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The Caterer's Guide to Interviewing Part-time Event Staff

By Roy Porter on November 26, 2018

This is Part Two of a five-part series for caterers on hiring and managing part-time event staff. You can read the others here: 

As a caterer, you always need to be hiring more part-time event staff. These are high turnover positions, and seasonality means your needs are always changing -- the last thing you want is to find yourself scrambling for more staff at the last minute.

But at the same time, you can’t just hire anyone who walks through the door to be your next server, bartender, or hostess. These people interact directly with guests, which means they arguably have the biggest overall impact on client experience. You need to know you can trust them with that responsibility. That’s where the interview process comes in.

The goals of the interview: What we want to learn

In my last post, I showed you ten steps to get more applicants for part-time event roles. During the interview process, we want to whittle that group down by uncovering three things:

  1. What kind of skills and experience do they have? We need to know if the applicant knows how to do the job for which they’ve applied.

  2. Are they personable and friendly? This is important for everyone, but takes on special significance for front of house roles. We need to know if the applicant’s personality and social skills will help, hurt, or have no impact on the guest experience.  

  3. Do they have a good attitude? We need to know if the applicant has the work ethic, reliability, and desire to do the job the right way.

Some may disagree, but applicants don’t actually need to fulfill all three of these criteria for me to hire them. If someone doesn’t have experience but has a great attitude, you can teach them all the skills they need. If someone isn’t particularly charismatic but works really hard, they can still be a valuable contributor. But attitude is non-negotiable. If an applicant doesn’t take any pride in their work and isn’t willing to put in the necessary effort, they won’t be a productive member of your team.

Now that we know what we’re trying to learn, let’s look at how caterers can use the interview process to pick the best applicants from the crowd.

Start with the hiring forms

Once somebody applies to one of your job postings, the obvious first step is to email them and set up the interview. But they shouldn’t show up to that interview empty-handed. I recommend you ask them to come prepared with all of the paperwork and documents they’ll need to start working. These materials will differ based on your business’ location, but here’s what I ask for here in Southern California:

  • Completed application for employment

  • I-9 form for employment eligibility verification

  • W-4 form for federal tax withholding allowances

  • State employee withholding allowance certificate

  • Direct deposit application

  • Copy of applicant’s driver’s license or other form of photo ID

  • Copy of applicant’s social security card

  • State food handler card

  • Acknowledgement of uniform policy

  • Confidentiality agreement

  • Breaks option (waiver)

  • Arbitration agreement

  • Minor work permit (if the applicant is a minor)

  • Acknowledgment of AHCA notice receipt

  • TIPS - Serve Safe certificate (for bartenders)

When you ask the applicant for these forms, be sure your email makes it clear that this is a step in the interview process and not a job offer. It’s not just about being polite and up front. If you don’t end up hiring the person, they could try to file for unemployment later, so you want to cover your bases and put it in writing that you haven’t actually offered them a job yet.

You may think that asking for these materials puts the cart before the horse. Shouldn’t we wait until we’re actually hiring the applicant to make them fill all this stuff out? I say no for a few reasons. For one, getting these materials in advance saves time in case I need to expedite the rest of the interview process and have the applicant work an event right away. This also sets the tone that we’re a serious company with high expectations, which weeds out flaky applicants. After all, if someone isn’t willing to fill out a few forms, they’re probably not going to be the most attentive team member.

The day of the interview

In addition to asking for their hiring paperwork, I work with the applicant to schedule a one-on-one interview. Some caterers prefer to hold group interviews for part-time staff, but I’ve found that it’s difficult to properly evaluate applicants if I can’t give them my full attention. The downside though is that interviews take up more of your time. To mitigate that, I recommend you designate one day of the week as your interview day and block off a few hours for applicants to come in, one after another. That way, interviews aren’t constantly interrupting the rest of your work.

I also ask applicants to do some research on our company before their interview. I don’t expect anything major -- just that they read up on our site, menu, Yelp reviews, or something to get a feel for what kind of company we are. I think an applicant’s willingness to do some quick research says a lot about their attitude toward the job.

When the applicant shows up for their interview, there are a few red flags I look for immediately:

  • They didn’t bring their forms. When this happens, I ask the applicant to leave and come back next week with the forms completed. It’s not a good sign, but I’m willing to give the person a second chance -- most jobs don’t ask for these materials so early in the interview process, it’s possible they just forgot.

  • They’re dressed inappropriately. In this case, I’ll thank them for bringing their forms and again ask that they leave and come back next week with a more professional outfit. Again, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt here since lots of people -- especially younger folks -- may genuinely not know what clothes are appropriate for work.

  • They’re friends with the owner. In catering, it’s not uncommon for a part-time worker to be connected to the owner in some way -- maybe they’re a nephew or family friend. Most of the time, they’re great employees, but some of them may think their relationship gives them license to slack off. I try to nip that in the bud by immediately making it clear they’ll be held to the same standards as everyone else, and generally scrutinize their attitude a bit more -- both as applicants and as employees when hired.

