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HR Magazine, February 2001: From Their Kitchen to Yours
 

By Andrea C. Poe  2/1/2001
 

HR Magazine, February 2001Vol. 46, No. 2

Select soup kitchens are offering job training to the needy--and employers in the food services industry are reaping the rewards.

Quinn Drunson was in deep trouble: His parole officer found out that Drunson had been abusing drugs again. With his back to the wall, facing the possibility of more jail time, Drunson signed up for a residential drug treatment program.

He also started attending a job training program at D.C. Central Kitchen (DCCK), a Washington, D.C., organization that offers food preparation training to the homeless, the near homeless and those on welfare. The meals prepared at DCCK feed more than 3,000 needy people a day.

For a while, Drunson faithfully attended classes at DCCK. But stress and other factors proved to be too much, and he soon dropped out.

A few months later, he was ready to try again. And DCCK welcomed him back.

"They could see I was real determined to make it, that I was striving for something," Drunson recalls. His efforts paid off. Drunson completed the DCCK training program, along the way meeting Jose Andres, executive chef at Jaleo, a celebrated Washington, D.C., restaurant.

Andres, a regular guest chef at DCCK, helps teach trainees how to prepare multicourse meals. It was at one such class that he met Drunson, liked what he saw and suggested that Drunson work for Jaleo after graduation.

Now, several months later, Drunson is a valuable part of Jaleo’s kitchen crew. "If I work, I stay out of trouble," says Drunson. "I get my adrenaline rush from being in a kitchen. That’s my excitement now."

For his part, Andres says, Drunson is "an amazing employee"—one he never would have found without his involvement with DCCK.

Filling a Need

Like Drunson, many other individuals have used the food preparation training offered by DCCK—and by similar organizations across the country—to improve their skill sets and land productive jobs.

And, like Jaleo and Andres, many employers have benefited from their involvement with programs like the one at DCCK.

The DCCK program began with a mission to feed the hungry, but blossomed into something more. "We needed to prepare meals. So, we thought, ‘Why not do two things at once—feed the hungry and also get at one of the root causes of hunger, unemployment?’ " explains founder Robert Egger.

Dozens of similar groups also offer a hand up, as well as hand-outs, by training individuals in food service skills while feeding the needy.

"This is the wave of the future," says Paul Wunderlich, executive director of the North Texas Food Bank Community Kitchen in Dallas, which added a food-preparation training program to its feeding operation in January 2000.

The training offered by these kitchens can be a boon to companies in the food service industry, which are feeling the need for additional labor. For example, a recent study by the National Restaurant Association (NRA) indicates that finding "qualified/motivated labor will be the biggest challenge" for restaurateurs in the future.

"We’re always looking to hire employees," affirms Loree Wagner, director of marketing for Seattle-based Consolidated Restaurants, which owns four restaurants. One way that Consolidated gets workers is by hiring graduates of FareStart, a Seattle program that offers food training.

"We get calls daily from restaurants looking for employees," says Megan Karch, FareStart’s executive director. "They believe what we tell our trainees—that the past merely informs, but doesn’t dictate, the future."

At FareStart, 91 percent of graduates have jobs by the time they graduate, reflecting not only the dramatic need for such workers, but the program’s success at imparting valuable job skills to attendees.

Graduates of such programs should be viewed as skilled, serious job candidates—not as "a cheap source of labor," says Egger. At DCCK, 100 percent of graduates have job offers upon graduation. "We have earned the respect of the restaurant industry," he says. "They know that we provide quality employees."

It’s no wonder these programs garner the interest of employers, says Therese O’Connor, senior lecturer at Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. "It’s good PR for the company. It gives them a chance to do something for their community," she says. "And, it provides them with people who have basic kitchen knowledge."

She adds that there is essentially no cost for employers. "Someone else is training them and matching them to your company."

Although each program is unique, employers can count on a few basics when working with a training program.

Screening

One of the major benefits for employers working with these programs is that they don’t have to sift through numerous applicants before finding people who are committed to working. Most training programs screen applicants prior to training.

At the Community Kitchen in Dallas, for example, the process involves two interviews. "We spend a couple of weeks interviewing them, so we get a pretty good sense of who’s going to work and who’s not," says Wunderlich.

