Milwaukee food industry combats staff shortages with flexibility, free lunches and increased pay

There was no playbook for the Covid-19 pandemic, Sanford owner Justin Aprahamian said. In mid-March when Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers created the safer-at-home order, restaurants, grocery stores and food producers all saw their business shift. Employees questioned their safety, revenue streams dried up, and production was impacted.

In the last two years, some of those effects have continued even as the virus has become more manageable, a large impact still being the labor shortage.

Milwaukee food industry leaders shared at the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Business of Food event at the Pfister Hotel Tuesday that the changing workforce requires higher wages and increased flexibility in order to retain talent.

“It is still difficult. That’s an understatement. Every time we think we’ve got it dialed in, somebody else will give their notice,” Aprahamian said. “It’s a cycle that we’re dealing with right now.”

Sanford offers health insurance. It has for many years, but Aprahamian said being a small restaurant, he is limited on his resources. Sometimes if he doesn’t have enough employees to work, the restaurant does not seat a full dining room.

“I also work a lot more hours now,” he said.

Louis Busalacchi, president of trucking service LTL Service Inc., said he has five openings out of 35 positions.

“The big thing it’s not just recruiting. It’s retention,” Busalacchi said.

Because of the great competition for forklift drivers, Busalacchi has to guarantee full-time wages even if an employee does not work 40 hours per week. In order to retain staff, he needs to provide that basic base of pay.

And it’s also about maintaining an emphatic work environment and showing flexibility, he said. That was something echoed in other aspects of the food industry.

Monterrey Market owner Roberto Montemayor said flexibility is what drives his employee base. He used to only hire employees 18 years or older. Now he is allowing 16-year-olds or teenagers that are 15-and-a-half with a work permit. They become grocery store stockers.

“What’s great about it is we deal a lot with the Hispanic community. The Hispanic community is a very loyal community,” Montemayor said.

He will talk to parents and grandparents and ask if their children or grandchildren need a job. Sometimes he will have a teenager come into the grocery store and say his or her mother sent the teenager to get a job.

Monterrey Market also has a lot of parents who are employees. Montemayor said the flexibility of allowing them to leave to pick up a child and return to work is crucial to retaining employees.

Milwaukee Pretzel Co. co-owner Katie Wessel said flexibility also can sometimes combat some of the increased wages, which have been an issue in competing for talent. Allowing more flexibility may encourage an employee to stay with the company despite making a dollar or two less, but Wessel said wages continue to be a new challenge. She said the Covid-19 pandemic made it more difficult for companies to hire an entry level employee at a base salary.

Milwaukee Pretzel Co. has increased hourly wages between $2 and $6. Wessel said if the company looks at the lower end of that increase, they have to quickly increase that amount in order to retain a worker.

“We’re jumping them up in pay pretty quickly if they’re a good employee. It’s really to get them in the door,” she said. “If they are still there six months to a year later, they’re making quite a bit more than what they started with. It’s kind of a probationary period.”

It’s also about finding rewards. Glenn Gazzolo, the chief operating officer of O&H Bakery, said the company has learned throughout the pandemic to celebrate the company wins. One easy way O&H Bakery has done that is through free food. The company provides paid lunches. Chick-fil-A is a big winner within the bakery side, Gazzolo said.

O&H Bakery has anywhere between 10-20 open positions.

“It’s volume driven, so those are good problems to have, but never ending,” Gazzolo said.

Palermo’s Pizza CEO Giacomo Fallucca echoed that rewards are crucial in order to retain talent. Palermo’s has between 20-25 open positions.

“We’ve looked at everything from culture and purpose to compensation to development,” Fallucca said. “When we look at rewards, it’s total rewards, everything from compensation to non-compensation.”

Palermo’s has instituted a variety of rewards from free pizzas and 401(k)s to paid time off.

Margaret Naczek, Milwaukee Business Journal

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