a waste of their – and your – time in my view. But some clients like it so you may have to find out how to do origami napkin folding if you or your staff don’t possess the skills.
Some colleges have moved on thankfully, and are teaching their students the art of lighter cooking combined with slow food cooking (daubes, terrines, bread-making for example). They are sourcing their materials with care and attention, and teaching students how to run a kitchen, amongst other modern and commercial necessities. These are the chefs and waiting staff that will be able to deliver the consistently high standards that customers expect and good catering companies wish to achieve.
Staff’s attitude to food
Catering companies can also be handicapped by some students’ and non-trained staff’s backgrounds. The type of food they experience at home can be quite at variance with food offered by the catering company which they have no interest in or desire to find out about. There can be a mountain to climb in food education, but when a staff member sees the light and becomes excited about the type and quality of the food and service it’s a eureka moment.
This is a bleak outlook, I am aware. Staffing is a growing problem due to the fast food nation of eaters who know or care little about cooking or who come from a background of not eating as a family around a table. Some entering the profession see the catering trade as a way to becoming famous – and fast – to follow in the shoes of the Jamie Olivers of this world without having to work too hard. Unlike Jamie, who started from the bottom of the heap and proved himself.
Placing a well-worded ad in local papers will hopefully attract the right kind of people. For more permanent staff such as a chef, or temporary staff such as waiting staff for functions, you may have to recruit staff through agencies.
Catering agencies are employment agencies but dedicated to this specific industry. They may place staff permanently or temporarily. There may be 30,000 vacancies on any one day in London alone due to the burgeoning catering, restaurant and hotel market. Job vacancies include head chefs, trainees, commis and sous chefs, kitchen porters, waiters and waitresses, bar staff and managers.
It is important to weigh up the costs and advantages if you are recruiting agency staff. On the plus side, many agencies get to know their applicants well and match appropriate chefs and other staff to appropriate businesses. It’s not in their interests to get this wrong but, of course, it can and does happen, as some agencies see the staff as merely making money for them. Agencies aren’t cheap and you may achieve just as good if not better results with an ad which may attract greater numbers of applicants. Temporary staff have little or no loyalty towards your business and it may show.
Temporary agency staff usually are better paid per hour. This may cause friction once this is known by your other staff if their hourly rate doesn’t match the temp’s pay so try not to enter this mix if humanly possible.
If you have a larger catering company with staff, promote from within. It is easier and more cost effective to find a commis chef from an agency than to go to an agency to recruit a higher up position. Your current chef may be able to train up a commis chef to the higher grade once they have been with the company for a while.
Agencies can charge quite a hefty per hour charge, and the staff are a mixed bag of good, poor and downright dreadful. It just depends on which staff the agency can find to fill their books, so ask pertinent questions:
- What is your charge per hour?
- Does this include VAT?
- Is there an extra charge for Sunday work?
- Is there a transport charge?
- How much experience do your staff have?
- Are they trained or just casual labour?
- How many hours can they work?
- What do they expect for breaks? To eat?
- Can I have only non-smoking staff?
- How much importance does the company attach to grooming?
- What do staff wear? (You can stipulate your demands here.)
- Do they speak English? (Or whatever language you prefer.)
- Can I have all the details in writing?
Other sources of recruitment
- Job centres
- Existing staff
- Waiting list – people contacting your business looking for a job
- Previous applicants
- Casual callers
- Education systems