Retention Strategies for School Cafeterias

Since the spring of 2021, the “Great Resignation” has been looming over American industries. School cafeterias have been no stranger to staff shortages. According to a survey by US Foods, more than one-third of American foodservice operators have a hard time filling job openings, and hiring, training, and managing staff is a major stress point (Cobe, 2019). However, there are still plenty of ways to find good employees, and even more ways to keep them. 

  • Gratitude and Incentives

    Foodservice professionals impact nearly every person at a school, yet it can be a thankless job. Don’t let that be the case for your teams! The American Psychology Association found that those who felt valued at work had better physical and mental health, and higher levels of engagement, satisfaction, and motivation (APA, 2012). Showing gratitude can be as simple as regular verbal affirmations and encouragement, giving thank you notes, or sharing your teams’ achievements with other departments so everyone recognizes their impact. Incentives also go a long way towards reminding employees why they enjoy working with your school. Employee recognition programs like employee of the month with helpful gifts such as bonuses, gift cards, and free food can be a great motivator. It’s even possible to gamify the workspace, so deserving employees can earn points towards a reward. Linking activities to goals or prizes can drive people to complete their tasks with efficiency and positivity. The best way is to personalize it. Ask your staff what would make them feel respected, appreciated, and excited to be in your team. 

  • Active Listening

    Being present is the most important aspect of leadership and keeping employees satisfied. The second most important aspect is being able to take in observations and feedback and using them to make adjustments. It sounds simple, but it’s truly an opportunity to learn from your teammates. Making space for regular check-ins with individuals and with the whole team shows you prioritize thoughts, ideas, and open communication. Also, give opportunities to those who aren’t comfortable publicly speaking out via anonymous surveys or suggestion boxes. Active listening includes picking up verbal and non-verbal cues, even outside of formal feedback sessions. Always be willing to share your insights and affirm that you understand their point of view and will reflect on it. It’s a reassurance for your employees to know they can come to you, and reassures the team leader that they will know if anything is dysfunctional or needs to change. 

  • Team Building

    Those we work with daily have a huge influence over how we feel and operate. Closeness among staff allows for improved collaboration, accountability, and support. When employees get to know each other on a personal (but appropriate) level, there is more honesty, trust, and compassion. Remembering birthdays, anniversaries, or other big days in each other’s lives fosters a meaningful work relationship. Hosting potlucks or get-togethers outside of work in informal settings will help people to open up. Once everyone knows each other better and you can identify what your team needs, you could venture into team building exercises. There are exercises for every mission, such as problem solving, strategy and planning, improving communication, boosting creativity, encouraging leadership, and so on (MindTools, n.d.). Connecting people will unite them in a common goal, as well as strengthen their connection to your school. 

  • Revamped Recruiting Process

    Of course, some turnover is inevitable. Beyond keeping your great staff members, there are some strategies to attract the right people to your opportunities. The foodservice industry is constantly evolving, yet the recruiting process and offerings for cafeteria workers have looked the same. To make your position and team stand out, consider updating your job descriptions to emphasize the impact of the job. Someone will be more likely to respond to positive language that lets them know their work is fulfilling and important. Consider even renaming the positions to something a little more elevated like the Rochester Institute of Technology did. Their job descriptions had not changed in 30 years, until they added titles like “sous chef”, “garde manger”, and so on (Freehill-Maye, 2019). Be open to referrals or attending recruiting events. Once the right people are in the room, don’t neglect to perform an in-depth interview. It may be tempting to get someone in and start working, but getting to know the interviewee’s personality, goals, and values can contribute to a stronger team and better work culture. When you’re confident in hiring skilled people, your kitchen’s team can also be assured, productive, and long lasting. 

Every cafeteria team is unique, so each will require their own customized retention strategies to fit their culture. However you do it, just remember that in order for your employees to keep showing up to you, you also have to show up for them. You are all there to lift each other up and better your school nutrition program, and I hope the ideas above help you do so.