People are dining out again, but restaurants aren’t always able to serve them well. Like many other service businesses, they face two operational challenges: attracting and retaining enough workers, and coping with highly variable demand. One lever for improving on both counts is cross-training — that is, training employees for a variety of tasks.
Cross-training is a powerful tool, but it is far from a new idea: One of us (Zeynep) first observed cross-training as part of a “good jobs system” that enabled low-cost retailers like Costco and Trader Joe’s to pay more than their competitors while driving better value for customers. Beyond the service industry, manufacturers like Toyota have long practiced cross-training to improve motivation and involve the frontlines in continuous improvement. And in their landmark 1976 study, J. Richard Hackman and Greg R. Oldham identified task variety as a driver of employee motivation across a variety of industries.
When employees are cross-trained to perform a variety of both customer-facing and non-customer-facing tasks, they can adjust their work depending on demand and business needs. Of course, that’s good for the business, but it also makes the job a better job for workers. For one thing, when employees are more productive and contribute more, companies can pay them more; higher productivity is what enables a typical Costco worker to earn almost $10 an hour more than a typical retail worker. Cross-training helps employees build capabilities that they can leverage in their career growth and career paths. Cross-training also enables more stable schedules; instead of changing the number of workers throughout the day or week, companies can keep more consistent teams and just change what they do, instead of changing who is scheduled to work.
But these benefits should be balanced with a possible downside: a lack of specialization and ownership. At the Good Jobs Institute, our work with a variety of small food businesses has shown us how they can make the best use of cross-training to improve service and job quality. Any industry can learn from these approaches to design flexibility into their job design and operations.
Approaches to Cross-Training at Three Small Food Businesses
Employees don’t have to be cross-trained to do everything, but a little bit of cross-training can go a long way. Three small food businesses we’ve worked with have each found their own way to balance flexibility with specialization and ownership:
At two franchised locations of the Moe’s Original BBQ chain, there was a strict boundary between front-of-house and kitchen teams, making it difficult to adjust to demand peaks. Owner Dewey Hasbrouck introduced cross-training between the two specialized teams so that they could cover each other on typical bottleneck tasks. For instance, when there were long lines at the counter, kitchen staff could now step in to answer the phones, bring food out to tables, and bag to-go orders. If it was the kitchen that was backlogged, the front-of-house team could fill sauce cups, restock the line, and prepare basic sides.
At She Wolf Bakery, the production team baked bread in the bakery and the sales team sold it at New York City Greenmarkets, seldom interacting. The teams were often busy at different times: the production team would be overwhelmed preparing bread on Fridays, while the sales team was busiest on Saturdays.
Head of operations Kim Vallejo realized there was an opportunity to better integrate the two teams. While bakers were already being trained on some of the packing duties, She Wolf also started offering a four-hour paid bakery orientation for new sales team members, during which they could take part in the bread-making process. They learned basic bakery side work like running the dish pit and oiling pans, which were very helpful to bakers during a rush, and the two teams also got to know each other better, which made them more motivated to help each other out.
Tacombi, a Mexican restaurant chain with locations in New York City, introduced cross-training while navigating the city’s strict tipping regulations, which don’t allow employees in non-tipped roles to perform customer-facing tasks. The staff in their full-service concepts included many highly specialized roles, such as hosts, runners, bussers, and servers in the front, and dishwashers, prep cooks, quality control leaders (who manage the kitchen flow and check quality), and chefs in the back.
Operations leader Jose De La Campa noticed that scheduling these specialists was very complex and created service issues when someone called out sick. The work wasn’t evenly distributed over time; at any given moment, the prep cooks might have nothing to do while the dish washers were swamped. But they were neither trained nor expected to help each other. De La Campa decided to reduce the number of specialist job codes; for example, in most restaurants, he combined the responsibilities of prep cooks and dishwashers, combined the roles of head chef and quality control leader, and removed the host role, redistributing that work to the other front-of-house positions, such as servers.
