It’s not you. With a 3:1 ratio of available culinary positions to applicants, the labor shortage for kitchen staff continues to be a harsh reality. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the demand for chefs and head cooks will rise 15 percent by 2031 — far faster than the 8-percent growth rate for other occupations (Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, 2022).
Yet attracting the right kitchen staff is necessary to fuel your campers with the vital nutrients needed to learn new skills, build confidence, and savor camp traditions. In addition, proper planning and execution go a long way toward attracting potential hires. The following are some recommendations to help your camp source, hire, train, and retain kitchen staff.
Start recruiting kitchen talent early. Job posts should cover job requirements, housing information, and compensation. However, consider augmenting your posts to include:
- Information about your camp’s mission, values, and culture
- An outline of the characteristics of someone who would be successful in the role
- Details on your location, training program, amenities, and what life outside of working hours has to offer
- Appealing benefits, such as access to a personal garden, equipment (e.g., kayaks, bikes, climbing equipment), wild animal sightings, hiking trails, and local history
Producing videos or reels that communicate the camp experience has proven extremely useful in encouraging applicants. Share these on your website and social media platforms.
Varying employment session length is a creative approach to layer candidates into a team. Long hours spent in food preparation and service coupled with menu writing and order placement can impact energy, mental health, and retention. Consider offering employment in shorter sessions in place of an entire summer season to attract more candidates.
Job posting sites — such as Monster, Indeed, and LinkedIn — are valuable platforms for sourcing professional talent. The benefits of these outlets are two-fold. They reach a large audience of applicants and allow the applicant to apply to hundreds of positions in a matter of hours. But don’t overlook the value of also reaching out to career centers at local universities and high schools.
Assembling teams with candidates who care about your culture is essential. Review the traits that matter most to your unique operation to recognize when you have met a candidate who “gets it, wants it, and has the capacity” to be successful, helping to ensure that you have hired the “right person for the right position.”
Optimize your chances of connecting with candidates by reaching them within 24–36 hours of their application. Conduct a conversational interview by asking open-ended questions to avoid rehashing the candidate’s resume. The result is learning what is unique about a potential employee’s personality, knowing what drives them to succeed, and a greater understanding of their goals for a summer employment opportunity.
Creating a solid foundation of support is crucial to the employee’s success. Slow is fast — and the process whereby you explain, watch, show, and validate contributes to knowledge retention. Map out the steps unique and relevant to your kitchen to share during training.
A good rule of thumb is to allow three to four days of facilitator-led training in person or virtually to ensure employee success. Training should include the following:
- Daily, weekly, and monthly job responsibilities and expectations for each position
- Education on the kitchen, equipment, and prior-year menus
- How to handle allergies and dietary restrictions and preferences
- Traditions relevant to the camp (e.g., oatmeal should be served in porridge pots that have been used for 50+ years and are part of the tradition); no detail is too small
- A schedule for feedback throughout the summer
Training also applies to recipes. From Taco Tuesday to Roosevelt Soup, what makes camps unique are the time-honored traditions that bridge the gap between current campers and alums. Communicate what brings your camp together to help the culinary team properly prepare.
Training empowers the kitchen staff to put their best foot forward and supports the hiring and development of less qualified but eager candidates.
An environment that empowers respect and recognition drives retention. According to employee engagement statistics offered by Haiilo (2023), studies show that 69 percent of people say they would work harder if they were better appreciated. Consider:
- Recognizing, rewarding, and showing gratitude to employees in and out of camp season
- Implementing a bonus structure for milestones such as returning to camp, completing the season, or operating the food program within the allocated budget
- Surveying employees to get feedback on how to improve the experience and to incorporate changes annually
- Offering bonuses for employee referrals
Sourcing top culinary talent ensures that the food produced in your kitchen allows campers to live their best camp lives. Employ the preceding strategies to improve your ability to source, hire, train, and retain camp culinary staff.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor. (2022). Occupational outlook handbook, chefs and head cooks. Bls.gov/ooh/food-preparation-and-serving/chefs-and-head-cooks.htm
- Haiilo. (2023). 8 employment engagement statistics you need to know in 2023. haiilo.com/blog/employee-engagement-8-statistics-you-need-to-know
Author’s Note: Multiple sources at Campus Cooks made this article possible. In business for more than 20 years, Campus Cooks is a professional kitchen management firm with expertise in the staffing and management of food service programs for fraternities, sororities, and summer camps. From honoring camp traditions to managing dietary preferences and allergies, Campus Cooks focuses on creating amazing dining experiences for staff and campers.
Karen Brennan, director of sales and marketing at Campus Cooks, brings 20+ years of experience in the global hospitality industry. Her favorite camp memories are of sing-a-longs, sit-upons, and s’mores at Camp Metamora as a member of Girl Scout Troop 2444.