Bakers Journal

Surviving flu season

September 20, 2011
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

A s the last remnants of summer are carried away in the brisk autumn
breeze, another season is lying dormant, waiting to rear its ugly head.

A s the last remnants of summer are carried away in the brisk autumn breeze, another season is lying dormant, waiting to rear its ugly head. Its name is flu season and the coughing, sneezing, fevers and aching muscles will undoubtedly roll through your community, attacking without prejudice and wreaking havoc on people’s daily routines.

Health Canada reports that the flu season in our country typically runs from November to April. An estimated 10 to 25 per cent of Canadias may get the flu each year. In recent years, the stakes have increased with potentially fatal viruses spreading around the globe. In 2009 the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 influenza virus a pandemic and in 2002 and 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was declared a “near-pandemic.” The possibility of contracting viruses with severe side-effects are greater than ever. Although these illnesses are of grave concern for individuals, business owners should also be concerned and prepared to act if a flu virus spreads through their store, incapacitating employees and managers alike. The flu is spread through droplets in the air left by an infected person’s sneeze or cough as well as what is on his or her hands that they then touch. Back-up strategies to deal with ill staff and prevent lost income are key. 

Hugh Johnston, of Hugh Johnston Strategy in Toronto, has been in the foodservice industry for the past 15 years. He says owners can see a loss of income when their best staff members are off due to illness. “What you need in this business is your aces in their places. You need your best people on when you make money. When your best people are sick, you’re not making much money.”


The best strategy for protecting your business from flu season is to prevent an outbreak in your store altogether. Johnston notes that owners must go back to basics to achieve this by keeping their staff healthy through basic food safety practices and not overworking them.

“Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing. If you use hand sanitizers, it cuts your illnesses significantly. Good food safety practice to prevent cross-contamination is important. There’s also that business risk of having a sick employee making a customer sick. If staff members come in and they’re sneezing all over the place, send them home! Get them out of your restaurant before they infect everybody. When you’re the manager and you’re sick, it’s no different,” he warns.

Kyla Eaglesham, owner of Madeleines, Cherry Pie & Ice Cream in Toronto, agrees with Johnston’s emphasis on food safety and adds a few more suggestions.

“Sanitization is number 1. If you have a clean workspace then naturally you’re putting your staff and your customers at lower risk. Number 2 is wearing a proper uniform. When I went to cooking school we were taught that the uniform is designed to protect you inasmuch as it’s designed to identify you. Also, eating right and exercising. Those are universal and would be the four big pillars,” she says.

Eaglesham encourages her staff to get involved in physical activity as a way of staying healthy and happy. “It’s fun and it puts you in a better mood. I encourage people to let me know if they have a class that they’ve signed up for, so that I can schedule them around it.”

While preventing flu bugs from entering your busy bakery is the ultimate goal, sooner or later a virus is bound to weasel its way through the front doors. If you find yourself taking calls from bedridden staff members who can’t make their shift, it’s imperative to have reserve staff in place who are willing to jump into action at a moment’s notice, preventing what could otherwise be a disastrous day.

“When you’re short-staffed, your customers get bad service. When your customers get bad service, they reward you by not coming again,” Johnston advises.

Without a reserve staff, Johnston warns that you are bound to make two common errors. “The first mistake is that your management and your managers jump in and when they jump in, they are now doing the day-to-day work, they’re doing hourly work and they are not managing. That can be a big mistake. The second mistake that can happen is that you overwork the people that you do have and that can cause them to get run down and ill as well.”

By having a flexible staff in place, business owners can avoid these above missteps, keeping their managers on task and their healthy staff healthy. Reserve staff is usually made up of part-time, flexible employees, but can also include college students from local baking schools and even friends from neighbouring bakeries who can help each other out. This is something that Eaglesham has experienced first-hand.

“The one thing that I found when I opened my business here in Toronto is that there’s incredible camaraderie in the industry amongst women. I’m being a little narrow when I say amongst women because I’m sure it goes beyond that, but I just happen to have a great circle of women who, if someone called me to help, I would be there and vice versa.  So I’ve never had to turn away customers because we were short-staffed.”

Eaglesham highly recommends calling your local college or baking school as well when you’re in need of an extra pair of hands.

“The local college is such a great resource. When I was a college student, I did all kinds of volunteer and paid positions that were short term. It’s easy to forget about them because sometimes people think they are inexperienced or they’re going to waste materials, but if you bring them in to do a specific task, like for example decorating 3,000 cupcakes, chances are they can pipe rosettes if you show them once. Sometimes just an extra hand to clean up is good and they’re learning because they’re seeing a business in action.”

Another strategy that will boost your staff’s abilities and help you when your pie-maker calls in sick is to actively cross-train your employees. Johnston warns that if you rely solely on one employee for a specific task, you are putting your business at unnecessary risk if that employee is home ill. “You’ve got to go out and actively hire people and develop people who are really flexible and who will jump in and cross-train,” he advises.

Eaglesham agrees, noting that reliable, skilled staff are key to achieving and maintaining customer service, especially during hard times. “Make sure the staff you hire are the kind of people who really step up to the plate. We all cover each other’s backs, we all know that there’s a day that may be longer than another day, but if something’s wrong or if somebody’s sick then we cover each other, because the customer experience is why we’re all here. When you love what you do you can make good decisions,” she says.

If you do find yourself faced with a rampant flu virus causing dire staff shortages, be sure to use the strategies outlined above. People in all most industries and walks of life, including likely you, have felt internal or external pressure to work even though they are contagious and they should really be at home, so it’s good to remember this last piece of advice from Johnston: “Make sure that you keep the integrity of your place and don’t lose your head, don’t panic. It’s just part of business and it’s part of life. People get sick.”

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