Labor issues are making headlines nationwide as communities debate the pros and cons of the minimum wage, employee scheduling practices and other workplace concerns.
For independent gourmet retailers, who make their living by standing apart from the big box stores, finding and keeping good employees is a key business strategy, and one of the trickiest to get right.
At issue is the impact staff turnover has on smaller stores, who work to build more personal relationships with customers than their larger competitors do, says KC Lapiana, owner of Pittsburgh’s In The Kitchen and president of the HTI Buying Group. Hiring talented staff, she says, “is the hardest part of my job.”
In the Kitchen employs four full-time and two part-time workers during most of the year, adding several more part timers during the fourth quarter, Lapiana says, adding that her business motto is “ABL — always be looking,” even though she currently has several staffers who have been with the company ranging from three to five years.
“I feel lucky and proud of how our employees have matured and helped In The Kitchen succeed,” she says. “However we maintain a ‘hiring now’ mindset because part-time help moves around a lot, and we do need to hire during the 4th quarter.”
It is all about hiring the right people, she adds. “In an independent setting the consumer comes to expect certain standards and relies on the staff. If the staff is steadfast and presents a familiar face the consumer has come to trust, then the loyalty of the consumer is stronger.”
For Jill Foucre, owner of Marcel’s Culinary Experience in Glyn Ellyn, Ill., hiring staff that can maintain the “very special atmosphere,” of Marcel’s (a 2015 IHA Global Innovation Award for Retail Excellence honoree) is a “huge differentiator” for her business.
“We have worked hard to find people who have a variety of skill sets and complement each other. I hire people who have skills I don’t have,” says Foucre, who founded Marcel’s after a long corporate career. Marcel’s features a state-of-the-art kitchen that offers over 200 classes a year and employs a full-time executive chef, along with seven part-time chefs who teach classes, as well as traditional retail staffers.
She says she expects professionalism from her employees, and in turn treats them as professionals, even sharing with them the store’s financial status. “I engage them in the details,” Foucre says. “I have a big white board in my office with, for example, our goals for the month. I want them to know the good news and the bad news.”
Dan and Diana Saklad, owners of Whisk in Cary, N.C., also have corporate backgrounds and find that their store’s location in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area helps them find some very qualified staffers. “We have a good employment base,” Dan Saklad says.
The Saklads also keep their big team intact: they employ 25 people on the retail side and keep track of over 70 chefs, class assistants and cooking instructors for the Whisk cooking school. As the store approaches its two-year anniversary, the Whisk retail team has remained intact, with the exception of two employees who moved out of state. “We don’t have any real turnover,” Saklad says.
While he, like the other retailers interviewed for this story, pays above minimum wage, Saklad says keeping employees comes down to more than dollars.
“It is never about money, it is more about happiness,” he says. “It is a fun, flexible environment and everyone here loves to cook. We get to know each other really well. We figure out what makes them tick and make sure everyone is happy.”
Lapiana, in the Pittsburgh labor market, gives new employees a raise after the first 30 days, pending a review. “If the employee shows significant improvement and dedication to their new position we reward them immediately.”
But, she still keeps looking for new people. “We are in the City of Pittsburgh so there is a lot of transient movement,” Lapiana says. “You never know who might walk through the door.”