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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — December 15 — Business

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While some still have reservations about the technology, operators slowly are shifting to computer-based training

Even in an industry that puts a premium on people skills, training technology often is relegated to the back burner. Foodservice operators, focused on face-to-face interaction, show little haste in integrating high-tech innovations. It’s no wonder, then, that computer-based training initiatives have been slow to gain widespread acceptance.

Foodservice educators predict that it is only a matter of time before more operators embrace the benefits of e-learning. Not only is awareness of such programs on the rise, but apprehension about the technology is ebbing as well.

“The industry is starting to think about [computer-based training],” says John Poulos, vice president of sales for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF) in Chicago. “They see the benefits and values, and they’re trying to equate that to their organizations and make the justifications and investments to move [e-learning] forward.”

Indeed, several companies already incorporate computers into their training programs, and more are considering such options. These forward-thinkers say that while the challenges they face are real, the benefits make their efforts worthwhile.

A wide array of e-learning applications is available for operators employing the technology, from internal policy education to actual product preparation.

Captain D’s, a Nashville, Tenn.-based quick-service seafood chain, offers three electronic training modules: orientation for new hires and job-skills training for front- and back-of-house staff. Employees log on to the program, which is downloaded via satellite from a corporate server, at mobile in-store computer kiosks.

“Computers get the attention of young people today,” Vice President of Administration Matt Gloster says of Captain D’s decision to roll out the program in late 2000. “They work with PCs in school and in their homes, so we sought a way to leverage that technology for our training.”

At Columbus, Ohio-based Damon’s Grill, a new computer training initiative involves modules based on skills required for each position. Universal programs also play a role, covering topics ranging from food safety and sanitation to handling guest complaints. Employees can access lessons through the company’s POS system, eliminating the expense of purchasing new equipment.

Damon’s launched a single-unit test of the initiative in mid-November. Once testing is complete, the chain will roll out the technology to company-owned restaurants and then to franchised stores, says Heather Thitoff, director of training.

Rather than target hourly employees, Oklahoma City-based Sonic Restaurants will focus on assistant managers with its new online training program, slated to debut in January. The course consists of 13 modules covering areas such as opening- and closing-shift management, product receiving and storage, sanitation and guest service.

“Computer-based learning gives us the ability to make training more fun and more interactive, and hopefully it will lead to higher retention by employees,” says Diane Prem, vice president of operation services. “It’s more entertaining than a manual, with more imagination used and more senses involved with the video and audio.”

The ability to incorporate multiple learning techniques is one of most significant benefits of computer-based training. As Tara Davey, executive director of the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers (CHART) in Westfield, N.J., points out, teaching has the greatest impact when presented in a variety of formats aimed at students’ different learning styles. This often means combining computer-based tools with traditional methods such as classroom training, she says.

Davey’s words ring true with operators, many of whom employ technology as part of a multifaceted training platform.

“You have to consider the learning styles of the participants,” says Bob Evins, director of training at Newport Beach, Calif.-based Wienerschnitzel, which is testing a CD-ROM training program that teaches employees how to assemble the chain’s signature hot dogs. “I’m not convinced everyone learns well on computers. There is no substitute for on-the-job training.”

Evins says the company will continue to offer hands-on instruction alongside computer-based systems, but notes that the latter does offer definite advantages. In lessons on product preparation, for example, the company reduces food waste by teaching employees about condiment order and portion distribution with the click of a mouse.

Wienerschnitzel also is exploring CD-ROMs for pre-learning purposes, sending information to new franchisees on a disk to familiarize them with operations before they begin in-store training.

Marylou Kandur, director of business development at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., calls this type of application “front-loading.” She says introducing students to basic material via computers prior to face-to-face instruction can save valuable lesson time. The CIA relies on just such a process in its new Culinary Sales Certification Program (CSCP), which recently completed its first test run.

The CSCP, designed to educate industry sales representatives about foodservice, comprises several training modules completed over a four-month period. Curriculum includes a case study and a job-shadowing experience in addition to online and on-campus training.

