Bakers Journal

Staffing Solutions

December 4, 2007
By Jack Kuyer

Tips for finding, hiring, and keeping employees.

Let me share a story with you. It’s a true story.   

A while ago, my son went to a mountaineering store to help a friend buy a backpack. This store is a great place, with the latest in everything you need to climb, hike and camp so my son decided it would be a good place to work. He asked the owner if there was a position available for a part-timer. The owner suggested that he bring in his resume. The next day my son returned with his resume and the owner asked if he was ready to be interviewed.

“Sure,” answered my son.

Looking quite serious, the owner asked, “Who is your favourite character on The Simpsons?”

My son broke into a sweat: was this the ultimate trick question? Who was the character that would get him the job? He thought about it and finally decided to give an honest answer.

“Moe,” he said.

The owner looked him in the eyes, sucked in his breath and told him to walk around the store and think about the answer again. My son didn’t know what he should say and he couldn’t figure out the angle.  So he went back to the owner and said he still liked Moe. The owner chuckled and told my son he was hired.

What did I learn from this? Did this guy have a magic recipe for hiring, and was I absolutely crazy spending an hour on each interview? Or perhaps is a person who watches The Simpsons and likes Moe always a great employee? If only it were so easy to find an employee who is the right fit.

I’ve been lucky so far. Today, over half of our production staff has worked for us for 20 to 35 years (Doug, Rudy, Simon, Paul, Peter). This means retirement is near for many of my staff and I better get good at hiring and serious about training.
We used to have similar statistics with our retail store staff. Until recently, we had a core of long-term employees, but today I have one staff member who has been with us for just under two years and a family member who has worked off and on probably forever – but only working two days a week. This, out of a staff of 11 or 12. The fact is the majority of our staff has worked for us for less than six months. So how do we cope?

Hiring staff used to be fun, a rare occasion that I looked forward to – something of a diversion. Today, I view hiring staff as a critical and necessary requirement for staying in business.

Gone are the old days of placing an ad in the Vancouver Sun using a one-liner like: “Wanted retail bakery sales person. Phone 291-0674.” Many years ago, this direct and curt approach was cheap and effective. It helped us avoid huge line-ups of qualified people wanting to fill out applications. This simple ad usually meant having manageable numbers of potential employees lining up. Today our ads cost a lot more and read something like the following: “We require a dynamic individual to work in Burnaby’s leading retail bakery. Enjoy a pleasant, vibrant environment working with our wonderful customers, who are a pleasure to serve.  We offer you competitive benefits and employment that enables you to develop your skills. Please apply in person to…” Today, this ad would likely cost over $600 for a couple of days in the Vancouver Sun and the Province. An advertisement like this is an investment for a successful business, but it is not the only choice for hiring. We have had excellent results with simple signs in our window. This is a great way to hire from your customer base. Imagine an employee who probably knows the company well and already has a favourable opinion. I have also used our local newspapers to advertise with good success for sales staff but it does depend on the economic times. If hiring is difficult, then the larger regional papers tend to work best for us. Also try the Internet and especially the E.I.-sponsored website. Local high schools may also be a good source for some of your staff. Explain the requirements of the job you are posting. Get involved with work experience programs to find candidates and to create a rapport with school staff. Get involved with trade schools. Again, offer work experience and get involved with volunteer positions, such as the school’s industry advisory committee.

Another approach I have used is to encourage family members and friends of employees to apply for jobs with us. This can create a difficult situation if the individual doesn’t work out, but not if you establish a clear description of what you expect.
One hiring tactic that many use is to  approach employees in other businesses. I have never done this but certainly have had other employers approach my staff. I am not comfortable with this tactic, especially with my staff, but perhaps you are.

If you are out in the country and want to compete with city folk like me, then you need to sell your location. Tout the great fishing, snowmobiling, affordable housing, a chance to try living in another part of the country. There must be attractions or why do you live there?

It’s expensive to locate talent and also pretty time consuming, so I’ve spent a good deal of my time lately trying to be more productive by doing a better job. I have written interview models for each of the positions that I hire for, including the sales person, sales manager, and baker. A standard approach makes it easier for me to compare the various applicants for the job. I usually interview an average of three to five candidates for each job opening. I hire with an eye to complementing our existing staff first and then for skills and talent. Will the new person fit in? What will they bring to our organization in terms of skill and ability?

Here is how I hire retail staff. I try to use a two-tier hiring process. The store manager does a preliminary interview of all candidates and forwards three to five choices to me so that I can make the final decision. The interviews I conduct are in-depth and usually take an hour, while the store manager will have a more casual approach, taking 10 minutes or so. I want to invest the time at this stage, as I find the cost of training to be extremely high. It takes a good three months before we achieve competence in most new staff. There is also an impact on customers that should always be mitigated. To help us, I have written a basic sales training manual. This includes:

I feel this manual makes for a happier employee, as they struggle less and have earlier job satisfaction than if they had to learn the hard way. We also do an evaluation of each store employee to track their progress and set goals for their personal and professional development. Many employees ask how we evaluate them when we hire and I no longer think it is an optional tool. Employees love a report card. Employers should too. Evaluate employees to praise their success and to train when weakness is noticed.

Our bakers do not yet have a similar manual but we do provide standards through verbal communication and by having written recipes for all the items they are responsible for. These recipes include ingredients, times to complete, yields and methods. Even photos of each product are now available. In many ways, this is like the sales manual in that it gives much of the information about the job. I am more personally involved in production and as such can be aware of working habits. I am prepared to develop aids to better train and evaluate as we hire new bakers to replace a retiring workforce. I now have some experience in what works.

I believe all these tools help, but you also have to create a pleasant and rewarding workplace for the employee.

Realistically, it is very hard to retain long-term employees in the retail profession. In production, my experience is that there is much less turnover. Hence, I spend less time addressing the concerns of retaining bakers than of sales staff. I feel as an owner I must always be conscious that a company that is respected in the community and fairly rewards their employees is likely to have an inspired and dedicated workforce.

Jack Kuyer is the owner of Valley Bakery in Burnaby, B.C. ( The above article is a reprint of the speech he gave as part of a staffing seminar hosted by Bakers Journal in April at Bakery Congress in Vancouver.

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