At DCCK, applicants are given a basic reading and writing test and are tested for drugs. "We want to make sure they can succeed," Egger notes.

Further, during the course of training, a natural weeding-out process occurs. Some trainees aren’t ready to make a commitment to work; others find that restaurant work isn’t for them. Still others may fall back into old habits. Whatever the reason, reluctant trainees remove themselves, or are removed by the programs.

At DCCK, about a third of participants drop out before graduation. Seattle’s FareStart program has an attrition rate of about 50 percent during training. That’s good news for employers, who are assured that anyone who completes training was committed to being there, say program directors.

Antoinette Watkins agrees. Watkins, a supporter of the North Texas Food Bank’s Community Kitchen and manager of patient services at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas, says graduates have "already proven themselves by making it through the program. That speaks positively to me as an employer."

She’s not alone. Most employers recognize what it takes to finish the training. "The program is tough, and they don’t take excuses from people," says Bill Spano, executive chef at the Marriott Hotel’s Lillies restaurant in Kansas City, Mo. "By the time they graduate they know how to work. They understand accountability." Spano has hired several graduates of the food prep program at the Kansas City Community Kitchen (KCCK).

Following a 12-week training program, KCCK participants are required to fulfill a 12-week internship with an area employer to graduate. In essence, this provides another level of comfort for employers. "The trainees get paid, but it gives employers a chance to see if they’re going to work out and gives us a chance to improve their skills," explains KCCK executive director Jane Tally.

Training

Although the length of programs may vary, the gist of the training is the same: to provide basic culinary skills and food safety information that results in certification. Most of the information covered in the classes has been designed by the restaurant industry. Depending on the organization, the curriculum may be set by the NRA or one of its local chapters, surveys of area chefs, input from culinary schools and trainer’s judgment.

"They are taught the basics, like how to handle a knife, sanitation and safety, how to follow a recipe, make a sauce—things that I’d otherwise have to teach a newcomer," says Spano. "They’re not chefs, but I don’t expect them to be. What’s important is that they know their way around a kitchen."

"You can’t be a magnificent chef and have an encyclopedic knowledge in a few weeks, but what they achieve is remarkable," says Jaleo’s Andres. "You get someone who has proven themselves capable in the kitchen."

Adds Watkins, "They have basic food safety knowledge and certification, which is incredibly important in a hospital setting where there are patients who are immune-compromised."

Life Skills

In addition to culinary basics, trainees are given extensive training in the rules of the work world. "The programs teach things that most of us take for granted, things like showing up on time, washing your hair, speaking respectfully to co-workers," explains O’Connor.

At FareStart, training in life skills makes for a "pretty intense several weeks covering all kinds of things with the life skills instructor, everything from how to set goals to overcoming fear of failure," says Karch.

About 60 percent of the instruction at the Community Kitchen in Dallas centers on kitchen labor; the rest is devoted to life skills. The program spends this much time on life skills because they’ve proven to have a major impact on a graduate’s success as an employee. "The program enhances their ability to set goals and work hard to achieve them," Watkins notes.

"The spirit these people have is incredible," Andres explains. "They work so hard. They give you everything they’ve got. You have to understand that they have decided to change their lives 100 percent. They bring that commitment to work with them."

Spano, like many employers, believes that life skills are even more important than cooking skills. "The graduates have a really good work ethic, which is the start to a great relationship. I can teach people how to cook, but I can’t teach them how to develop a work ethic."

He points to a prep cook he hired from KCCK a year ago: "He’s never been late, and I don’t think he’s ever called in sick."

Support Systems

Most programs also provide some level of support to graduates as they transition into work. For some graduates, this may be the first time they hold down a job, and they experience glitches. While no organization can guarantee that graduates will be successful, most believe that offering support services betters their chances.

DCCK provides graduates with clothing and transportation in the early days to make sure there are no stumbling blocks to getting to work. The program also assures employers that, should they have any problems, the organization will step in.

"I educate employers so they know what they’re dealing with," says Egger. "These are people who’ve had some problems and aren’t used to success. I tell them to keep an eye out for signs that graduates are about to self-destruct—things like missing work, showing up late or asking to borrow money. I have [the employer] call me early so I can intervene."

At FareStart, there’s a job-retention specialist on staff who offers on-going communication with employers. "This person makes sure that everything is working out. If there’s a problem, we can find out what’s happening and help facilitate a solution," Karch explains.

