Upmarket caterer Harbour & Jones places great importance on training its staff in food knowledge and professional techniques, but, when recruiting, it looks for enthusiasm and social skills first. Ben Walker reports
Many catering companies include a cost for training staff within their tender proposals, which Patrick Harbour finds objectionable. "How can you know how much the training is going to cost before you've even met the staff and assessed their needs?" he asks.
More often than not the training levy is simply a profit centre for the caterer, he reckons. "Instead, we assess each employee's needs and then give the client a figure."
As part of the induction of all new staff, Harbour & Jones (H&J) hires Jenny Linford, author of Food Lovers' London, to take employees on tours of the city's Soho, Chinatown and Marylebone one Saturday every month. Staff are paid for their time and given £5 each to source any items they think would go down well in a staff restaurant. This encourages them to think about food and items such as Simply Nectar organic juices, Brindisa smoked almonds, Honeybuns cakes and Purbeck ice-creams have made their way into units as a result.
For H&J's multicultural workforce there is another aspect to the gastro-tours. Due to cultural differences, Harbour says that Polish people, while very hard-working and diligent, can come across as a little unfriendly in customer-facing roles. When H&J inherited four Poles at its Sky contract, the gastro-tour helped them achieve greater job satisfaction by identifying examples of good customer service, such as acknowledging people at the back of queues with eye contact.
Harbour says: "With our frontline people what we look for is the three Ps - personality, personality and personality. If people have the right attitude, then you can train them on the till or give them barista skills. We are looking for enthusiasm and passion."
Making great coffee is important for H&J. Its employees undertake a training day with Union Coffee Roasters in east London. At the end of a series of training days a competition was held, and the best barista won a trip to Florence, including a visit to coffee machine manufacturer Mulmar.
Harbour adds: "With our clients we try and insist on having a proper machine rather than a push-button version, because it just adds so much more theatre. At our larger sites we have baristas who do nothing but coffee."
On the craft skills and management front, H&J is adopting a multifaceted approach. The caterer is putting together a succession and development plan in collaboration with VT Training, one of the UK's largest training providers offering Government-funded apprenticeships to 16- to 24-year-olds. H&J employees will be able to train for and achieve NVQ levels 2 and 3 in hospitality supervision and professional cookery while in the work environment.
VT Training also happens to manage the training requirements of the Hoxton Apprentice, the charity-run restaurant that provides new opportunities for the long-term unemployed.
So far, H&J has given full-time jobs to two graduates from the Hoxton Apprentice, and could accommodate another two. "It's not an easy option. Some of these people have no social skills. They need love and support. It requires something of a fatherly role from us," Harbour says.
Food development director Mark Parfait adds that Hoxton recruits tend to have an intense passion for cooking and food because they've worked in a real restaurant and not just a training college.
Twenty-four-year-old Carlington McIntosh finished his year at the Hoxton Apprentice and is now working full-time as a chef de partie at H&J's Chrysalis contract in west London. Working on the salad and deli-bar, he is interacting well with customers and this is boosting his confidence.
At its Sky contract H&J makes the most of its multicultural workforce. Once a week the eight chefs, from various countries, cook one of their national dishes at the live theatre station. Parfait says: "They enjoy doing some research, explaining what the dish is to the customer - and they can really sell it well because it is what they know."
Rather than just sitting around a table in a boardroom, Parfait believes that chefs generate more ideas at social events or on visits to markets. All chefs also have a "buddy" at another site to help them exchange ideas.
Probably H&J's most interesting recruitment and training idea, to be unveiled in April, is an imitation of the hit television reality show The Apprentice. After advertising the initiative in the trade press and at catering colleges, H&J will select about 10 candidates from their CVs. The chosen 10 will go through a series of cook-offs and other challenges. One winner will be guaranteed a one-year work contract, including training and development such as butchery and bakery skills.
Harbour stresses that it is not a gimmick, but a way to attract people who have "sparkle". He denies that there is a risk of alienating the unsuccessful candidates. "We may take more than one person on. But it's how you deal with it. Unlike many employers, we make a point of responding personally to everyone who has shown an interest in the company and applied for a position."
Parfait adds: "I'm not going to be getting people on their knees, crying, like Alan Sugar. Still, life is competitive, and they will need to realise that there will be only one winner. It's like a job interview, with a difference."
An important part of training at H&J is its timetable of trips for its head chefs. The next one will be to Colchester for oysters and to Southend to meet the crew of a small trawler and cook their catch.
A further food-training initiative centres on utilising the less popular cuts of meat and fish. This consequently brings down the price of the whole order. A good example is salmon tails. Parfait says that the tails are the fattiest part of the fish and therefore the best part to use in fishcakes.
Is the success of H&J's training programme reflected in staff turnover levels? Harbour's answer is revealing: "I know you hear companies boasting about their low turnover, but less than 20% is not necessarily a good thing. If it's our frontline staff, then it's natural that they may be with us for just 12 months. They are often travelling South Africans and Australians who are articulate and well-presented. But you balance that with a solid backbone of management and head chefs. In our three years we have appointed only one manager who did not work out, and it was our decision to let her go. We have kept the people we want to keep.
Harbour & Jones
Start-up costs: £15,000
Contracts: 12 across 16 sites
Turnover 2006: £6m
Training costs as a percentage of turnover: 1%
Projected turnover 2007: £9.5m
Ask an expert
Nicki Pope, executive manager of recruitment consultancy Select Hospitality, approves of Harbour & Jones's methods…
"I find it very refreshing that some catering companies genuinely look for new ways to not only train and develop staff, but also to encourage new thoughts and ideas. If properly managed, H&J's initiatives should increase job satisfaction and ultimately lead to happy customers.
"H&J actively promotes that they are a people-led company. Therefore it is in their best interest to look after their greatest asset - their team. H&J have been innovative in their thinking, using an idea from The Apprentice TV show which their workforce in likely to have watched, appreciated and probably identified with, therefore introducing excitement and variety into the working day.
"I would like to think that clients would be delighted to have a contract catering company that is being so creative in their thinking. This is always a good selling point."