ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Finding qualified employees, training them and keeping them will be the challenge of the year. That was the prevailing opinion of retailers interviewed by SN during, and immediately after, the annual food-service conference of the Food Marketing Institute and the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association held here Sept. 18 to 20.
Retailers were asked what their biggest challenge is in food service in the coming year.
For those planning to make changes or roll out programs in additional units, such as Genuardi Super Markets, Norristown, Pa., staffing and training are particularly critical. "Getting the right people is an ongoing challenge," said Nicholas DiRenzo, deli/bakery specialist for the family-owned company.
"We used to have a waiting list of people who wanted to work here, but those days are gone. It's particularly difficult in some of our areas where Home Depot has come. They're offering big wages to people without experience. They come in and hire 300 to 400 people, at over $8 an hour to start." To combat the labor problem, one retailer said he's looking at hiring younger employees to work in the deli, as young as age 16. Another said his chain, which is rapidly expanding its food-service operations into additional units, said management training is the biggest concern.
In addition to training, one food-service executive said he is continuing to look for commitment from the top to go in new directions with food service.
"My biggest challenge is obtaining the commitment and the support to do some of the things we'd like to do," said the food-service executive, who asked not to be named.
Here's what retailers had to say when about challenges ahead:
Cliff Smith director, deli-bakery
Training in the management area will be the biggest challenge -- actually getting qualified help, and then training them for management positions. As we expand, that becomes more and more of a challenge. We opened 14 food-service departments this past year, and in this next year, we'll be opening another 20 to 30.
James Riesenburger director, deli operations
Wegmans Food Markets
People. That's our No. 1 challenge. With all the technical aspects there are, it's necessary to train and develop people in order to plan for the future. You can design the best systems there are, but if you don't have the people equation right, you're dead in the water. I'm looking at a year ahead, not five years from now, to get people trained and developed so we can make things work.
Michael Eardley senior director, fresh foods
D&W Food Centers
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Finding the right people is the biggest challenge. We're having a hard time finding entry-level people, let alone finding people who have some experience and are interested and enthusiastic about food service. This year, we've attempted several different routes to solving the problem of getting people. This spring we set up desks in our stores to have people fill out applications. We've had a representative at various job fairs and have worked through some community organizations and the schools. And we don't have anybody working for minimum wage. We already have some of the finest benefits around. We're also looking right now at hiring 16-year-olds, which we've never done before, for some limited work in the deli. We're figuring out which functions we could hire them for. Before now, we hadn't hired anyone under 18.
Meg Richardson deli merchandiser
Martin's Super Markets
South Bend, Ind.
Personnel. Getting good people and keeping them is the challenge. We have a very low unemployment rate because of the RV industry where we are. We're trying to do some new things to try to attract people. We've begun to have a twice-a-year review of wages and benefit packages, and we're using part of the IDDA training package, which is wonderful.
Nicholas DiRenzo deli-bakery specialist
Genuardi Super Markets
We have five new stores opening in the next year. Our biggest challenge will be adapting our food courts into a dinner-type concept. We'll go more toward providing family-type dinners rather than just individual items. Getting the right people is an ongoing challenge also. It's particularly difficult in some of our areas where Home Depot has come. They're offering big wages to people without experience. They come in and hire 300 to 400 people, at over $8 an hour to start.
Tim Kean deli-bakery-seafood merchandiser
Pay Less Supermarkets
Our challenge will be effectively working through changes we're making in our food-service department. They'll involve the product line, the presentation, the execution and communicating the concept to our customers, and improving food handling.
Everybody will be affected by the changes, which we're making gradually over the next year. What we're speaking to is our concept of food court. Basically, we're changing the concept to have themes such as ethnic or other groupings rather than just a whole lot of different hot foods. Also we'll be expanding our refrigerated, prepared, self-service foods.
Getting the right people will continue to be a challenge.
Janice Bunney MicroKitchen manager
Freson Market Ltd.
Peace River, Alberta
My challenge will be taking costs down and getting training for my people. We may staff a little heavier so we can take the time to train properly. It would be good to train employees on how to repair some of the equipment because you can be out of luck waiting for someone to come to repair a slicer.