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  • Writer's pictureRaquel Weiss Fusco

Building a People First Workplace: A Recap & Takeaways from the 2023 SHFM Critical Issues Conference


“If you build it, they will come.” Despite being frequently misquoted (including just now), this line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, encourages us to put effort and belief in a project, making it more likely to succeed.


In this case, the project is a big one … building or rebuilding the foodservice and hospitality industry.


One of the largest issues currently facing all industries is hiring and retaining good talent, and according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, foodservice and hospitality has had the highest turnover rate since July 2021, consistently about 5%.

As a result, this topic was the focus of the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management’s annual Critical Issues Conference (CIC). The Conference was created to focus on imperative matters facing the industry … and this year the subject of employee retention and onboarding is widespread.


According to Blue Board, in 2021, 46% of workers planned to make a major pivot or career transition. Since then, companies are recognizing the importance of retaining their best talent by addressing their personal and professional needs, prioritizing their wellbeing, and providing them with flexible benefit options. It’s something I’m not only seeing as a business partner at elite|studio e, but also in the solutions we provide as a company. (Take a peak at a recent blog post about the role foodservice plays in the employee experience.)


For example, at CIC, one of the speakers addressed the need for a strong onboarding process. I was proud to hear that because elite|studio e is ahead of the game. We revisited the process about five years ago and the elite|studio e onboarding experience now reflects our company culture. It includes an acceptance packet, which provides some information about our company, FAQs and even some suggested lunch spots; a welcome swag box (see left) and team lunch on day one; a first week at-a-glance schedule; and a mentorship program. And we do our best to keep that momentum going … at the end of a new hire’s first month we even get together to see how the onboarding process went and if there’s anything we can do differently. We take a lot of pride in the employee suggested changes we made to this program and the success it has had. The reason we developed this onboarding program is simple: we listened to our team. Listening was a huge proponent throughout the conference.


My biggest takeaway from CIC is that every employee is entitled to have a voice about their future.

It’s certainly something elite|studio e has always embraced, but now it’s more official. We’ve created an environment that fosters programs tailored for each employee. There’s no set career path, but we work with our team members to set them up for success with our in-depth onboarding, mentors, goal planning sessions and even lunches. (What can I say? We’re in foodservice and like to eat!)


But, of course, sometimes changes have to be made. We are unique and fortunate that we don’t have much turnover – 70% of our team has been with elite|studio e more than five years. However, when someone gives notice, we (the company’s leadership) take it personally and learn from it. Sometimes the feedback provided in exit interviews leads to a reevaluation of positions or programs.


Each month, elite|studio e provides opportunities to socialize with colleagues. Events include birthday celebrations; gingerbread competition (pictured above) and station creation; Employee Appreciation brunch; lunch and learns; happy hours and more!


In recent years, we’ve re-evaluated some of our employee benefits and amenities because of feedback from our team, current trends, and the job market. This includes implementing remote summer Fridays; reinstating our 401K match program; bringing back a variety of employee events; and renovating some of our meeting spaces.


As a leader at elite|studio e, I believe in these programs and our company culture. I hope that they’re a contributor to our high employee retention rate and successful company growth. Like I said at the beginning of this post, if you build it, they will come … and I believe they’ll stay too.

Event Recap I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in SHFM’s CIC, and I experienced it with four other elite|studio e team members. We were among 200 foodservice and hospitality professionals gathered in Washington, D.C. It was the first time ever the event was not held in New York and the first time it was held back-to-back with the Young Professionals Summit.

I’m excited because it’s the start of something new … similarly to National Conference, SHFM is going to rotate the event location of CIC. It’ll provide many of the members with the opportunity to travel to different places, and hopefully enjoy what other regions of the United States have to offer.

For example, as part of the Young Professionals Summit, attendees volunteered with DC Central Kitchen (DCCK) at their brand-new facility located in downtown Washington, D.C. We worked alongside staff and students who are part of the culinary job training program and prepared meals for the underserved community.

Pictured above our several photos from the SHFM Critical Issues Conference.


SHFM’s Young Professionals (participants 39 and under) made up approximately 50% of the CIC attendees. We were provided with an opportunity to take new headshots, discuss career growth, and hear from key players in the industry in an intimate, roundtable setting. I was honored to sit with Ron Ehrhardt, past SHFM President, and Antonio Gray, Enterprise Business & Global Food Executive at Bank of America. They were welcoming and engaging, answering a variety of questions about their career. Thanks to both of them for being part of my CIC experience and for sharing their stories with the others at our table too.


I hope that everyone who attended these events has at least one great takeaway that will help with developing their own career or, for managers, how they’re helping others progress in the industry. Reimaging retention won’t rebuild the industry overnight, but it’s a start.

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