Sunday, July 14, 2024

Local eateries - and their employees - manage to thrive despite staffing shortages

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At 2 p.m. on a recent weekday, the dining room inside Chick-fil-A was largely empty after the lunch rush, but the drive-through window was busy as ever as employees scrambled to fill orders for a line of vehicles that snaked around the building.

The restaurant at 1011 E. U.S. Highway 377 fills about 1,500 orders a day, according to franchise owner Aaron Grant.

The popular chicken chain may seem as if it has recovered from the effects of COVID-19, but like practically every other restaurant, staffing challenges persist even though life has largely gone back to normal.

According to TOP Agency, an analytics firm that tracks U.S. consumer spending, Texas was slower at bouncing back after the pandemic where dine-out spending was concerned.

The Granbury Chick-fil-A employs 52 people, almost half of whom work full time. But even with a staff that size, owner Aaron Grant needs 40 additional employees for the fast-food eatery to reach its potential.

Being all that it can be means offering catering and delivery services, but Grant felt forced to tell corporate that he simply doesn’t have enough staff to handle those duties.

“There’s no applicants,” he said. “I just want to have a conversation with people. I just need people in the door.”

If anyone were to apply, Grant would tell them that Chick-fil-A offers pay that is higher than the industry standard and great career opportunities. The Granbury franchise, which Grant opened in 2010, has an executive operations director, a human resources director, a leadership development director and shift managers.

Grant himself is an example of how the company mentors those with leadership potential. He was just 16 when he went to work for Chick-fil-A to earn money to buy a truck. Now he owns his own franchise and provides dozens of jobs.

And then there’s the company culture. Chick-fil-A is known for its Christian values and friendly customer service, and for treating crew members like family.

Just days ago, four students who work at the Granbury Chick-fil-A were each given $2,500 in college scholarships. The endowments were announced at one of the Tuesday morning staff meetings that take place in the restaurant’s dining room.

Although Grant and his staff occasionally deal with an impatient customer, there have been other customers who have offered words of encouragement as Grant and his hardworking employees keep doling out the chicken sandwiches and waffle fries that have made Chick-fil-A a fast-food favorite.

In Grant’s view, one of the secrets to his success has been knowing when to scale back.

During the pandemic, after businesses were allowed to reopen, Grant chose to shut down his dining room again. He moved the operation outside, with his diminished staff working a double drive-through line. That saved on the time and effort needed to regularly clean the dining room.

In Grant’s view, businesses that have suffered the most during the two-year public health scare are those that kept trying to do business as usual but with fewer people.

“What they didn’t do is slow down the business,” he said. “You have to slow down. If you do not, people will leave. At the end of the day, people were okay with waiting. You go from, you know, three-and-a-half minutes an order to four-and-a-half minutes, and that’s okay. That’s the important part is that we’re keeping our people, encouraging our people, doing things that they need to not be spread so thin.”

IT’S ABOUT THE DOUGH

Evan Mulvey, 28, graduated from Purdue University with a major in selling and sales management and a minor in business administration. He went on to earn a second degree, in entrepreneurship start-ups.

Those interests were what caused BAKED! Bread and Pastry Company to catch Mulvey’s eye after the Lafayette, Louisiana, native moved to this area with his veterinarian wife Rachel a couple of years ago. While other businesses related to the food industry were struggling, Mulvey noticed that Kris Trawick’s bakery and sandwich shop was thriving.

“I saw her potential right off the bat when she opened up,” Mulvey said of the unique business at 401 Cleveland Road behind’s Grumps Burgers.

At the time, the young man had a sales job with a national home improvement chain. He enjoyed meeting one-on-one with customers, but the pandemic changed his ability to have those encounters.

Even though things got better where COVID-19 was concerned, Mulvey grew increasingly unhappy with his job despite earning a six-figure salary.

“I was actually one of the main people to kind of help organize this new program where I was doing the construction sales, but from home, using new technology where people could take photos and do the measurements and all this fancy stuff,” he said. “What people see as a dream job sitting in front of a computer and not having to leave the house and making a very good salary and full benefits, that kind of thing I absolutely dreaded.”

Mulvey got to where he hated waking up in the morning. Going to work meant walking 15 feet to his laptop.

An extrovert, Mulvey likes to be on the move, engage with people in person, and work with his hands. His job no longer included any of those things.

Depression became an issue.

One day, Mulvey jumped without a parachute. He gave his employer two weeks’ notice even though he had no idea where he would land.

That same day, he saw a post on Facebook about BAKED! Bread and Pastry Co. needing a baker. No experience was needed.

Oddly, just days earlier Mulvey had asked Rachel if she would think it “weird” if he worked for a place like BAKED. He had no food industry experience but had always loved to cook and he felt drawn to the Granbury business.

Mulvey had been to the bakery a few times and loved that customers in the dining room can watch bakers busily working through a window.

“It’s a good quality place when you can see the people cooking because they’re not scared to show you how it’s done,” he said. “That’s how you know it’s good.”

Mulvey put on a suit and tie, drove to BAKED, and filled out an application. He received a call that afternoon asking him to come in for an interview.

Trawick, noting his college degrees, asked why he wanted to work there.

“I just said, ‘I’m not happy,’” Mulvey recalled of that conversation.” I don’t care about a paycheck. I want to learn a craft. I want to be happy.”

Mulvey, hired last August, is Trawick’s boulangerie manager. He makes several different kinds of bread and bagels. Boulangerie is a French word meaning that bread is baked on the premises.

Sourdough offerings at BAKED include cranberry walnut, rosemary olive, cheddar jalapeno, multigrain, and garlic gruyere.

Batches of bread take two or three days to make, and sometimes they run out. Customers aren’t always happy about that, Mulvey and Trawick said, but for the most part, they understand because BAKED has earned a reputation for quality and freshness.

Trawick, who runs BAKED with the help of her daughter, currently employs 22 people. A helper for Mulvey was recently hired — a 20-year Navy veteran who worked for Homeland Security.

Trawick said she is always looking for new hires and the reason isn’t because people are leaving but because her business is growing.

Like Grant, Trawick said she focuses on fostering a positive environment. Support for her employees includes cheering them on when they undertake sideline baking ventures.

BAKED’s grand opening was in November 2020, when the pandemic was still a worry, but the business had operated one day a week for the year prior. There was already a customer base before she took her operation to six days a week.

Mulvey said he loves going to work now, even though he arrives at 4 a.m. He is working with his hands and interacting with co-workers and happy customers.

“I’m constantly moving, I’m grooving, I’m doing my thing,” the energetic baker said.

Instead of lying down after work like he did with his previous job, Mulvey now lifts weights. He’s hiking and participating in fishing tournaments. The depression is gone.

“You know, today, a lot of people go for a paycheck,” he said. “A lot of people go to just fill in the hours of their scheduled time and they want to leave. This place is my second home.”

He continued, “I look forward to coming to work every single day. I love it here. Honestly, it’s a life changer.”