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Patricia Chang

How an Ice Cream Shop Got Creative in Short-Staffed San Francisco

Salt & Straw looked outside the industry to hire employees

When Portland’s Salt & Straw began considering an expansion to San Francisco, friends and industry insiders cautioned against it, pointing to the Bay Area’s well-documented shortage of service workers as a headache not worth the cost of doing business here — especially as an outsider.

“You cannot hire people [there], so don't open that,” Salt & Straw co-founder Kim Malek recalled to Eater, mimicking countless well-meaning advisors. But when Malek and her director of operations Casey Milligan heard those warnings, they took it as an opportunity to start a conversation with their new neighbors and showcase the work of several local non-profits along the way. Now, less than a week after opening their second San Francisco location in six months, Malek and Milligan hope their staffing success can provide a roadmap for others in the industry, by seeking out the candidates who have been overlooked or otherwise left behind.

“We’ve always, since the very first shop, wanted to be a place where people could get their first job,” Milligan says. So when she was hired to manage Salt & Straw’s original Portland location six years ago, Milligan set about solving two problems that many scoop shops may never even consider.

First, industry-wide employee turnover rates were staggeringly high. Second, on a more personal level, she noticed that many inexperienced applicants often had more difficulty navigating the hiring process than learning how to wield a scoop.

Milligan fixed the first problem by focusing Salt & Straw’s internal training program on career building as much as ice cream making. New scoopers go through four days of training before they ever hit the floor of a scoop shop — not because Salt & Straw’s ice cream is particularly precious, but because Milligan hoped the initial investment would translate into an engaged team of committed employees. (The company also makes a point of providing a living wage and benefits for every employee, which certainly can’t hurt.)

So far, Milligan’s investment has paid off. Salt & Straw had 12 percent employee turnover in 2016, compared to around 120 percent for their industry, Malek says. For comparison, a recent study by Instawork estimated 90 percent employee turnover in the San Francisco restaurant industry as a whole.

Those early employees — the inexperienced scoopers who stuck around and became managers, or went on to work in some of the best kitchens in Portland — now serve as the inspiration for the company’s local hiring programs through Success Center San Francisco (SCSF) and United Way.

“From the very beginning, we've tried to provide opportunities to people who may not have had a voice for themselves,” says Milligan of many potential employees who lack a network, mentors, or other professional guidance.

Getting a foot in the door

What it comes down to, Milligan says, is giving people an opportunity to interview. Whether they’re a teenager looking for their first job or someone looking to reenter the workforce, the goal is to leave them with some valuable experience, insight and professionalism they can carry with them to their next opportunity — even if those people don’t see a future in ice cream.

At group interviews and job fairs, job seekers from both organizations can get a sense of what it’s like to work at Salt & Straw, as well as the service industry at large. Through their career counselors, every applicant gets positive and constructive feedback from Salt & Straw so they can come back and reapply, or simply work on those things for their next interview.

The partnership with United Way came along with Salt & Straw from Oregon, but the connection to Success Center San Francisco came at the suggestion of the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association. The United Way, and the eight different organizations it works with locally, attracts candidates from all over the Bay Area. SCSF, meanwhile, provides a direct connection to the people in the neighborhood of the two San Francisco shops.

How the industry can create more opportunities

Salt & Straw is hardly the first restaurant in San Francisco to look outside the service industry for its hiring needs. When Chef Gabriela Cámara planned her San Francisco debut at Cala, she famously staffed the restaurant mostly with ex-convicts. The Delancey Street Foundation, which referred a portion of Cala’s employees, has been providing opportunities for the formerly incarcerated in San Francisco since the early 1970s and still operates a restaurant and cafe-bookstore in the South Beach development it helped build.

In Oakland, the local chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center, which advocates for better wages and career mobility across the country, also offers free job training for restaurant workers. The group regularly refers new servers and cooks around the Bay Area and its Service 101 and Bartending 101 classes are hosted at Daniel Patterson Group restaurants. Patterson’s other venture, Locol, was founded on a similar principle: to not only feed the community, but to live in it and keep it employed as well.

Malek is quick to remind others that you don’t have to be an internationally-renowned chef or an explosively popular West Coast ice cream chain to make an impact in this way. “Don't get caught up in it being a model or a program,” Malek says, “Just look to your community. This doesn't have to be an overwhelming thing that you have to overthink.”

Now, six months after Salt & Straw’s arrival in San Francisco, Malek is already giving her local staff high marks.

“And we were told we couldn't do it, we just couldn't even find the people,” she says. “You might have to get a little more creative here, but [employees] are certainly there, and if you're willing to go the extra mile, they are, too.”

Salt & Straw

2201 Fillmore Street, , CA 94115 (415) 829-2803 Visit Website
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