Insights to attract, motivate and improve culinary talent

Restaurant chefs and retail chefs live in two separate worlds. The challenges and rewards, and the personalities required to succeed, differ greatly. For grocerants today, it is essential to hire right and instill a positive culture to recruit and retain talent. 

A panel of experts explored the mindsets of chefs and the steps for retailers to attract and keep quality culinary teams—as well as some of the latest career trends in food, and changes in how people are eating. The panel, moderated by chef Steven Petusevsky, included:

  • Greg Drescher: Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Industry Leadership, The Culinary Institute of America
  • Brian Dunn: Culinary Business Development Manager, Hans Kissle
  • Gary Zickel: Manager of Foodservice Operations, Mariano’s

These highlights should inform retailers’ approaches in the months and years ahead:

Chef opportunities:

Petusevsky: “Culinary school graduates may think they have to go work in restaurants or hotels where they can make beautiful plate presentations. But they can go into retail, which I think is far more humane. It is much easier to work yourself up via foodservice in retail than in restaurants. The benefits and hours are better. 

Hire true culinarians to try to get buy-in from CEOs and presidents that this is a long-term culinary investment in the future of their company, and that profit margins are much different than elsewhere in retail.”

Drescher: “Gone are the days when every chef wanted to open the next Per Se restaurant. Chefs are going all over. Many are running to open their own new packaged food businesses.

CIA launched a national leadership collaborative called Appetites+Innovation. It’s an invitational to many corporate chefs in many supermarkets and chains, and vps of perishables at retail. We focus on how to attract more culinary chefs to the sector, and how to support trained chefs already working in it—to understand consumer issues and trends, and operational issues that will shape our collective success in the future.

Both retail and campus dining are about everyday dining. They are very much on the front lines of consumer interest in food choices that give health, sustainability, transparency, food ethics, and authenticity of flavor and quality of craft in sourcing and production.”

International influences:

Drescher: “World cuisines and cultures [shape our eating today]. If you’re a retail foodservice chef trying to grab flavors at hand, or feel inspired by the local Thai restaurant down the street, you may or may not get that right. In U.S., we see this rolling appetite for greater flavors and greater authenticity. In this CIA educational series, we make sure we’re benchmarking back to the mother culture so you get all those flavors really right.  Otherwise, we’re [operators are] building on shaky ground.

There is a universe of Asian fast-casual concepts that can move into supermarkets. 

Many top chefs in Japan partner and run concepts in large department stores. The rest of Southeast Asia has incredible landscapes of street food and food courts. These are tips of the iceberg.”

Grounding chefs in science:

Drescher: “You know how much confusion exists about health and wellness, sustainability, local sourcing and food security. Your customers come in with whatever they pulled from the Internet the night before, or a flawed study they read.

How do you take the scientific evidence—our 15-year partnership with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health informs all of our work—and pair that with food that is absolutely delicious and craveable?

In the context of retail foodservice, if you don’t have a grounding in the evidence of where these issues are going, then you’ll be responding to whatever customer comes in with their own personal philosophy.... As we think about attracting more talent to this sector, chefs have to wrap their heads around about 30 issues and imperatives that are changing our industry in fundamental ways. At our website, see our annual report on the future of food, and download our principles on healthy, sustainable menus and other issues. See where the scientific evidence is going.” 

Recruiting restaurant chefs into retail:

Petusevsky: "My success rate is 20%-25% hiring chefs from the restaurant industry and putting them into the grocery industry." 

Zickel: “It is very challenging. Part of it is the perception of coming to work for a grocery store. If your desire is to be a big name chef, why would you want to come to a grocery store? Mariano’s hired a big name executive chef—Ryan LaRoche from Hyatt. People will want to come work for him. I have very low turnover. Getting the right person changes the culture.”

Desirable traits for retail chefs:

Zickel: “Retail and restaurant chefs are completely different. It is hard work to prepare for 6 hours and cook through a rush on Friday night for 8 hours. But in grocery, we’re torn a million different ways. The hot foods chef may have a staff of 20, but only three are full-time. The type of person we look at to lead is definitely someone who is patient, and has the tolerance to be pulled in many different directions. Sure, I want him to be creative too.” 

Petusevsky: “What we do in retail foodservice affects millions of people on a daily basis. [Find people with that] headset vs. what kind of beautiful plates they’ll produce.”

Drescher: “The mindset of chefs has really changed. Many who made their name in fine dining would open a casual restaurant—though with a sense of ranking, ‘Oh, that’s my casual restaurant.’ Now they lead with their casual restaurant. David Fang did tremendously with Momofuko. A chef from a famed Copenhagen restaurant left to open a taco stand. These send a signal that maybe it’s not all about creativity and plating and high-end design. It can be about other kinds of things as well.

This is the time to understand the psychology of hiring a chef and what floats their boat, so you don’t deal with someone who really wants to be in fine dining.”   

Blurred lines and creative chefs:

Petusevsky: “Fabulous restaurant chefs now open retail markets inside their restaurants to capture a different audience. In L.A., Angelina has glass cases so they can capture people going to work that maybe don’t have time to sit down and eat.

Creative food people in convenience stores and supermarkets hold positions of responsibility and authority. But they want to be creative. I call it a controlled system of flexibility—to allow chefs to be creative, but not to the point where you lose control, where you don’t know how much your ingredients cost are or what your retail price should be.”  

Zickel: “Mariano’s has a culinary committee of Bob Mariano, myself, and Ryan LaRoche. Bob tastes everything that we put out. Some key items we never want to change. Where our chefs can be creative is with damaged cans and produce we may be too long on. This can be a little hindrance to hiring too. But we’ll take your input and meet with you."

Dunn: “I definitely know the retail customer base a lot better because I used to be a retail chef. Restaurants and retail are both challenging, but different. Restaurant chefs plate dishes, put them in front of customers, and they love them. Retail chefs have to cook, chill, present in the cold case for a couple of days, have customer take it home, reheat it and have it present and eat well. That piece was very difficult for me to understand in the beginning [when I went to retail]."

Shrink and food waste:

Zickel: “Our produce managers shrink out what they have immediately [such as distressed tomatoes, soft cucumbers]. The shrink hits their department, and we donate it to hot foods to see if we can create something with it. It’s the same with meats and damaged cans from center-store. Store managers are big on this because they manage the bottom line. They drill it in because it helps the store."

Dunn: “I created a corporate shrink program for the retailer I worked for. It was an 18-store chain with $18 million in annual shrink. How could we get some of that back? The biggest challenge was territoriality—except in produce. Departments didn’t want to give the food to the kitchen because it wouldn’t help their shrink. To get that mindset across, say ‘same team.’ We all got a profit sharing check. Wouldn’t you like to see that be a little bigger?"

Next in concepts:

Drescher: “Chefs are developing fast-casual concepts that could end up in stores. In our new student commons, the pop-up restaurant is one of the most popular destinations." 

Petusevsky: “It is already happening. We’re designing a pop-up with equipment flexibility for a different concept each week."   

Zickel: “Check back with me in September. We’re opening six new concepts in our store that opens in August.”

Dunn: “Retailers are asking for lighter dishes, a little fresher, based less on mayonnaise and more on yogurt."

A word of advice:

Petusevsky: “Don’t create what you can’t execute 24/7. You can create the most beautiful, complex retail foodservice programs. But if your staff can’t execute them day in and day out, they’ll never make it. There’s never been a more exciting time in our industry.  We can compete with restaurants and QSRs. But it is about the execution, and supermarkets run multiple concepts.”  

Subscribe to The Great Grocerant newsletters