None of these are deal breakers on their own, but in my experience, they could indicate attitude problems. Be sure to weigh these red flags when you’re evaluating the applicant after the interview.

Interview questions for caterers

Assuming the applicant’s forms and outfit are good to go, you can start asking questions. I recommend writing these out in advance so that you can move through them quickly and listen closely to their answers, rather than think about what you’ll ask next.

I like to start every interview off with a few questions to break the ice see if they did their research:

  • How did you hear about us?

  • Have you ever attended one of our events?

  • What kinds of events do you think we specialize in?

  • What do you think our reputation in the market is?

  • What dish on our menu would you most like to try?

The applicant’s answer to these questions says a lot about their interest in the job. If they answer accurately or are able to cite specific things they saw online, then I’ll know they actually put in the time to learn more about us.

From there, I like to ask a few questions about the candidate’s experience, such as:

  • Have you worked for a caterer? Which one? Was it a good experience?

  • Have you worked at a restaurant? Which one? Was it a good experience?

  • If you did work for a caterer or restaurant, were you a captain or manage? Or just part of the staff?

  • Have you worked a 150-person wedding before?

  • What’s the best and worst thing about your current job?

  • What one skill do you possess that would impact our bottom line?

The goal of these questions is pretty straightforward: I want to learn if they have experience in food service, and if so, whether or not they’ve worked with companies similar to mine. If I happen to know anyone at one of the establishments they’ve previously worked at, I can also call them up and ask if they’d hire the person again -- I’ve found that’s the best way to cut to the chase and learn how good someone is on a reference call.

Next, I like to ask specific questions about whether or not they have the skills for the position they’re applying for. Some examples would be:

  • For servers:

    • Do you serve with your left or right hand?

    • How would you set a place at a table?

    • How would you offer a glass of wine to a guest?

  • For bartenders:

    • What’s your favorite cocktail? Can you make it for me?

    • Can you make a Negroni?

    • Can you show me how you’d shake or stir a cocktail?

  • For event chefs:

    • What would you do if you had a question and the Chef wasn’t around?

    • Can you cook some eggs any way you’d like?

    • Can you show me your knife bag? (I’m looking to see if the tools are clean and well maintained)

These questions tell me their current skill level when it comes to serving. As I mentioned, it’s no big deal if someone doesn’t have all the skills yet -- that’s what training is for. But if their answers or performance suggest that they lied about their previous level of experience, I probably wouldn’t want to hire them. Note that many of these are practical exams rather than verbal questions. That’s why it’s so important to have them come to your kitchen or office for an interview -- you can see their skills for yourself.

Finally, I like to ask a few questions to learn more about the applicant’s personality:

  • What do you like to do in your spare time? Any culinary interests?

  • What are your favorite books and movies? Any about cooking?

  • What’s your favorite kind of food?

  • What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you recently?

  • Can you tell me about a difficult situation you overcame?

While it’s nice if they have deep culinary interests, I don’t actually care that much about what they say to these questions -- it’s more about how they answer. Are they confident? Do they make good eye contact? Do they come off as attentive and engaging? All of those would indicate they’d help guests feel happy and comfortable at our events. In the end, that matters to them a lot more than how how their server handled a bottle wine.

Once I’m done asking questions, I thank the applicant for their time and tell them I’ll be in touch. You may be tempted to make an offer on the spot, but I always recommend waiting so you have time to evaluate and compare them to other applicants. You should also avoid any talk of wages here, since many states mandate that discussing the topic to legally constitutes a job offer.

Find the right fits

Ultimately, I rate everyone on a ten-point scale after the interview. Five of the ten points are determined by skills and experience, and the other five are determined by their personality. I don’t want to hire anyone who’s at a five or lower, which reflects my earlier point that applicants don’t need to be excellent in all areas to become valuable employees. However, the reality is that your standards for hiring will change based on your needs. If you’re really busy and need staff now, you may end up having to compromise. If things are more stable, you can afford to be more picky.

You also need to recognize that you’re going to get it wrong sometimes. There’s no crystal ball -- someone who seems great may end up disappointing you, and someone you’re iffy on might pleasantly surprise you. That’s why hiring is a numbers game. You need to get as many applicants through the door as possible and constantly refine the questions you ask to increase your success rate over time.

Roy Porter

About

Roy Porter

Roy Porter is the Activities Director at Engage Works, located in Los Alamitos, CA. An internationally recognized expert in off-premise catering and banquet service, Roy’s experience includes such high-profile events as The Golden Globes, The Oscars, The Emmy’s and over 2,500 weddings. He speaks at hospitality industry conferences such as Catersource, The Special Events Show, and Wedding MBA. He has numerous articles published on staffing strategies for caterers.

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