Get Staffing Right!

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Staff at Ludlow Food Centre

Whatever the repercussions of Brexit, the speciality food and drink sector will continue to rely on people who understand and can promote the value of artisan products. In this feature, I investigate ways in which businesses in this sector can choose and retain the best workforce for a successful future.

Charlotte Gurney of White House Farm explains the overall benefits of having great personnel. "Good, efficient customer service, a smile and a friendly welcome are what make a farm shop experience different to a supermarket. There is an immediate sense of community and regulars like to feel welcome. The more people feel welcome, the happier they are, the longer they spend with you, the more often they come and the more money they spend." Rod Marsh of Middle Farm defines some essential character traits. "Staff should be presentable, consistently reliable and enthusiastic - glass half-full types who come to me with a problem to which they already have a solution. I want to feel confident in my staff's ability to deliver in every situation when I'm not there." He also highlights how the right mix of employees can enable the business to gain a competitive edge. "It is the overall chemistry within your team that is key. You need some members with big personalities and driving ambition, some with a specific passion for a particular aspect of what you do and some who are always content to carry out every task given to them to the very best of their ability. All need to understand that ‘average’ is not an option."

Top 10 desirable character traits

  • Enthusiastic about products
  • Well-informed
  • Team player
  • Friendly
  • Presentable
  • Reliable
  • Punctual
  • Trustworthy
  • Problem solver
  • Common Sense

Mark Billington of Billingtons of Lenzie agrees: "We try to hire staff that are passionate foodies, are self-assured, intelligent and able to work alone as well as being part of a team." John Sinclair of Craigie's Farm Deli and Café stresses that shoppers want help and not a pushy sales person. "Our staff are problem solvers, not sales people and team engagement with the customer is our USP. Most of the products we sell can be bought online or in supermarkets at a reduced price, so we have to communicate why ours are better, which can only be done through the team." Michelle Steele of Earsham Street Deli adds that "good staff members can also suggest sensible quantities, e.g. for a cheese board, rather than some places which might push for a bigger sale, leaving the customer with a large bill and too much food for their guests!"

So is there a magic formula in finding the right people who possess these 'ideal' attributes? Gurney remarks that the best candidates are "the ones that get in touch and say 'I love what you're doing and I want to be a part of it'. They've observed your business and have already thought about it before applying." Sinclair values personality above everything else: "If someone comes in with great qualities, we will find a role for them! It is imperative to hire the right team members who get our business values." Whereas his customer network remains a primary source, he uses online resources too for attracting personnel, but advocates the following: "Always try to avoid paying too much for recruitment! We have had many great staff, including some of our best, who have come via recommendations through other members of the team. We pay a finder’s fee and a top up if they last!" Jon Edwards of Ludlow Food Centre explains his company's approach. "In terms of recruiting, we advertise vacancies on our website. Additionally, we have in the past produced posters to display in Ludlow Pantry, our satellite deli in Ludlow town centre, in order to promote our apprenticeship scheme run in conjunction with County Training. This is a key part of our recruitment strategy - ensuring that we recruit the next generation of artisan producers, as well as first-class hospitality staff. Occasionally, we’ll use a local recruitment agency and when the MD role was advertised at the end of 2015, this was promoted in the trade press and managed by a specialist consultancy."

When trawling through CVs, Rod Marsh offers some useful advice: "Start by assessing how much information is provided and then drill down in increasing depth. It is all too easy to be cynical but it is equally all too easy to take information at face value. Achieving the right balance in your approach only comes with experience." Gary Mercer of Holwood Farm Shop and Deli suggests looking for gaps in employment, number of job changes and transport options. "With us, how they can get to work is important, so I look at how long it will take." Edwards mentions the relevance of social media. "A personal profile can be quite useful for providing an insight into someone’s character. The information is in the public domain, so can help us recruit the right people."

Once you've picked out your candidates, what is the best way of conducting interviews? For many, such as Marsh, the answer is as informally as possible, "because a relaxed candidate will show more of themselves than a nervous one, but with really developed, incisive questioning to determine core values." Sinclair advocates a mass interview approach. "We do mass interviews where we invite everyone along, set some speed dating style tasks and watch how they interact with the rest of the applicants when they think they are just waiting!" Mercer advises interviewing in pairs. "When you interview, you often don’t fully listen to an answer as you are partially getting ready for the next one. A colleague who can listen and ask questions may have a different perspective. Everybody has a tendency to admire the same qualities they have themselves but you actually want to hire people that fill gaps."

