Setting High Standards in Training

A few months back, I picked up a copy of Business Week, and the whole magazine was about how to find and keep the next group of stars for your business. All the articles talked about something that Allen Seidner, Carolee Colter, and I have taught for years in our Rising Stars leadership workshops: Hire well, build on people’s strengths, train well, and grow your next round of leaders from within whenever possible. Apparently lots of big companies are just discovering or rediscovering this after years of trying all the latest hiring fads.

Around this same time I had the opportunity to work with Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, Minnesota, for the opening of their new store. I had a great time working with produce manager Michael Karsh, his team, and a bevy of enthusiastic produce workers from other local co-ops. The latter group had come to help get the produce department up and running for a special member preview the night before the official opening. (See photos and report, p. 14.)

The day before the opening I led a workshop for over 100 employees that covered everything from the growing organic marketplace to the role the staff get to play in the new food revolution going on across the country. I came away impressed with the job general manager Sharon Murphy and her team had done in planning for this big influx of employees, and with her vision to educate her staff as well. But that was only the beginning.

Array of classes for all staff

The next day I learned that the co-op had a whole array of classes that all employees were required to attend. These included typical new employee classes like the one taught by Debbie Manhart, store manager and member of the safety committee, called “Keeping it Safe.” It covered all things concerning safety in the store: proper lifting, correct handling and disposal of box cutters and blades, locations of fire pulls and extinguishers, how to handle a robbery, product spills, and so on.

“Customer Service Training,” taught by Debbie and marketing and member services manager Shannon Szymkowiak, covered a cornucopia of customer service tools for the new staff: why we want to give customer service; what are the store’s sales numbers; how to talk about membership. This was no hour-long, boring, “when will this be over?” session. This was a lively, five-hour training that dug into issues such as: how to look at a complaint as a gift, how to answer the phone, how to properly route messages of all kinds, product returns, first impressions, diversity, deterring shoplifting with excellent customer service, and how to defuse a hot customer situation. The training used real-life stories, role playing, and lots of resources. It was so good that at the end of the session folks were amazed that the time went by so fast.

This was a good start, but it was also only the tip of the iceberg. Other managers and staff get in on the act with their own two-hour classes.

Produce, HBC, food safety, and more

Produce manager Michael Karsh taught “Perfection in Produce,” an overview including food policy, local farmers, organic standards and signage—and of course the class included lots of produce snacks.

Jill Hall, HBC buyer, led “HBC! HBC!,” a class about how not to prescribe, FAQs in HBC, how to use and access Health Notes, and overviews of supplements, herbs, essential oils, EFAs—again there were lots of take-away samples for those who attended: toothpaste, Emergen-C, etc.

Bulk buyer Jim Richardson led “All Things Bulk”: why it’s better to buy bulk, what kinds of things the co-op carries in bulk, food policy compliance, cleanliness, and organic standards.

Jill Holmen, the training coordinator, taught “What Else Is There?”—a class about packaged grocery and products not included in the other classes, focusing on resources for finding answers if you’re stumped.

Chris von Rabeneau, IT manager (and a very long-time member) led the “Co-op 101” session: what is a co-op; history of the cooperative movement and clarification on this economic system; why new members are important. (This is in addition to the marketing and member services training mentioned earlier, which new hires get right away.)

In the “Cool is Cool” class, Brad Rozman, cool buyer, and Jesse Hoheisel, the meat buyer, walked everyone through what is in cool: proper handling and storage of meat, meat alternatives, dairy and eggs, probiotics, cheese, food policy, and Good Organic Retail Practice (GORP) procedures. Like the produce session, it included lots of tasting of “unusual” cool items that may be unfamiliar to new staff members, such as kefir, tempeh, and sprouted bread.

I‘m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that the prepared food folks have to take a class on food safety. But at this co-op everyone must take “Food Safety,” taught by Debbie Manhart and cheese and bread buyer Wolfgang Littlewolf. And the class covers a lot, including: food safety, washing your hands, proper heating and cooling of foods, washing your hands, food-borne illnesses, washing your hands, how to handle food illness complaints and illness reports, and washing your hands!

Last but not least was one that many co-ops should teach: the “Organic Standards” class, led by Michael Karsh and Shannon Szymkowiak, who I can proudly say could teach this course anywhere in the country. They covered: what is organic, labeling, and GORP procedures by department (proper receiving, storing, stocking, and handling). This class included a lot of Q&A and a quiz that everyone must pass at 80 percent or higher and then sign an affidavit of compliance.

Multiple benefits

Email training and marketing/member services training are delivered right after the orientation of a new employee. The other classes are generally completed within three months after hiring and no later than six months. The co-op also has other requirements. The class completion is tied to certain pay level increases and other benefits.

This co-op is dedicated to having the best customer service, the most knowledgeable staff, and the highest understanding of and adherence to the organic standards. Yes, it’s a significant investment—is it worth it? Well, the co-op won the best customer service award in the city of Duluth a couple years back and has been doing well enough financially to enact the Duluth living wage as part of their pay structure. And the classes help improve the business by improving the systems the co-op has in place, through questions posed in the classes. I’d say it works!

But, as Shannon put it to me, the staff training has a larger impact than just the success of the store. These classes have changed people’s lives, to the point where some of the folks who do leave are choosing work that benefits the larger community, such as becoming organic farmers or alternative medicine practitioners.

Along with opening a new store and educating their staff, Whole Foods Co-op has started offering sessions for the public in their classroom space as well. So far they have offered a lecture series on brain health, a class on whole grain baking, and a slow food cooking class. On the slate for the summer season are a drumming class, more lectures, the “Co-op 101” class; and “How to Boil Water.”

There are a lot of other companies that could learn from this dynamic co-op. If you are interested in doing the same thing in your store, feel free to contact Shannon Szymkowiak, marketing and member services manager, or Jill Holmen, training coordinator, at Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth (218/728-0884).


Mark Mulcahy is an organic produce educator, recently hired at New Leaf Community Market in Santa Cruz, California ([email protected]).

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