February 7, 2010 in Business

Pizza chains put premium on experience

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Papa John’s, official pizza sponsor of Super Bowl XLIV, will be on the sidelines today in Spokane, but many of its former employees won’t be.

The franchisee for Eastern Washington and North Idaho locked the doors on 12 stores Jan. 25, tossing dozens of unpaid workers to the curb.

But the ovens were still warm when competing pizza purveyors pounced on its drivers, servers and managers like teenagers on a 42-inch pepperoni. Pizza Hut immediately announced a job fair, and Pizza Pipeline invited the displaced workers to apply at any of its stores in the area.

Wednesday, 358 job applicants showed up at the job fair, which was managed with the efficiency of a military induction. If Pizza Hut kitchens bake pies half as fast, you have to fear for the world’s tomatoes.

But Steve Abigail said fast-food chains turn over workers almost as fast as they move inventory. Some restaurants, says the manager of Pizza Hut’s Spokane-area operations, lose up to 150 percent of their workers each year, and a rate less than 100 percent is considered good. Pizza Hut held turnover last year to almost 80 percent, he said.

Still, with an average 450 workers on the payroll at 21 stores and counting, that means constant hiring. Pizza Hut held another job fair last spring that drew 175 applicants. Abigail said many were hired, and a few have already worked their way up to management positions.

“I’m looking for infectious, positive energy,” said Abigail, who exudes good nature.

If you are a driver, it helps if you know your way around. If you work inside, you have to be able to stand for 12 hours and paste on a smile for customers rabid for a $10 Hawaiian, right now.

Papa John’s employees already have those attributes, hence the rush to claim as many as possible.

Abigail said 15 Papa John’s workers were hired before the job fair. Three drivers from Pullman who showed up together Wednesday were hired on the spot. As many as 25 ex-Papa John’s employees will be on the job today, when pizza ovens near meltdown.

Many workers will work for minimum wage, but Abigail said tips make a good topping. Also, Pizza Hut’s expansion in the area creates management opportunities.

“The people that do it well can actually make a decent living with it,” Abigail said.

Any living would do for some in line Wednesday.

Painter Sam McMurtry has been out of work four months, and wife Elisha is also looking for a job. They have two kids, and Sam pays support for another.

He said he hopes to get back to painting – and $25-per-hour paychecks – when the weather turns. Meanwhile, anything helps.

“This is a humbling experience for me,” Sam said.

Johnny Ray emerged from his interview pulsing with enthusiasm.

“You just walk in there with a good attitude,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Ray should be a shoo-in.

Delia Whitmore manages human resources for Pizza Huts in Spokane, Fort Worth, Texas; Shreveport, La.; and Dallas, her home. Yum Brands, parent of Pizza Hut, KFC and other fast-food franchises, has 36,000 restaurants worldwide, she said.

In every one, a missed call translates into $10, $20 or more of lost business.

“What we’re trying to do is upgrade our talent,” she said.

Abigail said many candidates were overqualified – no surprise in a county with a 9.3 percent unemployment rate. Interviewers identified about 100 applicants who could be wearing a Pizza Hut uniform within the next few months, he said.

That means 250-plus must keep looking. Good luck to them.

And tip heavy today, no matter who delivers. It’s not all Canadian bacon and Italian sausage out there.


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