Co-Op Training

So you intend to open a business with almost no investment, no staff, hoping people show up voluntarily to do incredible things with no training, no pay, and you want them to pay you $25/month to boot?

Yeah, that's pretty much it. Except they don't pay me.  

Way back in the day I took a job as a line cook at a national chain restaurant that was opening up in town.  Before opening day we spent a week training.  The corporation sent up a training crew to work with the green staff, show them the routine, walk through each dish so we'd be ready.  I'd worked in corporate restaurants for several years previously and found their training crew to be quite effective.  Most of the crew were kids, 18...19 years old, for some it was their first job.  There was an older fellow on our crew who had paid his dues, and between the two of us we were able to add our experience to help a few people figure things out and bring everyone together as a single kitchen crew.  We straightened those kids right out.  Come opening day, we were ready for it.  

Now this company used every tool and modern gadget available to help make things smooth.  They had a computer in the office.  This was a big deal back then.  According to the computer, the most meals we should have been able to serve from that kitchen design was 200 meals per hour.  When we broke that record 2 months after opening, the company sent some suits to see what we were doing differently.  A meeting as called together before opening hours in which they praised us greatly for reaching 214 meals served in a single hour.  Everyone in the kitchen was rewarded with a complimentary dinner for their family.  The company a little extra for the crew who was on duty when the record was broken: 6 sets of movie tickets.  When only 3 of us claimed our prize, this one guy in a suit asked where the rest of the crew was.  It seems that not only had we beaten the new computer and set a company record, we did it with half the crew.

We won't have the advantage of bringing in a crew from corporate HQ to train the staff.  Any normal company opening a store would be able to hire experenced staff.  But we are not hiring staff.  We are using our own people.  Looking at the demographics, the involvement of families gives us some hierarchy in terms of age and experience from which to draw upon experience, but it's a safe bet that many of the people involved, particuluarly the younger generation, are jumping into a situation in which they have no prior experience.  

At the start, this is our single greatest challenge.  

We need some strategies in the earliest phases of the enterprise which will make up for this shortfall inasmuch as possible.  Look to the recruiting effort as part of the answer.  Targeting people who already consume a particular product is going to have a little bit of a clue.  A pizza customer will have had at least a little exposure with a pizza shop.  A sub sandwich eater has probably made one or two sandwhiches at home.  Folks who work in or have worked in food service in any capacity will know what to expect.  In all honesty, anyone who has ever made a decent meal at home already has most of the skills needed to help out in any of the food service projects I have discussed.

The farm side of the enterprise is a whole different ball game.  Finding folks with experience in organic gardening will be a reach.  We'll find some folks with some gardening knowledge, but without using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs will open a door to a new world.  I have no doubt whatsover that the young people will embrace farming.  There are examples all around the world where even city kids, when given the opportunity, quickly involve themselves in every aspect of farm operations to such a level that it changes their attitude, their behavior, performance in school and improves their relationships with the folks around them.  As with the recruiting efforts targeting experienced food workers, there are organic gardeners and growers who would leap at the chance to be part of something like this.

Books and media are available offering the sum of human experience.  Setting up a book swap can put any number of books into peoples hands.  This allows anyone with the motivation to become self taught. There are resources all over the internet which offer the information we'll need free of charge.  Video offers another means of presenting material.  It would be possible to make our own training videos, specific to particular jobs.  Books and video are no substitute for hands on learning.

Partnering experienced people with inexperienced people is a time tested means of learning and teaching a new skill.  I'm expecting a high rate of greenhorns, suggesting several youths per experienced trainer.  Without a doubt, folks who are masters of their craft will be welcomed to the group with open arms.  The nature of the work being done can develop into a high level of skill over time, but for the most part, we'll be learning a process.  One need not understand and be skilled at every step of the process to be able to help out.  We'll be employing simple skills: dicing onions, accurately portioning ingredients, reading and following a recipe.  The initial role of the experienced trainer will be getting people started with a few simple tasks.  Duplication of that task in combination with others performing and completing another step in the process is what gets the job done.  Any complex task, broken into simple steps, can be achieved with enough hands.  We've got an abundance on hands.

