Grocerant Expert Q&A: Steven Petusevsky

April 21, 2016

Steven Petusevsky, chef, foodservice operations advisor, chair of Culinary Institute of America’s foodservice at retail initiative, Appetites+Innovation, and author of the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, emphasizes health and wellness and authentic global flavors.

Originally published in Foodservice@Retail: Grocerants.

Understand why supermarkets can be better places to work and develop careers than restaurants, which points to emphasize when recruiting grocerant talent, and how to manage some key labor issues. Read our interview with Steven Petusevsky, chef, foodservice operations advisor, chair of Culinary Institute of America’s foodservice at retail initiative, Appetites+Innovation, and author of the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, which emphasizes health and wellness and authentic global flavors.

Foodservice@Retail: Grocerants: When recruiting and hiring chefs, what should grocerants emphasize to stand apart from restaurants and be more appealing as career-building places?
Steve Petusevsky:  Better hours and work schedules allow them to have a family life. More pre-planning of prepared foods and less to-the-minute stress of preparing beautiful plates. The retail hospitality industry has more resources and stronger structures than independent restaurants. Supermarkets have more buying power to acquire certain commodities less expensively. Stores are filled with raw ingredients.

FRG: How do emphasis points differ when recruiting and hiring other kitchen staff?
Petusevsky: Shifts are better in grocerants. Most kitchens are open with windows, so feel less confined. Staffers that come from more advanced foodservice environments with knowledge about flavor, taste and customer appeal can become uber-successful in grocerants.

FRG: Where are good places to find grocerant candidates?
Petusevsky: Besides restaurants and other hospitality venues, recruit at educational institutions, seek career changers, and consider people who already work for you elsewhere in your stores. Judge the person, not their foodservice background. Gauge each one’s love of food and character. Are they personable, do they want to improve customers’ shopping experience?

FRG: Are grocerants good places to nurture and develop talent? How could they improve to secure strong relations with their workers?
Petusevsky: A healthy culture has to be present or built to succeed, and this comes from the top. 

Treat people fairly, mentor them in retail, and make your expectations clear. Good people to have on your team understand how foodservice works in restaurants and transport the good parts into grocerants with larger teams. Find people who experienced the romance of a restaurant, but would now enjoy the artistic gratification of showcase displays rather than beautiful plate presentations. Chefs need a well-developed business sense to emulsify two completely different kinds of businesses—foodservice and retail.

Grocerant managers should be a buffer to corporate overseers, so their teams can work as they see fit. Managers need to help corporate understand that stores can’t have chef-prepared foods for the same labor percentages of revenue as the retailer pays to stock shelves, and that grocerants are investments in the company’s long-term profitability.

FRG: Name another plus of the grocerant workplace vs. restaurants and foodservice chains.
Petusevsky: It’s more stimulating to be part of a larger team of a grocerant. Staffers get to work with marketing and branding professionals, nutritionists and dietitians, and meat, seafood and produce experts.

FRG: What is the biggest labor challenge today for supermarket and convenience store grocerants?
Petusevsky: The same as restaurants face – the tremendous labor shortage nationwide.  Once grocerants pay more, they’ll attract better people. The Culinary Institute of America is beginning to talk with people about grocerant careers.  They’ve been training chefs for industry for years. One reason we have better packaged foods these days is chefs go into R&D. It would be the same thing in grocery. 

FRG: Is training more complex for grocerants than restaurants?
Petusevsky: Larger retailers tend to have better-defined training programs with specific teams than restaurants do, unless a restaurant is part of a larger network with lots of infrastructure. For example, supermarkets are typically more methodical in production, and stringent in sanitation than restaurants are. 

FRG:  Any financial benchmarks for grocerant investments in recruiting, hiring, training and retraining?
Petusevsky:  It’s complex and really across the board. Front-of-house labor only (not including back-of-house) can range from 16% to 28% of grocerant revenue. Hourly salaries are equivalent to restaurants, and supermarkets tend to offer more benefits.

FRG: Additional thoughts about managing grocerant teams?
Petusevsky: Establish a healthy foodservice culture within the walls of the supermarket. To me, this is one of the most interesting professions in the world. It’s one of the few places where you can start at the bottom and attain corporate status financially and professionally.