Think outside the (lunch) box when hiring food service employees

In a 2013 survey of small business owners conducted by the international staffing firm Robert Half, owners said their biggest operational challenge was finding skilled professionals for the positions available.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Barbara Bumgardner
Barbara Bumgardner

As school food service directors, we frequently have difficulty finding the right staff to fill our openings. Either applicants want to work more than just a few hours a day, or they see the job as merely a stepping stone, with an eye to moving somewhere else.

Is having school food service experience the first thing you look for when hiring someone new? That’s what I used to do, too, but nowadays, I look outside the standard staffing box, and have met with some hiring success.

Expand the size of your talent pool by considering the following approaches to making hiring decisions:

  1. Choose someone with parallel experience, but from a different context. I had an opening in our middle school food service operation and hoped to find someone with direct experience. However, I ended up hiring a woman who had only worked in elementary schools, but who wanted to branch out. Now she is enjoying the fast pace of the new environment, and thriving on the challenges that middle school students present each day.
  2. Look for people with a passion for food, but who haven’t worked in school cafeterias. I have hired three people who worked on the commercial side of food service. They were either bakers at local grocery stores, or worked in store delicatessens. They are phenomenal additions to my program. The bakers, accustomed to very early start times, really appreciate not having to get to work until 6:45 or 7 a.m. After some training in school foodservice processes, we can rely on them to bake anything we want at any time, and know we’ll get a fantastic product.
  3. Don’t fall into a gender trap. We have all heard about “lunch ladies.” But there are lots of men who could be great additions to your kitchens, too. One of my recent hires is a back-up baker, when needed, in addition to his other responsibilities. Another man has the personality to work well with one of my special-needs adults. He is kind and patient, and able to direct her in her duties each day. And these men are a great help when it comes to doing any heavy lifting.
  4. Don’t forget about special-needs employees. Every school food service operation needs help with dishwashing, with clean-up after lunch, and so on. These minimum-hour slots are hard to fill. In my area, I can call the Western Idaho Training Company, which helps special-needs adults find employment. These individuals are committed workers, with a positive attitude, and are a perfect fit for these short-time positions, once they have been offered training and guidance in what to do.

After many years as a director, I know hiring can be a gamble. Someone who looks great on paper and in the interview, may turn out to be a disaster. But employment experts, regardless of their industry, agree on one thing. Personality and cultural fit are every bit as important as professional experience when hiring someone new. Remember, skills can be taught, but personality cannot. So be sure you like the person you are hiring, and be sure that existing staff will like them, too. If their positive attitude, their demeanor, and their passion for the work shine through, chances are, you have found the right person for the job.

Written by Barbara Bumgardner. She has worked for the Middleton School District’s food service department for 23 years, and has been its director for the last 18. She is a member of the Carroll Services CN Editorial Advisory Board.