Online instruction covers topics that work well with the format, such as kitchen product and equipment identification, culinary terms and sanitation guidelines. Students need only a Web browser and free video player to use the program, which they access via password from any Internet-enabled computer.

John Barkley, new media and curriculum manager at the CIA’s Greystone campus in St. Helena, Calif., says the institute continues to explore additional avenues for e-learning. He recommends that developers of such programs incorporate a variety of elements such as streaming video, discussion boards and chat rooms to keep the experience interactive.

“If you’re just putting pictures and text on a Web site, you’re doing little more than reprinting a book online,” he says.

Foodservice operators across all segments cite a litany of advantages that comes with computer-based training, from time and cost savings to improved accountability.

“It’s a great way to touch a lot of employees without having an actual trainer teach every single person,” says Debbie Juengst, director of training at Oak Park, Ill.-based Flat Top Grill. “It also helps you maintain consistent training. If you have a staff of 100 or 1,000, you know every person is receiving the same information.”

Budget constraints have prevented the seven-unit Asian-themed casual concept from adopting such technology, but “it is definitely something we’re looking at,” Juengst says.

According to NRAEF’s Poulos, greater penetration of essential sanitation information is the most important benefit of the organization’s recent launch of its online ServSafe program. Users can access the program at any time from an Internet-connected computer, and simply click to purchase a course. Companies looking to provide group access for employees may buy multiple user IDs.

“It gives workers the flexibility to learn at their own pace. It definitely brings a lot of efficiencies to the training process,” Poulos says.

Currently, ServSafe is available online only for managers. Food-safety regulations still require students to take the final exam in a proctored environment, but the foundation already has developed an online version for future use, says John Nocera, chief financial officer and senior vice president of finance and operations.

Tracking and accountability functions also rank high among e-learning’s benefits. In Captain D’s program, employee scores are posted on the corporate server, allowing managers to monitor progress and pinpoint areas that need work. Sonic’s online modules allow the company to gauge effectiveness via pre- and post-testing for each section.

Another advantage is the ability to communicate quickly and update information easily. “If we had a procedure change in the past, we’d reproduce it 2,500 times on video and mail them out,” says Sonic’s Prem. “Now we make one change and the whole networked system gets the update.”

Online distribution also decreases general and administrative costs incurred when storing and shipping materials such as videos and manuals, she notes.

At Red Lobster, computer-based training saves time and gives employees autonomy, says Director of Operations Development Randy Babitt. The Orlando, Fla.-based chain recently introduced a Web-based application that teaches employees to navigate the company’s intranet. Employees who complete the program can check their schedules online, request time off up to 90 days in advance and send messages to managers and co-workers.

Red Lobster also rolled out Web-based training that instructs employees how to use its human-resource applications. Workers can then access their own employee data for activities such as making W-4 changes and signing up for direct deposit without involving a third party.

As did predecessors such as computerized POS systems and electronic paging systems, computer-based foodservice training still faces an uphill battle. Employees’ natural resistance to the unknown often proves a difficult challenge, especially regarding technology they may not understand. A desire to retain the human element of training also can play a role.

Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of Elgin, Ill.-based Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, says a dependence on computers disconnects employees from their job serving customers. “We hold our people to very high standards,” he says. “I’ve got to show these workers what our standards are, and the only way I can do that is live.”

Claudia Carr, director of people development for Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc. (CRO), a Mercer Island, Wash.-based multiconcept operator, also favors a people-centered approach. Managers at CRO prefer interacting with each other to the more solitary style of e-learning, she says.

Aside from these concerns, costs are prohibitive for some operations, while varying ranges of computer literacy among staff present an obstacle for others. Language barriers create additional stumbling blocks, leading many operators to create programs in both English and Spanish.

Despite such challenges, most expect computer-based training to find its way into mainstream foodservice.

“There is a cost involved, but we believe it will improve employees’ experience in the restaurant and result in reduced turnover and stronger retention,” says Red Lobster’s Babitt. “If it does that, it will pay for itself.”

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