Skip navigation
chefs training Minerva Studio/iStock/Thinkstock

Why your training program is dead — and what to do about it

Here’s how you can take your employee training from ordinary to extraordinary

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

If your restaurant’s intent is to stand out from the crowd, two things must happen: improve your employee selection process and improve your training program.  

Question every step of each process, determine where mediocrity has crept in, and develop a better path to finding and building future teams. The first step to being extraordinary is to stop being ordinary. 

Our company gets to direct, define, align and refine training programs for dozens of well-known foodservice and retail brands. We identify how Next Gen teams best learn, and then apply that insight into courseware design and execution. An effective learning and development program today integrates a lot into its curriculum: employee retention, career-pathing, gamification, behaviors, deep understanding of the learner’s journey, action feedback loops, emotions and continuous improvement.  

When it comes to 21st century training, due consideration has to be given to why and how people learn, not just what they’ll learn. We show our clients how to help teams think instead of merely telling them what to do. Long gone are the days of “Tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you just told ’em,” or its quad cousin, “Tell-Show-Do-Review.”

The fact is, if you haven’t assessed your employee and management training programs from a learner’s perspective, your program may be costing you a lot more than the annual budget indicates. Here are some smart questions to ask and strategies to consider to help you maximize performance and jumpstart your team’s training program.   

Eat your own cooking. When’s the last time you personally audited your hourly employee and manager training process? I’m not talking about taking a random course or two on your laptop in between meetings, or dropping in on a training class for two hours. I mean fully auditing the process, step by step, quiz by quiz, class by class, like a new employee. You may discover some new training gaps, unnecessary training bloat and redundancies, streamlining opportunities, and a newfound appreciation for the term “seat time.”    

Link learning and development to hiring. Why do foodservice companies spend more money on employee training than on employee selection? The short answer is that we stink at selection. So our fallback strategy becomes, “When selection fails, throw more training at them.” Sheesh. The truth is that there is no right way to develop the wrong person. What if instead we hired the right people, and better people, measured potential during the hiring stage, and then enhanced that potential with targeted skills training? This rationale makes sense on paper, but the reality is more complicated when 80 percent of restaurant chains’ training departments report to operations, not HR, which happens to oversee selection but not the training process. Silos form, yet each department is still connected to a cloud of rabid employee churn. As an industry, we simply cannot sustain an average annual hourly turnover rate of 100 percent any longer. 

Link learning and development to retention. An effective employee and manager training program is proven to increase employee tenure and reduce employee turnover, which means you’ll spend less time recruiting and more time leading teams who know what to do and how to do it well. This is especially beneficial to the customer experience. Reduced employee turnover means better consistency in products, process and performance.

Identify trigger points. The best way to minimize a meh guest service experience is by asking two questions. What’s important to my customer? Work backwards from that moment of truth. What’s important to my employees? Work backwards from that moment of truth, too. Detail the specific processes and behaviors that maximize importance and minimize frustration. Define what mediocre and extraordinary service looks like at each important trigger point.

Make it mobile. Restaurants are high-energy, perpetually moving environments. Not unlike kindergarten classes, actually, where everything in the space moves to accommodate or support a desired activity. It makes sense that our training should be just as mobile too. It amazes me to see restaurants deploy hourly training exclusively via desktops in a manager’s office when 99 percent of our learners don’t have desks. Bring learning to the learner.

Integrate engagement into the content. Most foodservice employee training courses are rooted in an antiquated, high-task/low-relationship learning design, chockablock full of directing and telling, and completely missing the most important learning goal: building a relationship between the employee and the team. Build cooperation early or expect resistance later.

Stories teach better than steps. When soliciting feedback from your current team members regarding their training, refrain from asking questions like, “What did you like or dislike about our POS system?” A better way to ask is: “Tell me about a time when our POS helped you or failed you.” You will get a lot of likes and dislikes in the stories they share, and these stories are more easily integrated into the next generation of POS training.

Soft skills are the new hard skills. Customers don’t want to be treated like customers; they want to be treated like people. So claiming you’re a customer-centric company may be off-target. Delivering hospitality around every meal and beverage served is a complex skill that takes patience, focus and resolve. Your service training is backwards if its emphasis is that service is important. Training should communicate that guests are people, and emphasize what they sacrifice in terms of time and money to patronize our establishments.   

Stay ahead of change. Researching best demonstrated practices (BDP) in foodservice companies is disappointing for the simple reason that our BDP are not that good. I recommend you look instead at what insurance companies, financial companies, medical companies and tech companies are doing training-wise to educate, inspire and mobilize their Next Gen teams and managers. And if you want to know what your team members will be like in 10 years, don’t consult a futurist; ask a middle-school teacher.

These nine strategies are but a few arrows in the full 21st century training quiver. What additional strategies and questions would you suggest to assess and improve a foodservice training program? Join the conversation and share your thoughts at

Jim Sullivan is the CEO of Companies that use his products or services include The Walt Disney Company, Panera Bread, Portillo’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Five Guys, Marriott, McDonald’s and Applebee’s. You can access his training store at, and follow him on LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter @Sullivision.

TAGS: Operations
Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.