We've got a kitchen, a farm and a store.  Each of these operations has smaller components.  There will be a broad range of tasks with various degrees of priority.  The store will need a handful of people all the time.  One of them needs to be competent and entrusted with handling money.  The kitchen will need more constant staffing and can make do with a lightly trained crew.  The farm can make do with as many people as are available and needs a person who can delegate the work list and show others what their part of the puzzle is that day.  

In the kitchen, learning how to do one thing will readily translate from one job to the next.  If you can portion pasta, you can portion sliced meats, shredded cheese or diced onions.  If you can slice cheese, you can slice cold cuts.  If you can serve lasagna, you can serve meatloaf.  A kitchen with a finite amount of room would be set up with Stations.  A sharecropper working in the kitchen all month would be assigned a station.  If it is their first time, they would be assigned an easy station.  Some of these stations are pretty easy.  A newcomer would be able to pick up the knowledge needed to operate that station and pass on that knowledge to the next newcomer in a time frame measured in hours.  For many of the tasks involved, if you have done them once, you'll be able to show someone else how its done.  The next time that sharecropper comes in, they would be able to jump into that station with no additional training or perhaps a bit of refreshing if they have been away for a while.  As each individual spends more time working the same station, the task gets easier, and the work is completed more efficiently.  Moving to another station starts the process all over, but now we've got someone in one part of the kitchen who can help someone in another part of the kitchen.  Rather than throwing the newcomer to the dogs, we have a support system in place.

Consistency is an important part of a food service business.  This means recipes and specifications.  These will be in place long before we open the doors.  It is expected that recruits would take some interest in what we are trying to do.  By making the recipes available to everyone involved, they can be tried at home.  We can have the recipe tailored for small batch preparation.  It is hoped that some of the recruits will have tried some of the recipes at home.  When we open the doors, we'll have people in the kitchen who have already made that item.  Get the kids involved.  Show them how to read a measuring cup and thermometer.  Make a loaf of bread, a meatloaf from scrath, walk them through cooking a pot of spaghetti.  Go through the recipe book and try some items.  Everything you do at home beforehand puts us all a step ahead.

Over on the farm things are real simple.  Chores here rely on repition more than skill.  If you know how to plant a pepper seed, it's pretty much the same with every other species we'll be growing, with different spacing.  It takes only a moment to be shown how to hill a potato.  Doing it a thousand times the issue is not the work, but the limit of one's abilities.  Show the next guy how to hill potatoes and your personal stamina is less important.  Simplifying tasks reduces the urgency for exerienced labor.  We'll need some, but we'll be able to get by just fine while we build ourselves and each other. The skills required are not rocket science.  Planning projects will go a long way towards simplfication.  We would be able to do the planning long before we borrow our first cup of sugar.    

Much of the work at the start will focus on simplification and duplication.  This puts people to work quickly and keeps them busy, but barely scratches the surface of the experience available.  Taking on additional projects of increasing complexity is where this enterprise gets the most from people and gives the most back.  Carving steaks from a full cut is a dying art.  Being able to carve steaks gives us all access to a line of products we are already buying, and at a much better price.  This is not a complex task.  The emphasis here is attention to detail.  Once that is mastered, speed will fall into place as an ancillary benefit.  The prerequisite is knife skills.  Putting someone in the carving station who has never handled knives would be asking for trouble.  The last thing we want to do is see someone hurt so the rest of us can save a buck.  

We'll have people who are ready to move up to carving steaks early on.  Others may have no interest or may need to hone their skills in other areas first.  We'll have folks who should have nothing to do with the meat slicer, ever.  I've seen folks start working in a kitchen who have no business operating a toaster.  In such a case, we are well situated to develop their abilities elsewhere.  I knew a guy who was all but useless on the cooks line, couldn't tell the difference between a dirty and clean dish, andn was a disaster waiting to happen around the mixer.  What he could do with a salad can only be described as art.  There is a place in this enterprise which will bring out the best in people.  Our ability to cross train will help folks find that niche.  Once we find that niche, that's when the magic happens.


Cooperative Enterprise, Plan Outline