One Job, Many Roles

Watch labor costs improve when cross-training employees is done right.

When Yuen Yung and his brother, Peter, opened their first How Do You Roll? custom sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas, they assigned employees to specific roles. One prepped fish and vegetables, while another assembled customized rolls. A different worker took orders, while someone else bussed tables and kept the made-to-order quick service restaurant clean and orderly.

“We were trying to break everything down into too many positions,” says Yuen Yung, adding that it didn’t take long for labor costs to skyrocket.

Soon enough, the Yung brothers learned staff could perform multiple jobs with cross-training, which has been critical to reducing labor costs while maximizing efficiencies in the front and back of the house. A strong cross-training program can keep staff busy and motivated, but equally important, it helps avoid catastrophes when workers don’t show up and the restaurant gets slammed.

Switching Hats

The Yungs found they could cross-train one person to prep ingredients and make sushi rolls, condensing two positions into one. Labor costs, they said, dropped to 27 percent from 32 percent. But schooling workers with back of the house mentalities to take on front of the house responsibilities (and vice versa) proved to be much tougher.

“If you’re working the front of the house with constant guest interactions, and you’re an introvert, that’s a problem,” Yuen Yung says.

Bobby Arifi, who owns two restaurants in the northern Chicago suburbs—Café Lucci, an Italian fine dining restaurant, and Bobby’s, a neighborhood joint—believes all staff can be cross-trained.

“You have to take the time to train them properly,” he says, although, “there will always be some people who are only qualified to do certain jobs.”

Get the Right Fit

Restaurateurs are finding it more important than ever to hire people who are knowledgeable or amenable to taking on different roles. For example, when narrowing the final two prospects with identical skills and experience, it pays to choose the one who’s open to stepping into other responsibilities.

“Research shows you will have a hard time getting people who don’t like providing service to enjoy providing service,” says Adam Robinson, founder of Hireology, a Chicago-based technology platform for hiring and human resources.

“But what’s important is that in certain circumstances, you have to have someone from one area of operations who can jump in on another area of the operations,” he says. “You’ve got to have employees committed to the business of the operation.”

Weed Out the Wearisome

Some five years and 11 stores later, How Do You Roll? puts new hires through a rigorous 90-day on-boarding program. Workers are cross-trained for every position and learn the company’s history, menu and expectations. The training also lays out a transparent path for growth so workers know what they’ll have to do to get to higher levels and earn more money.

“There’s a scarcity of good labor for our industry,” Yuen Yung says. “It’s a major challenge to get people to be more efficient.” Because good help is getting harder to find, optimizing the labor force is even more challenging. Arifi says fewer “professional” restaurant workers want to be “lifers” in the industry.

“It’s not a problem to find qualified people, but it is to find people who will stay with you over the course of three to five years or longer,” he says. “Instead, we see a lot of people who are in between jobs, careers and going to school, using this to segue into their next move.”

Mix, But Match

While it’s smart to train dishwashers to prep ingredients, it probably doesn’t make sense to expect food runners to stand in as bartenders. Consider roles that match as closely as possible, Robinson says. For example, food runners and bussers handle dishes. Servers interact with guests and can serve as hosts. And everyone should know how to work the dish machine because when the dishwasher is a no-show, the restaurant will come to a screeching halt.

Don’t think workers aren’t savvy to when operators dump more work on them instead of hiring additional staff. Cross-training doesn’t work when employers are paying a low wage and staff recognize they’re doing more work for less pay.

Jennifer Waters is a longtime business writer and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal.

Fit For Cross-Training

Like the prowess it provides athletes, a good cross-training program will strengthen your team, particularly when no-shows or sick calls mandate pinch-hitting. 

Try these tips:

> Start at the beginning, hiring capable people who are willing to be cross-trained.

> Be precise and transparent in the training process.

> Be rigorous and clear about objectives during training. This is an enrichment opportunity for staff that will benefit everyone.

> Watch new hires’ work closely to make sure they’re following instructions and routinely making the same steps.

> Seek staff feedback about what’s working and what could be improved.

> Reward employees willing to handle multiple roles successfully—there’s no better incentive.  

> Practice cross-training, but on nights that are not traditionally busy. Make training and cross-training programs ongoing.

> Lead by example. Nothing gains more respect from the crew than the chef-owner holding down a station or washing dishes. Owners should train for every job.

A Model of Cross-Training 

Control costs by having staff try on different roles in your operation. Here are a few ways to do more with less labor:

A Model of cross-training infographic