MPULSE: Lockdowns, exploding costs, staff shortages ... Is the food service sector one of perpetual crisis?
Kerstin Rapp-Schwan: It’s often reduced to that, in any case. I think that’s really unfortunate. It would be better to draw attention to all that’s positive about it. Take the working times, which are often made out to be bad. Why? On the contrary, the hours in this sector are the most flexible in any industry: mornings, daytime, evenings, nights – depending on the business and the concept behind it. In food service, you can also build a career very quickly. And in most occupations in the industry, there’s worldwide demand. It’s a very international sector.
The #gastrofamily initiative
#gastrofamily was launched to generate enthusiasm for careers in the colourful foood service sector. The website offers job markets, industry news and information on paths into the food services. More at: www.gastro-family.de
At the same time, restaurants everywhere are having trouble finding staff. Where did everybody go?
Personnel was a fraught issue even before the pandemic – and Covid really exacerbated the situation. But there are multiple factors that play a role. For example, in many other sectors, workers from the baby boom generation were retiring, which opened up jobs, and food service employees moved into those areas during the lockdowns. We’ve also had significantly fewer immigrants in the last two years. In addition, we need to get back to conveying to employees the feeling that they have a secure job. But here, too, I think it’s time we quit focusing on the negative and say what’s positive! This is how our initiative Gastrofamily was born. To make people aware of all the opportunities the food service industry offers. And to gain recognition for our professions.
Service jobs are some of the most demanding jobs there are. Take this order, handle that complaint, get the food out to that table. One party is arriving, another is calling for a reservation, a guest needs change for a hundred-euro note, someone calls in sick, then a bus full of hungry travellers pulls up to the door unannounced. And on top of it, you have to create a good atmosphere every night, like on a show stage. The work is much more complex than it’s perceived to be.
You’re speaking from experience.
I started at 14, doing an internship as a school pupil, cutting lettuce in the cellar at a Maredo steakhouse. Then I washed dishes for a year and literally worked my way up – that was on the ground floor. (Grins.) After that, I worked at the bar, and then as a waitress. So I learned quite a lot about myself very early – what I was good at, what I enjoyed.
So would you encourage your daughter to get a restaurant job?
Absolutely. At least to try it out. I think it would be hard to name another occupational field where you can learn so much about yourself and, at the same time, about other people. Can I deal with guests well, with this speedy interaction? If you find out that you’d rather be sitting at the computer, we offer the fitting challenges for that too. (Winks.) Your first employer is often decisive for the path you take later in life. A lot of bosses have no idea how much influence they have.
You don’t just run five restaurants – you also advise other restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, especially in matters of personnel. Is there a cardinal error that employers commonly make?
Don’t forget: managing people is the supreme discipline. As a restaurateur, you’re often chef, CFO, purchaser, personnel manager and more, all in one. You can’t play every role equally well. What’s important is to reflect on your own strengths and weaknesses and to keep developing – for example by getting coaching. But more generally, too, we need a cultural shift towards greater self-reflection.
About ... Kerstin Rapp-Schwan
Kerstin Rapp-Schwan, born in 1974, and her husband, Martin Rapp, together run five establishments in and around Düsseldorf – the four Schwan restaurants and the Beethoven café. Her first job was as kitchen help in a restaurant chain operated by her father. After her training as a business management assistant, studies in business administration and positions in marketing and consulting, Rapp-Schwan decided to follow her heart – into the restaurant business. As a partner at Tellerrand Consulting and in projects with Konen & Lorenzen Recruitment Consultants, she passes her experience on to other entrepreneurs. In addition, the mother of a daughter is active in initiatives such as the Leaders Club, the Frauennetzwerk Foodservice and the German Council of Shopping Places of the #gastrofamily.
What other advice do you have for employers to take to heart?
I think it’s important not to consider yourself too good to roll up your sleeves and pitch in. The sentence ‘That’s not my job’ isn’t part of my repertoire. When the boss shows full commitment, the staff responds in kind. In addition, how much you like an employee plays no part. A worker can do their job extremely well even if you’re not always on the same wavelength with them. That can’t be a reason to communicate with them less. One concrete example: a worker that had always been very reliable suddenly started coming to a certain shift late. In a personal discussion, it came out that their family situation had changed, making this shift difficult to manage. The employee would never have come to talk about it on their own. It just goes to show that it all comes down to communication.
Which brings us back to the topic of working hours.
I’d even go so far as to say that our sector offers anyone the fitting employer and the suitable working times.
For parents, too, and women in particular?
Yes. Mothers, especially, are often very efficient because they can – and must – get a lot done in a short time. With the Frauennetzwerk Foodservice, we provide targeted support to women in the food service and related industries. But the structural conditions have to fit. When the cost of a day care spot for your child is more than you earn, something is wrong. Here, too, we need policy solutions!
Apropos day care costs: the call to policymakers on the one hand ties in directly with the subject of wages on the other.
And in turn, also with the subject of prices. Our restaurant prices in Germany are still often much too low! Fair pay has to be reflected in the prices on the menu.
You see references to increased costs on menus these days. Would you advise restaurateurs to address that topic overtly in that way?
No. When you go to a restaurant, you want to enjoy the evening – not open up the menu and, first thing, read about the struggling sector and the unavoidable price increases. My advice is to train your employees and give them arguments they can use in dealing with criticism from guests. And, as the boss, to be on hand to come to the table and explain the situation to the guests if needed. Restaurateurs these days aren’t raising prices to get rich, but usually just to cover their costs. We want to offer our employees secure jobs with fair pay. You can state that confidently – there’s no reason to apologise for it.
And finally, in a word: make your case for the food service industry.
Not everybody loves it, but just about everyone uses it. And I think we’re in the most fun and most wonderful business in the world!