KCCK recently has teamed up with an area church to provide graduates with mentors. "The goal is to have the mentor follow graduates for one to two years until they’re sure they can make it on their own," Tally explains.

Many groups also partner with local social agencies to help individuals work on ancillary problems—such as illiteracy, domestic abuse, health issues, child care or chemical dependency—that may affect their ability to work.

No Obligation

Employers that get involved in food training programs are under no obligation to hire graduates. "Just because they’ve gone through the program doesn’t mean I’m going to hire them," says Watkins. "I’ve done interviews with graduates and found that, for whatever reason, they weren’t what I was looking for."

Nor do all employees work out. In Jaleo’s very strict kitchen, the work sometimes is "too much for them to handle," An....dres says. "Maybe they’ll work better at a different kind of kitchen that doesn’t expect so much." Andres has fired several people, a fact he shrugs off as a normal part of the restaurant business.

Employers maintain there’s no more risk involved with hiring program graduates than anyone else; in fact, there may be less.

"There’s a risk with anything," says Wagner. "At least with FareStart graduates you know their past problems and any drug or alcohol dependencies. That’s not something anyone else is going to be up front about during a job interview."

"I love them compared to people you hire off the streets," says Spano. "You don’t know anything about most new hires. You know the full background of these people."

Getting Involved

While nothing is required of employers who hire trainees, employers can play a number of roles—by donating food, leading cooking classes, serving on the board of the organization or simply posting job openings. The level of involvement is up to the employer. But, it’s widely agreed that the more involved they become, the more they benefit.

Says Andres: "By serving on the board I’m able to help shape the program based on what I see our needs are."

Additionally, getting involved is a good way to spot new talent. Like Andres, Spano has met future employees through his stints as a guest chef at KCCK. "You never know when you’re going to need an employee," he notes. "In this economy, it’s always good to meet people who are interested in doing kitchen work." That’s how Spano discovered KCCK’s latest success story, a man who started as a behind-the-scenes food prep in the employees’ kitchen and has worked his way up to making omelets for hotel guests in the dining room.

Once a month, FareStart invites an area chef to lead trainees through the creation of a gourmet meal for the public. "Most of our placements occur as a result of connections made through our guest chef night," Karch explains.

The reason is simple. "By working side by side with trainees, our chefs get to know the trainees. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out who they’d like to work with," explains Wagner. "It’s sure better than only meeting someone at a job interview."

In Texas, many employment connections are made at the North Texas Community Kitchen’s luncheon, which is prepared by each graduating class. Trainees have a chance to demonstrate their skills and network with area employers. As a regular attendee, Watkins has found it particularly helpful in recruitment for the nutrition services division of the hospital. "I get to meet a lot of people there. I ask if they’d be interested in working in a hospital. If the answer is yes, I’ll set up an interview that day," she explains.

Win-Wins

These programs demonstrate that you can help people and run a good business at the same time, says Egger.

Jaleo is proof. "If I see they’re trying, I’ll raise their salary from $5.25 to what more experienced people make—say $7.50 or $8.50," Chef Andres explains. A firm believer in giving to get, Andres reports that giving pay raises for hard work results in high retention.

Although there are sound business reasons to hire graduates, the main driver for some employers is a desire to be part of a success story.

"My heart is in this. I really believe in what [KCCK] does," says Spano. "I love bringing someone in to my kitchen and saying, ‘If you want to learn, come here and I’ll show you. Together we’ll go places.’"

That’s the greatest satisfaction, Egger maintains. "As an employer, you have a chance to hire somebody whose world is changing. You get to be part of making that a positive experience."

That’s true for Andres, who says, "I was looking to become involved in something where I could have a direct impact." Through DCCK, he has an opportunity to help people turn their lives around. "I want to be a part of helping them make normal lives for themselves, to be able to pay the rent and the electric bill, to get on their feet."

Through his involvement with DCCK, Andres becomes more than a boss—he becomes a coach. "I tell them, ‘Don’t disappoint me, but even more importantly, don’t disappoint yourself.’"

Andres’ belief in Drunson has successfully carried the DCCK graduate through some difficult moments. "Sometimes," says Drunson, "you can only succeed when people around you believe you can succeed."

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.

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