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The Caterer's Guide to Onboarding New Event Staff

By Roy Porter on December 3, 2018

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

Caterers have to approach hiring for part-time event staff as a numbers game. It’s a bit like math class. In my first post, we went over addition, and looked at strategies to increase your number of job applicants. Last week, we got into subtraction and talked about how you can use the interview process to reduce your pool of applicants to the most qualified ones. This week is all about percentages. You want as many of your new hires as possible to make the transition from “new hire” to “go-to event teammate.” How do you do that? Onboarding.

Onboarding is the key to setting new employees up for success, but too many managers don’t put enough effort into it. That’s a huge mistake. If you don’t give new hires everything they need to become a valuable employee, you’re wasting all the time and effort you spent recruiting and interviewing them in the first place. You need to teach them the catering skills they need to do their job and show them how to become somebody you want to schedule again and again.

Onboarding in a day

Lots of companies put together weeks-long onboarding processes for full-time employees. But as a caterer, you don’t have that luxury with your part-time event staff. There are too many applicants coming in and you don’t know if they’ll end up working enough hours for you to justify the investment. That’s why I recommend condensing the process into a one to two hour orientation session. If you’re holding interviews once a week like I suggested in my last post, then match that cadence and hold orientation on a different day each week. I recommend trying to keep orientation sessions to 20 or fewer participants though, so you may need to increase the frequency based on the number of applicants you get.  

You’re trying to accomplish three goals during orientation:

  1. Teach new hires all the catering skills they need. By the end of orientation, you should feel confident that participants can handle the routine tasks and problems they’ll face during one of your events.

  2. Show new hires what’s special about your company. Orientation is your chance to steep new staff in your company culture and help them understand your unique expectations.

  3. Show new hires that you care about them. Lots of hourly, part-time jobs treat staff like expendable cogs in a machine. That’s not just wrong on an interpersonal level -- it’s bad business too. By showing concern and emphasizing the investment you’re making in your new staff, you motivate them to give you their best effort.

Below, I’m going to break the orientation process down and show you how it accomplishes each of those three goals.

How to run new employee orientation

There’s one big caveat to the orientation process depending on what state you’re in. Here in California, I can hold a 2-hour, unpaid pre-employment orientation as part of the interview process. So in addition to training, I can also use orientation as one last chance to evaluate applicants before I make a hiring decision. You should check your local laws to see if you have this option. Beyond wage payment though, it won’t affect much about the session itself.

Before orientation starts, you’ll also want to send staff an email with some materials they’ll need for training. I include:

  • A reminder description of our uniform policy

  • A glossary of common catering terms

  • Safety documents -- there are specific requirements for these by region, so you should also check your local laws to see what caterers in your area need to include

  • A brief agenda of what we’ll cover during the session

I also wrap my email up with two notes welcoming the applicant to the company -- one from me, and one from the owner. If I can, I’ll try to personalize mine with a post-script based on something I remember from their interview. For instance, if they mentioned a specific food they like, I’ll ask them for a copy of the recipe, or let them know of a restaurant I know that makes that dish really well.

Next, you need a plan for orientation day itself. I recommend putting together a checklist of all the components you need to get through. It helps you stay on track, and you can always look back at it to evaluate what did and didn’t work so that the process is always improving. Here’s what mine looks like at the moment -- you’ll probably need to make adjustments for your business, but this should cover the broad strokes of what you need to include.

Expectations and company policies

I start by telling new hires what we expect of them and how we’ll evaluate them. I recommend managers rate employees after each event on a letter grading system, with an A meaning they did a great job and a D meaning you won’t be hiring them again -- it’s important to let them know that those grades are the key to getting more work. I also tell trainees about the offenses covered by our three strikes policy, such as using a cell phone in front of guests. Finally, I’ll tell them about our zero tolerance policies around things like discrimination, sexual harassment, drinking or doing drugs on the job, and safety violations.

I’ll also use this time to tell them what they need to know about the company structure, such as who their managers and event captains will be -- that way, they always know who to go to with questions.

Housekeeping

In this portion, I’ll tell new hires the nuts and bolts, day-to-day information they need to work at our company. I cover things like:

  1. How we’ll reach out to schedule them for events

  2. How to get into our kitchen

  3. How to clock in at events

  4. When payroll goes out

  5. How to check the number of hours they’ve worked

If you use a platform like Nowsta, this is the time to tell them about it.

Catering skills training

Training should take up the majority of the session. During this time, I’ll teach participants everything they need to know to successfully work an event for our company. Here are some of the lessons I cover, broken down by position:

I train servers on how to:

  1. Set a table

  2. Serve up hot plates with their left hand and clear with their right

  3. Pour water, wine, and champagne

  4. Set up a buffet with chafing dishes

  5. Serve at the buffet

  6. Polish plates and glasses

I train bartenders on how to:

  1. Read their portion of a Banquet Event Order (BEO) or one-sheet

  2. Set up and organize our bar

  3. Free pour

  4. Pour with two hands

  5. Shake and stir drinks

  6. Use a jigger

  7. Open wine and champagne properly

  8. Take down a bar

  9. Take bar inventory

  10. Interact with guests -- this one is very important, as bartenders talk to guests more than anyone else

  11. Serve alcohol safely

  12. Deal with difficult customers

I train event chefs on how to:

  1. Read their portion of the BEO

  2. Set up a plating line

  3. Clean the kitchen at the end of an event

  4. Operate under the brigade style of kitchen management -- this outlines the rules of rank, respect, and decorum in a professional kitchen

  5. Make garnishes

  6. Label equipment in our kitchen

Demonstrate each of these practical lessons, answer any questions participants have, and then ask them to complete the task themselves. Observe them as they work and correct any mistakes you see before moving on. There are many lessons to get through, so it’s important to move quickly and get through everything.

At the end of the session, I’ll give all the new hires a 25-30 question quiz on everything they’ve learned (personalized to their specific position, of course). I consider anything above 80% a passing grade, but you may have to compromise and hire people who score lower than that depending on your staffing needs.

Training doesn’t stop here

Orientation is the last stop before new hires work their first event, but it certainly isn’t the last time you’ll be training them. I recommend you also offer skills training once every month or two for current employees in addition to new hires. If you want, you can require new hires go to the first one of these sessions that occurs after they start working, just to make sure they’re fully up to speed. You can also send longer tenured but underperforming staff to these extra sessions as well. Ongoing, post-orientation training ensures that your team always stays sharp.

By investing in your new hires, you don’t just give them the skills to help them run your events successfully. You also give them the individual attention they need to feel confident and valued at your company. Onboarding is your chance to build a connection with staff, encourage them to give their best effort, and keep them on your team for the long haul.

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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