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Staff – your most precious commodity

Are the green shoots appearing, is the recession bottoming out or are we still plummeting further into yet more troubled times, unemployment and bankruptcy? Things are bad – this cannot be denied, yet there are those who believe that even in this downturn there is an upside for the catering industry. One of these upside elements is the quality and availability of staff

At the UK Restaurant Leader Summit* in June, the overwhelming message from everyone was that, yes, things are tough, but if you can offer customers both value for money and a good experience then your chances of not just survival but success will improve exponentially. What’s more,“unlike many other industries that are being crippled by the internet, nobody will ever be able to eat online,” says Luke Johnson, chair and part owner of the Giraffe chain of restaurants.

People still want the experience of eating out and if you get it right, they will return. Get it wrong and you have only yourself to blame. In this respect the impression your staff gives is crucial. Luckily for you, at the moment good, flexible and loyal staff have never been more readily available as those who already have jobs work to ensure they do not lose them and those applying for jobs are more likely to be more numerous, giving you a better choice.

You have the staff, now you need to train, train, train. “Training is an investment, not a cost and now is the time to invest in skills to keep your competitive edge,” comments Nick Scade, chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Food & Wine. “This year is a tough one for trading in our industry. Customers are cutting back on the number of meals they are having outside the home, but when they are eating out now, more than ever before, they are demanding value for money and good service levels.”

In his book Start and Run a Fish and Chip Shop or Burger Bar**, James Kayui Li includes some basic suggestions for training staff members:

  • Demonstrate a task and observe them doing it themselves
  • Highlight what they are doing well
  • Point out what they are doing wrong and make them aware of it
  • Be patient with trainee staff as it takes time for them to get used to the work
  • Delegate a variety of tasks so that staff learn more, making them more efficient
  • Try to build a positive and friendly relationship with them to make them feel at ease – this can help their performance
  • Try to perform to a high level so that staff can copy your approach.

James also urges employers to remember that first impressions really do count – get it wrong and you could be losing a customer.

  • If nobody smiles at the customer when they arrive, it can affect their experience negatively
  • If a customer walks in and finds you having a social chat on the phone they can be far from impressed
  • Not being served quickly enough shows incompetent service.

“It’s a good idea to employ staff who don’t shy away from conversation and enjoy communicating with people,” advises James. “After all, research has shown that when customers have a strong relationship with the staff in a food establishment, they are very likely to go back often.” A sentiment that is echoed at The Mission Mexican Grill, Oxford.

The Mission Mexican Grill, Oxford

Inside The Mission Mexican GrillInside The Mission Mexican Grill

In spite of having opened as recently as March 2008, such is The Mission’s success that it has already secured funding for five more restaurants.

“The Mission has always placed strong emphasis on training and has built a culture based on a shared passion for food,” says owner Jan Rasmussen. “We’ve built up a successful concept and the team that got us off the ground will be at the centre of the new launches. They will be responsible for writing training manuals and bringing on board new staff.”

Chef Victor Garcia, originally from Mexico City, creates all of the recipes with his team, giving everyone a real sense of pride in the food that’s being served. In addition, counter staff are welcomed into the kitchen where not only are they taken through the vast array of ingredients, but also invited to cook and showcase their favourite recipes. With a number of staff hailing from America and South America, this is both a good team-building exercise and great research for future menu items.

Fresh ingredients used dailyFresh ingredients used daily

Trust in the staff extends to other responsibilities. Nearly all team members are trained to cash up; taking on the task of accounting for significant amounts of money. Faces beam with pride when documenting and explaining a record day.

At The Mission, time is invested to train staff in delivering the ultimate customer experience, and handling tricky situations is a key factor.  Customers with unusual or unrealistic requests are welcome and staff are equipped with the skills to find the right solution.

“It’s all the little extras that combine to help staff offer excellent customer service and deliver an outstanding experience,” says Jan. “From day one, training is thorough but I think everyone would agree that we make it fun as well.

“The Mission has grown quickly, and much of this is down to staff and their ability to share the buzz and excitement with customers. Staff believe in the company philosophy and their enthusiasm rubs off on everyone.  We’re growing on reputation and word of mouth so we aim to ensure that everyone leaves wanting to come back.”

Can Jan summarise the secret of The Mission’s meteoric success? “It’s a combination of good food that’s a bit different, great staff who are dedicated and passionate, and a pledge to provide value for money,” answers Jan without hesitation. “With training of course being an integral part of all of this.”

Academy of Food & Wine

Academy of Food & WineFounded in 1988, the Academy of Food & Wine (AFW) is the industry’s professional training body dedicated to skills, wine service and food service. The AFW’s purpose is to identify, promote and maintain the highest professional standards for the education and training of food and wine waiting staff and bar assistants in the UK hotel, restaurant, catering and bar industry.

The AFW offers training study packs, tutored tastings and product master classes as well as seminars to enable continuous professional development. It also offers travel scholarships – which give individuals the educational opportunity to visit and experience international hospitality – as well as running high-profile competitions such as the UK Sommelier of the Year, sponsored by Champagnes Piper-Heidsieck & Charles Heidsieck, the Gastronomy Team of the Year, and the Restaurant Manager of the Year.

The Front of House ‘License to Work’ Head Start initiative programme has been devised by the AFW for new entrants to the industry and to  develop and improve the quality of newcomers into the industry, particularly with the recruitment of new staff that will be necessary in the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012.

Members join the Academy as individual or establishment members. Individual membership costs £75 (reduced to £50 for a direct debit), an establishment membership costs £200 (£150 with a direct debit) and entitles that outlet to nominate three full members.

The AFW is a not-for-profit company. For further information visit

BII Awarding Body

British Institute of Innkeepers Awarding BodyBIIAB (British Institute of Innkeepers Awarding Body) is the wholly-owned awarding body of BII, the professional body for the licensed retail industry. With a remit to raise professional standards across the sector, BII has developed a wide range of qualifications that are available through BIIAB.

BIIAB continues to develop and regularly update all of its qualifications by involving key stakeholders such as the police, national and local government, licensed retailers and licensing authorities. Qualifications are delivered through a network of over 600 approved training centres, across 6000 locations in the UK.

Topics covered include beer and cellar skills, conflict management, customer and drinks service, alcohol awareness, working in a commercial kitchen, managing licensed premises, the Gambling Act and how to improve management and business skills.

For further information visit

Train to Gain

Train to GainTrain to Gain is a national skills service that supports employers of all sizes and in all sectors to improve the skills of their employees as a route to improving their business performance. Train to Gain is a joint investment – you and the Government working together to boost your business by improving the skills of your individual staff members.

For small businesses (fewer than 50 employees), it is possible to receive contributions to the cost of your staff spending time away from work undertaking agreed training.

For further information visit or call 0845 600 5024. Alternatively contact a skills broker on 0800 015 5545.

* Held at the Millennium Mayfair Hotel, London, the event was hosted by Allegra Strategies. With over 10 years’ experience of researching the UK and European Foodservice markets, the company is recognised as a key thought leader and trusted source of consumer, operator and supplier information in the industry.

** Start and Run a Fish and Chip Shop or Burger Bar by James Kayui Li. How to Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-84528-308-7 Available at all good bookstores priced at £14.99. Orders: 01476 541080

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