Ford Fry, whose network of Atlanta-based restaurants includes JCT. Kitchen, No. 246, King + Duke and other concepts, is committed to staff development. He explains his philosophy simply on the group’s website: “I love finding talent in the region, and putting these people in an environment where they can learn and grow.”
Fry’s managers take that learning and growing thing seriously. They have gone so far as to create an in-house “university” and have challenged all employees, from top managers to dishwashers, to attend classes in culinary, beverage and management techniques.
Why bother, when there are so many schools offering the same thing?
“It came out of necessity more than anything else,” explains Toby Franklin, c.o.o. and partner with the group. “If you look at restaurant turnover nationally, in 2013 it averaged about 63 percent. Our attrition rate was 43 percent. Our goal is to reduce it to below 20 percent, but how do you get there?”
The program took three years to develop, about a year for each discipline. “Each one requires a very well-defined, robust education and development media,” Franklin says. Providing this training was seen as a way to groom managers from within and keep valuable talent from straying. “We wanted to be able to say to someone, “Don’t spend your money on a restaurant management degree; come to us and we will give you the training you need.
Culinary education was the first priority, Franklin said, “because we have chef-forward restaurants.” Rather than adopting Escoffier's traditional brigade style, marked by a succession of positions and very narrowly defined skills, Ford Fry’s restaurants focus on teaching a progression of skills that involve increasingly sensitive ingredients.
Novice team members who sign up for culinary education start at the utility position, then move on to prep, cold food prep, hot appetizers and sides, entrees, line cook, sous chef, chef de cuisine, then executive chef.
“We’ve had a lot of success doing it that way, and because of that we are promoting chefs from within far more rapidly than we are hiring from outside,” Franklin observes.
Next up: management, followed by bar management skills. The last area presented the biggest challenge, Franklin says, because turnkey systems that teach beverage and cocktail history, drink prep, syrup and cordial production and other skills are not readily available.
Some of the training occurs in a classroom, while other aspects are hands on. “You can’t ever avoid that, especially with such a tactical position like bartending,” Franklin says. In-house experts do the training.
The classes are free, not mandatory, and any of the 600 or so Ford Fry employees can sign up for classes, which are offered monthly and listed on a calendar for all to see. Everyone understands that advancement requires completion of specific courses.
“I cannot tell you the energy and excitement this creates,” Franklin says. “The people who embrace it are definitely our top performers. And it helps us identify the people who are extraordinary.”
He estimates that in-house training has been a factor in promotions of up to 70 people now in management roles. "That’s the success, in my mind,” Franklin says. “If you can create that kind of culture, growth and development, you start to debunk some of those (turnover) myths.”