Edwards notes the value of testing practical skills: "As we produce more than 50% of the food we sell on site, we are often recruiting for specialist skill sets. It is slightly different for production staff - depending at which level they join the business. We offer everyone training but candidates have to be able to demonstrate a passion for their chosen career path, whether a trainee baker, butcher, cheesemaker etc.. We recently recruited for a new baker and the shortlisted applicants were asked to prepare a cake that they’d made at home to show off their skills. Successful recruits have gone above and beyond what was asked of them, to truly demonstrate passion and ability!"

Post-interview, following up references can be invaluable. However, Marsh finds this of limited usefulness given the rules on what can be included, although he mentions that sickness records can be helpful indicators. Some businesses will try staff out in the shop. At Craigie's, Sinclair brings successful candidates in for a trial shift so that the rest of the team can offer their opinions, while at White House Farm, Gurney similarly finds this "a great way to see what someone is like and if they enjoy working with you, which saves time in the long run." At Ludlow Food Centre, everyone begins with a three-month probation period, which is fairly standard practice across most industries. "This is helpful for both the employer and the employee to decide whether they’re in the right role", says Edwards. "Moreover, it gives us an opportunity to thoroughly assess their abilities and see if they have transferrable skills that may be better suited to another area of the business. Additionally, we have regular mystery shoppers who provide feedback on staff performance."

One factor to consider is whether there is benefit in having staff from the same areas where products are sourced. Caroline Muir of Spanish specialists Brindisa comments: "Having retail staff selling products from their own region can be an advantage, as it brings authenticity to the response to a customer asking about a particular product, or a response to a request for recommendation. We also find that amongst our buyers there is an inevitable pride in regional products from their homelands." Nevertheless, whereas language and cultural factors are advantageous for some, this is not of primary importance to everyone, so a general ability to communicate effectively is key. Rod Marsh explains: "The only culture that matters in your business is the one you create. It is an absolute minimum that your team communicates clearly with each other, with you and with your customers. Whatever else they bring to the mix can only be a positive. Loneliness in a crowded world is rife, so a kind word and a smile from a helpful stranger will always be fondly remembered."

Sinclair sees advantages in employing under-18s: "We have been very successful at bringing in young members of the team and training them up so that when they go to university, they come back to us in the holidays. Additionally, we have had a number of staff with us from the age of 15, who are now in their mid-20’s and working full time." Gurney describes a similar scenario, although she adds that with an alcohol license, employing under-18s can present problems during periods of staff shortage. Edwards notes: "We have had some excellent interns when there has been enough work available. Primarily, these come about because of the individual being a motivated self-starter who has actively enquired about potential work experience opportunities."


Anya, baker at White House Farm

Adhering to employment law, including health and safety is crucial, not just from a legal standpoint, but also for keeping staff safe and enabling them to feel confident in their employer's integrity. While red tape and paperwork are inevitable and, at times, tedious consequences of running a business, the responsibilities of an employer towards his or her employees can be one of the most satisfying aspects of a manager's role, as Rod Marsh explains. "Managers should develop the best possible practice in all areas of the business and to prioritise keeping abreast of updates to legislation. Giving employees an environment that is safe, comfortable, vibrant and challenging will generate its own rewards in smiling faces and increased turnover. Genuine respect for the individual displayed by management will help to generate reciprocation and an experienced manager should always find a way."

Equipping staff with the knowledge and skills to do their jobs well and to enable them to further their careers is central to building a happy and successful workforce. Jon Edwards of Ludlow Food Centre comments: “Everyone needs to be aware of their responsibilities and to take it upon themselves to cultivate an understanding of the business as a whole. In order to develop staff, we have regular, informal meetings to encourage the team to share ideas and report on what’s happening across all the departments. We also organise job swaps, so that people appreciate what is happening in other departments and what they add to the business as a whole." Similarly, John Sinclair believes in sharing ideas and rotating jobs: "In order to foster and maintain interest in the job, we have regular chats with the team, so that they feel appreciated and know that they have the authority to make decisions based on the values of the business. We train up team members for all areas, allowing staff to appreciate everyone’s challenges, making for a happier work place, but we get suppliers to fund skills training, whenever possible, in areas such as carving charcuterie or cutting and wrapping cheese. We also get team members to research and then explain products to the rest of the team, which works much better than being lectured to by us!" Training also encompasses stock-checking for sell-by dates, cleaning and hygiene schedules, but, as Marsh points out, "it's of no use unless implemented on a daily basis, so constant reminders may initially be necessary."

Knowledge will increase through trying products, which in turn provides staff with the confidence and desire to talk about them. This can be successfully supplemented by making producer visits central to a training program. "Knowing the basics of how different products are made, by visiting producers or through other forms of training, is the foundation", says Marsh. "Ideally your team members will then bring their own individual slant on that product to the table. Building pride in what they do is key to a team’s success, so acknowledge an individual’s acquisition of new skills and always push for more. Make it clear that your ambitions for them are signally important to the development of the business." Edwards agrees that visits to and from producers are essential. "We encourage staff to attend relevant trade shows, supplier days and local food festivals as well as visiting other farm shops. On a regular basis, we have producers come in to give demonstrations of their ranges. Internally, staff attend tasting sessions to develop their product understanding and we also provide external training courses run by the Guild of Fine Food that focus on specific areas, such as cheese or charcuterie retailing."