The Impact of Cross-Training on Performance and Jobs
When employees can contribute to different parts of the business, it can improve service, increase production capacity, and make jobs better for the people doing them.
At She Wolf, cross-training helped teams take more ownership to keep production running when faced with the unexpected variability of call outs, so they could always be there for their customers with quality bread. According to Vallejo, “If we are in the weeds and down three people and it’s a Friday and all hands on deck, my delivery driver knows how to run the dish pit and they can jump back there and help us get ahead.” Training market team members on basic prep tasks also freed up bakers’ time to focus on higher-value tasks, ensuring bread quality didn’t suffer due to unexpected variability.
When Tacombi relied on highly specialized roles, an absent dishwasher could paralyze operations. With fewer specialist roles and appropriate cross-training, an unexpected sick day could more easily be absorbed by the rest of the team. De La Campa also said that it improved the food and service: The head chef now had more ownership over quality control, motivating them to identify issues and provide proper feedback to the rest of the team.
Higher production capacity
At Moe’s Original BBQ, because team members could flex into different customer-facing and non-customer-facing tasks, they had enough slack to deal with demand peaks. This translated to higher-quality food and service. More significantly, the cross-trained team had the expertise to take on more catering orders. Catering sales increased by 60% in the first year, without Moe’s having to significantly change its staffing levels.
All three businesses ended up raising pay. Their cross-trained employees were more productive and could contribute to more areas of the operation, making higher pay a good investment. Cross-training created a new talent pipeline for She Wolf: By allowing the market staff to get production experience, management could identify potential new bakers and help them make the transition onto the bakery team when they needed to hire. For those employees, this meant career growth and higher wages. Cross-training also helped these businesses give their people better — that is, more regular — schedules, since staffing didn’t necessarily have to lurch up and down with the number of customers.
Cross-training helped make the work more meaningful. At Moe’s Original BBQ, cross-training contributed to better communication and a sense of belonging: The staff started insisting that they be referred to as “one team,” not “front-of-house” and “back-of-house.”
The combination of higher pay, better schedules, and better work helped Moe’s Original BBQ reduce employee turnover by 30%, which then helped them improve their performance even more.
Why Cross-Training Isn’t More Common
Many company leaders like the idea of cross-training, but aren’t convinced it will work for them. Some think their employees can’t handle — or aren’t motivated to learn — a variety of roles.
One genuine risk is that introducing cross-training in isolation could create operational problems; if employees are already overloaded or have low tenure, or if the company can’t set and enforce high expectations, introducing cross-training might lead to more errors and frustration. The key is creating a system that enables cross-training. At the small food businesses, this involved some complementary choices:
- Simplifying operations to remove non-value-add work so that employees only spend their time learning tasks that improve the customer experience.
- Simplifying operations to reduce self-inflicted variability — that is, to smooth the workload and make the peaks more manageable.
- Setting clear standards to ensure that employees can be consistent in different roles.
- Empowering employees to use their judgment to decide which tasks to do when.
- Staffing with slack so that people have enough time to learn new tasks.
- Investing in people to attract and retain great staff and hold teams accountable to high expectations.
Moe’s Original BBQ had been trying to introduce cross-training for several years, but because of high turnover, it was a struggle just to get employees through basic training. So, in addition to cross-training, owner Hasbrouck made other operational changes to set his team up for success, such as simplifying the menu and smoothing the workload by moving specials from weekends to weekdays. He also made significant investments in his people, increasing full-time pay from $15 an hour to $20 an hour in Maine, plus tips. Higher pay came, however, with higher expectations: Hasbrouck changed the job description to state, “We want employees capable of doing it all.” Adding cross-training made the job worth more to the business and the higher pay made the additional responsibility and higher expectations worth it for employees.
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Changes like these don’t happen overnight, but a better system can drive operational excellence and let teams live up to their potential. Food businesses and other service industries are facing headwinds, but cross-training can ensure that they are up for the challenge, providing better service while also improving the lives of their employees and preserving vibrant businesses in their communities.