Specialty Food Magazine

SUMMER 2015

Specialty Food Magazine is the leading publication for retailers, manufacturers and foodservice professionals in the specialty food trade. It provides news, trends and business-building insights that help readers keep their businesses competitive.

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"The hardest part of training is getting staff to only speak to things that they are 100 percent certain of." Justin Marx, Marx Foods, Seattle, WA Staff training is definitely a challenge, especially for us, because we have a staggering array of über-specialty products, particu- larly online. It starts with hiring the right people. If someone doesn't acknowledge a passion for specialty food in their cover letter, I move on to the next one. All of our staff has to have a serious passion for specialty food; they need to be smart and they need to be nice. Then we need to train them. The hardest part of training is getting staff to only speak to things that they are 100 percent certain of. If they have the slightest bit of uncertainty about a fact, they need to ask someone more knowledgeable for help. This is hard because most employees want to do a good job and they think that if they are asking for help, they are failing. As far as I am concerned, they can only succeed if they are giving customers accurate, deep, and insight- ful information. Besides, it builds more trust with the customer when we say "I don't know. Let me check." That gives customers the assurance that when we do say something, they can trust it. From Marx's in-house chef, Kim Brauer: "It's my job to read the customer. If you're in a hurry, I've got plenty of hustle and will get you in and out with what you need. But if you have the time to taste some samples, try some new f lavors and talk about cooking meth- ods, I'm all in for that, too. We have loyal regulars of both types." "We talk about taking that moment when you're say- ing hi to look at their body language—noticing them before you even start to help them." Carol Ramirez, Market Hall Foods, Oakland, CA At The Pasta Shop we are not just order-takers. We are engaging with the customer, creating a positive experience that leads to a delicious meal they have already begun to enjoy. From the moment a customer comes into The Pasta Shop we greet them and begin to "read" their needs. We listen to them and observe their non-verbal communication and give them 100 percent of our attention. Some customers are on a 30-minute lunch break, and they need to get in and get out. Other customers want to chat, ask questions and engage. Our job is to anticipate those needs with grace and respect and adjust quickly. When we interview [potential employees], we make sure that they have what it takes to do the job. Right away, if the person is coming in and they're not smiling, they're not engaging, they're not looking at our eyes, we know that's what they're going to be doing down on the f loor. Yes, those people might be able to be trained, but that would take a very long time to get them out of that shell. So during the interview process we look for engaging people who love to work with people and food; they don't need to have to cook but they have to enjoy eating it and the history about it. [Customer service] is kind of the cornerstone of our company. I really stress that we have to be investigators—that we have to keep on asking the questions to figure out what they want. We also talk about taking that moment when you're saying hi to them to just look at their body language—noticing them before you even start to help them. Those customers are people too. Those customers have been on a BART train for 40 minutes, smashed like sardines, and then they have to come and wait for 20 minutes. For us, we're thinking about us—it's like, oh my gosh, this is the seventh hour of my day—but [it's important] to remember that they had a day, too, and they are just as tired as you, and how lovely it is to make them feel heard. We're giving them something to make them feel better, whether it's the food that we're giving them or the time that we're giving them. "We teach our employees to expect to have problems to solve and welcome them." Richard Tarlov, Canyon Market, San Francisco, CA Our philosophy about customer service is that we're in the business of being hospitable and we're in service to others as a way of life. It's a practice, almost a meditation of sorts, that we all get better at if we work on it and do it over and over. Fortunately, we have lots of chances to do that, with thousands of transactions every week. We teach our employees to expect to have problems to solve, to welcome them, be they little things like finding room for another toaster in the coffee bar or complex customer complaints. We are problem-solving animals, and our approach to solving things is three-pronged: we want to be creative, simple (we talk about the principle of parsimony: the simplest solution is often the best), and of service to others. That includes customers and fellow employees. Staff have clear guidelines for handling complaints and returns, but we also give them a wide latitude to resolve issues. One of the hardest things is teaching staff to be warm, friendly, and hospitable while at the same time accepting the business as a larger-than-life operation where things aren't always as fair as they are in your personal life. For instance, a customer who is allowed to return a bottle of wine that's been opened simply because he or she "didn't like it" can seem really unfair to staff. The business rationale for our allowance isn't obvious, so we explain the lifetime value of that customer. (And often I'll share with them Ari Weinzweig's aphorism: fair is another planet, and we don't live there.) If that customer has a pattern of abusing our policies, my wife [co-owner Janet Tarlov] or I will often get involved and have a conversation with the customer, gently instructing them about how to proceed with their choices. Eva Meszaros is managing editor of Specialty Food Magazine. SUMMER 2015 149

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