CHICAGO -- There's a direct correlation between the size of training budgets and profit levels, a panel of training professionals said in describing their training strategies at the 2002 National Restaurant Association's Restaurant Show last week.
The group cited a survey conducted by the Council of Hotel & Restaurant Trainers, which found that high-touch training courses tend to lower turnover. Similarly, the CHART poll reported that companies using computer training see such programs as important as guest services and leadership-development programs.
"You can't afford not to train," said Jim Knight, director of training, Hard Rock Cafe, Orlando, Fla.
His company was forced to re-evaluate training methods when profits dipped after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
"We were behind the eight ball," he said, noting that 70% of Hard Rock's guests are tourists. Sales decreased and turnover increased each quarter.
"We needed to see what we could do that was cost-effective," he said. The company, of 111 cafes worldwide, relaunched its training "university," expanded its number of training sites from 10 to 36, reduced travel costs and combined all its training videos onto one DVD.
In addition, the company renewed its focus on the individual, conducting exit interviews and allowing some employees to sit in on interviews of potential hires.
In turn, retention and profits levels increased, Knight said. "Things are back to pre-Sept. 11 days," he added.
At Buffets, which includes Old Country Buffet and Hometown Buffet restaurants, the company renewed its focus on hourly workers, said Angie Hoskins, director of classroom training. The Eagan, Minn.-based company recently included hourly employees in its Gallup survey, which evaluates employee satisfaction.
"They're the ones touching the people and touching the food," Hoskins said of the hourly associates.
The company also offers "Buffet's College," which includes a nine-day introduction followed by field training and then on-site, side-by-side training with a general manager. "Executives meet the managers on the very first day," Hoskins said. "That sets the tone."
Some managers in large organizations might never meet the top brass, she said. Facilitating that meeting creates a more connected workplace, she said.
Unlike Hard Rock Cafe, Buffets did not make changes after Sept. 11. During the tumultuous time, "I think they appreciated no change," she said.
When proposing new programs, training supervisors may be asked to track its success or its return on investment, which is often difficult, panelists conceded.
"I don't think it's necessary to do an ROI on every project," Baker said.
Hoskins agreed. "I think that limits us, if we're always tracking ROI."
When asked how many members of the 140-person audience tracked ROI, only a few raised their hands.
Trainers, however, do keep an eye on retention rates. As survey results indicated, organizations with high management turnover tended to have high employee turnover as well.
"At first we really focused on the managers," said Joleen Flory Lundgren, senior director of training for Buffalo Wild Wings in Minneapolis. The growing company, which opened 19 restaurants last year and plans to open 42 this year, offers managers on-the-job and classroom training.
"What we saw was a huge impact on management," she said, adding that retention rates vastly improved for both managers and hourly workers. "You can't underestimate one-on-one training."
Some companies, meanwhile, also combine individual training with technology, such as e-learning. The CHART survey reported roughly 30% of companies polled allotted money for computers or information technology education.
Panelists, however, warned against using technology for technology's sake.
"I don't think it's the magic bullet," said Steve Baker, director of training for Morton's, the Chicago-based chain of upscale steakhouses. "You can't put your manual on the Internet and say we're doing e-learning."
Lundgren also was skeptical. "I think the jury is still out [on e-learning]," she said. "I'm still not bought in."
Employees at Buffalo Wild Wings do take some training-related tests on-line, but the company is moving slowly.
"We're going to take it one byte at a time," she said.
For smaller restaurants with smaller budgets, panelists recommended covering the basics before using new technology.
"Don't worry about e-learning, if you don't have good materials," Baker said. "Then you're putting the cart before the horse."
Knight agreed. "You have to have a good staff manual, one that's instructionally sound with lots of bullet points and lots of white space."
The idea is to make it unintimidating and focused; that is, "user-friendly" in print, he added.
According to survey results, the average CHART member invests $25,000 to $50,000 annually in training-related instructional materials and $12,000 to $25,000 in equipment. Some restaurant representatives, meanwhile, said they are struggling to successfully use their existing training materials.
As panelists discussed their efforts to present training materials and recipes in languages such as English, Spanish and Cantonese, one audience member asked what to do if employees can't read English nor Spanish.
"That's a big situation," Hoskins said. "Pictures help."
To that end, many companies have developed their own materials. Host Marriott Corp., Washington, for example, faced particular difficulties, as an operator of more than 2,000 properties in 53 countries. The foundation of the company's food-safety training program, three years in development, is a highly symbolic and visual video that is wordless and culture-less.