When it comes to sales skills, can they be taught? According to Charlotte Gurney, the value of experience is as important, if not more so, than an inherent ability to sell. "Some people are born with this, but the more the employee knows the product, the more confidence they have talking about it and the more they can sell." However, Gary Mercer notes that although a less pressurised approach works best especially for encouraging repeat business, a traditional selling model can be more appropriate for specific items such as hampers, particularly when selling to the corporate market. "It all comes down to understanding etiquette, having a depth of knowledge regarding merchandise availability, design, style, presentation and price. Listen to your client, address their needs, solve their problems, convey their image and service their gift recipients in a way that does their company justice." He also gives the following advice: "Get the customer to invest time and choose some products just to get an idea of the type of thing they are interested in. When they start to invest time in the process, it's more difficult for them to walk away. Never be negative in response to a customer. If you can’t help straight away, don’t say 'No' - get contact details and even offer to email ideas."

Top 5 staff retention tips

  • Regular training and tastings to instil thorough product knowledge
  • Visits to and from producers
  • Job rotations
  • Informal management with regular chats
  • Rewards and incentives

Allowing some leeway with regards to time off for special occasions or personal reasons has benefits in staff loyalty and instils a sense of wellbeing. For Gurney, employee care is essential. "You've gone to all that trouble hiring and developing someone, so I really like to look after them. I'm flexible where I can be with childcare, holidays, appointments, family events etc. and I like to give my loyal staff a meat allowance from the butchery plus 10% off in the shop and a free lunch every day. I want to make working here fun!" For Mercer, disruption can be minimised if staff know their timetables weeks in advance. "We run a rota that we prepare at least 4 or 6 weeks ahead. It’s available online, so people need to take responsibility for looking at their shifts. It stops many short notice changes and ensures days/weekends off are balanced."

Rewards are another way of keeping staff happy, as Gurney confirms: "We encourage days out and often pay for expenses, such as lunch. I know how watching competitors has helped me, so have no doubt that it will inspire the minds of the team. We also have two staff parties a year to say thank you and let the hair down!" Mark Billington adds: "It's important to reward your staff, be it training visits to suppliers, buying trips or food fairs. Staff are encouraged to manage their own time off and we allow them to swap shifts in an effort to accommodate their needs. We arrange many social events, not just one at Christmas, as this brings a sense of team-bonding and closeness."

Inevitably, things can go wrong, which, in the worst case, may lead to staff dismissal, so what are the best ways of both pre-empting and handling such difficult situations? Billington advises looking out for changes in behaviour patterns which could indicate potential staffing issues, but giving individuals the opportunity and support to try and combat any problems. Firing staff should always be a last resort and can affect the rest of the workforce. "Sacking an employee would bring a sense of nervousness and unease to the team, so it's important not to shut out other staff members. They may not need all the information, but they would need reassurance that all was done fairly." Similarly, for Marsh, sensitivity is crucial. "Everybody has some strength or other and identifying what that is and how it fits (or not) into your business is only going to happen over some weeks or months. We use a six-month probationary period to ensure that we have sufficient time to give everyone a fair chance. We will extend this period if, for any reason, we have not been able to come to a meaningful assessment of how best to optimise any member of the team to their and our satisfaction." Other options should be tried before dismissing an employee. Marsh advocates informal meetings with the individual concerned and with the other team members to gently gather as much information as possible. "Verbal warnings", he explains, "can be used if the problems are recurrent, or serious enough to warrant them, but improvement notices should be issued sparingly with understanding of the feelings and morale of the team member involved and need to be time-specific. Ultimately if, for whatever reason, improvement is not forthcoming and no other way forward can be agreed, then dismissal in strict adherence to employment law must follow." If a staff member has to be dismissed, then explaining the situation to the remaining staff must be handled sensitively too. As Marsh highlights, "Destroying a carefully assembled team by undermining their collective morale is all too easy and not worth the hassle over one member who did not fit in."

Ultimately, fostering and maintaining interest in the job is central to retaining a happy and cohesive workforce. Mercer offers some final advice: "Give responsibility and positive feedback. If customers give praise, ensure it’s passed on. Constantly try to improve, because although change can be hard, if your employees see progress, it makes things better for everyone - staff and customers."

This article was originally published as a two-part feature in the September and October 2016 editions of Speciality Food Magazine.