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C-Store Help Wanted: Restaurant Experience Required

By Pat Pape

When Jack Cushman was 16 years old, he got his first job in a restaurant. "I’ve done everything from washing dishes to running a region," said the now-vice president of foodser­vice for Nice N Easy Shoppes, the New York convenience chain with more than 80 outlets.

While studying for his Ph.D., Cushman ran his university’s convenience store and published academic papers on how the restaurant and c-store in­dustries were merging. He planned to teach students restaurant and hospital­ity management upon graduation, but instead, he joined Nice N Easy where his restaurant background has been invaluable in growing a robust foodser­vice operation.

Today, restaurant experience is mandatory for a position in conve­nience store foodservice. "It’s not so important at the [food] handlers’ lev­el," Cushman said. "But when we look for an assistant manager [for the in-store foodservice operation], we look for restaurant experience. Every res­taurant does things differently, and you have to learn how we do it."

For the position of foodservice man­ager, Nice N Easy seeks someone with a minimum of five years’ experience. "It takes them about that long to really get it," Cushman said. "And that’s not just my opinion. There’s plenty of re­search to support that."

Growing Demand
The U.S. convenience store foodservice business grew to $11.5 billion in 2011, up from $10.2 billion in 2007, according to a recent report from Technomic, the consumer research organization. That increase is due largely to the expansion of foodservice offerings and additional stores adding food operations, and it means more career opportunities for foodservice personnel. In fact, the number of stores with dedicated food­service personnel nearly doubled over the same four-year period, from 17% to 33%, the report noted.

"It’s a lot easier to take someone who understands restaurants, food and going after volume than taking c-store people and teaching them the restau­rant world," said Jerry Weiner, vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s, the Pennsylvania-based chain with more than 50 outlets. "It’s an easier transition."

In Rutter’s stores, there are two managers: one over the retail busi­ness and one for the foodservice area. "The best store manager can’t devote enough attention to the food," said Weiner, whose own restaurant experi­ence included a stint with Marriott.

For several years, he has advertised for and hired restaurant professionals, and he’s discovered that there can be a learning curve when restaurant em­ployees switch industries. "The world they’re entering is 30% focused on food, not 100%, and that’s a struggle for some," he said.

Those who succeed have opportuni­ties to take on new and different respon­sibilities. Some of Rutter’s restaurant-trained managers have moved into retail store management. "I love people who come out of the restaurant business," he said. "They understand speed."

Recruiting Applicants
Georgia-based convenience store chain Parker’s operates 23 stores, seven with delis and one with a gourmet market. To ensure a well-trained staff, mem­bers of the human resources depart­ment often recruit from the local tech­nical college’s culinary program.

"We don’t have a problem finding candidates," said Beth Harn, human resources manager for Parker’s. "Occa­sionally, we’ll train from the bottom up, but for the most part, we prefer to hire someone with foodservice experience. A kitchen prep background is important."

According to Nancy Caldarola, Ph.D., education director of NACS CAFÉ (Center for Achieving Foodservice Ex­cellence), "You’ve got to hire someone who has had more than one kind of foodservice operation [in their back­ground]."

She prefers veterans from fast-casu­al restaurants, such as Chili’s or Apple­bee’s, as opposed to those from eater­ies with a single focus, and Cushman agrees. "Our business model is much more complicated than Subway or Piz­za Hut," he said. "We’re making pizza and salads and a whole lot of other things."

Interviews and Offers
Large chains have HR departments to recruit and hire, but smaller operators often juggle interviewing and hiring with their other duties. When it comes to foodservice, Caldarola suggests con­ducting a behavioral job interview. In this situation, the interviewer asks questions that require the applicant to respond with examples of how to han­dle specific workplace situations.

"Ask 'How would you set up a new sandwich line’ or 'How would you cre­ate a menu?’" she advised. "You want somebody with the experience to es­tablish relationships with different vendors, to do the research and devel­opment. They have to be able to put six or seven kinds of meat next to each other and determine which one would be best."

Thanks to best-selling books, tele­vision cooking shows and celebrity chefs, the restaurant world has a glam­orous culture. But convenience retail­ing can offer benefits that restaurants can’t. Weiner makes sure job candi­dates know what they are.

"The hours you work in a restaurant are dinner and late night, while in a con­venience store, its morning and lunch, and the amount of hours you work [in convenience retailing] improves," said Weiner. "People put a value on quality of life. I’ve had some situations where what we were offering was comparable [to what the applicant was receiving in the restaurant business], but when you looked at the whole package, our offer was better."

In addition, the interviewer should manage each applicant’s expectations, according to Bob York, executive direc­tor of Employment Adventure (HR) for Maverik convenience stores, the Utah-based retailer with 200 locations and an "adventure" theme.

"Some restaurant experience may be helpful," he said of convenience store foodservice. "But we have a set menu and following directions is the main thing. If someone has been a chef, they may want to improvise. There is a place for that, but at the store level, we want them to follow our recipes exactly.

"We’re not trying to stifle anyone’s creativity, but we want them to share that talent in the proper way," he said. "They must understand that." 

Keep Staff Current
There are numerous options when it comes to enhancing an employee’s existing foodservice skills. Continu­ing education is often as close as the nearest community college, including flexible e-learning solutions for work­ers with challenging schedules. NACS CAFÉ of­fers both online and onsite training at the Georgia State University School of Hospitality in Atlanta in everything from menu design, marketing and mer­chandising food and beverages to hu­man resources, financial analysis and strategic planning.

"Our programs certify people who are already in foodservice," said Calda­rola. "People in most companies un­derstand they need to hire someone smarter than they are. If you know con­venience retailing, you stay there and hire someone who can make foodser­vice work.

"It’s a different system, and it requires a systems approach to how it’s done," she said, noting that you need a proper kitchen, adequate storage, a function­al line for making food and a reliable source of high-quality food products. "And you’ve got to understand how to handle food. Unless you’re knowledge­able about all of this, the only way you can make it is to hire the right person.

Foodservice is a lucrative business for convenience store operators when it’s done right, Caldarola said. "The profitability is there. Companies fail when they treat foodservice like any other category."

Pat Pape spent 20 years in the corporate communications and IT departments at 7-Eleven. Currently, she is a writer and communications consultant for retailing clients and trade associations as manag­ing partner of Brookview Advisors Inc.