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With new research revealing that two in three UK workers have changed jobs due to a lack of learning and development opportunities, John Penaluna, co-owner of Penaluna’s in Hirwarran, Aberdare, explains how he keeps staff motivated


How have your staff levels changed since you first opened?
We started with eight staff when my son Lee and I first opened the business 12 years ago and we’ve currently got 24. We’re recruiting for three more at the moment as we’ve got planning application for an extension which will involve moving the takeaway next door and increasing the size of our restaurant from 48 seats to just over 100. For the location, that’s quite big. Hirwarran is just a little village and within a five mile radius we have about 4,500 people and yet we serve a substantial number. Since entering competitions three years ago, we’ve almost tripled our turnover. It’s been fantastic.

How important have staff been in the evolution of your business?
They have been crucial as we’re not able to be here all the time. One thing we say every time we take someone on is that they are the picture of our business. As soon as the customer walks in through that door, they present the image of our business. Everywhere you go in Penaluna’s, whether it’s the staff room or the tills, we have a notice up saying you never get a second chance to make a first impression. You have to keep drumming that message over and over.

How do you recruit staff?
We advertise on job websites like InDeed, but we get a lot off the back of word of mouth - friends, families and customers. Recruitment is generally a nightmare. We invited 48 people back for an interview recently and only three people turned up. The biggest problem is recruitment of the right people. We could have 300 applicants but because we can’t read all 300 of those or invite them all for an interview, we could miss the right person. So we love it when someone comes in through the door and says they are looking for work. That’s exactly what Lee did 15 or 16 years ago, he went along to the only Michelin-stared restaurant in Wales, knocked on the door and he was taken on. That’s the type of people we love to see.



How do you motivate your staff?
We’re pleased to say we never really have to keep pushing our staff, they are relatively happy all the time and they work really well together as a team. We do have a mini conference room above the restaurant which sits up to 24 people around a table. It’s totally cut off from the rest of the business so we have regular team meetings where we bring everyone together. We also have an Inspiration Room which is somewhere the staff can go to chill out. There’s soft lighting in there and blackboards and whiteboards on the wall and we encourage the staff to come up with ideas of what we can do, whether it’s special event days or things they want to see on the menu. That way they feel included in everything we do and that in itself is enough to motivate them.

What ideas has the Inspiration Room generated?
Lots. The idea to do a full Christmas battered dinner came from there. It was a fun idea one of the boys came up with and Wales Online ran it and it had thousands of views. It brought us a lot of publicity and we’re still getting requests now for the jumbo pigs in blankets. We do about 40-50 a week. So we don’t isolate anyone from the business, it’s a family business and our staff are part of our family.

So it’s about inclusion?
Absolutely. Whenever I’m in the shop I make sure I speak to every member of staff that’s on. We also have a closed Facebook group for our staff where we tell them every week how many sacks of potatoes we’ve rumbled, how many portions we’ve got out, how many slabs of fish we defrosted and how many we sold. It keeps them all involved in the running of the business and they can see there’s more to it than just taking customers’ money.

What do you do to motivate your staff during quiet periods?
We send them the other side of the counter to see what we can improve upon. We also get the more senior staff to train our younger team. The biggest issue in the industry is portion control, so we’ll let them use the food that’s left in the hot box, scoop it, pack it and weigh it and see what it comes out at and what it should be. We might throw away six to seven portions of chips but we’ll make that back by them having the confidence in what they are serving over the next two to three weeks.



Do you offer staff perks or incentives?
We’ve found that money isn’t the only incentive. For us it’s taking everyone out at different times of the year, for example we’ve been clay pigeon shooting, bowling and go-karting. These guys contribute to our business 52 weeks of the year so it shouldn’t just be at Christmas that we take them out. We also have a lady come along every six months from a company called Be Holistic, which runs well-being courses for all the staff as well as one-to-ones. If there’s anything that’s happening outside of their lives it can affect their attitude to work, so people can go to her and it’s very beneficial to them and to the business as it structures their train of thought.

Penaluna's won the award for staff training at the National Fish & Chip Awards, so what training do you offer?
What don’t we do? We have an outside agency for NVQs but we also do a lot in-house ourselves. For example, we’ve adapted some of the Level 2 Food Safety to suit our business so initial starters all have basic training. After they’ve been with us a couple of months we will promote them to do a CIEH Level 2 Food Safety. All the customer service skills, such as wrapping, portion control and frying skills, is carried out by Lee’s wife Emma.

For us, upskilling is so important. Our best frier is somebody who is 54 years of age and who was the potato boy when we bought the shop. We pushed him and encouraged him to do more. Where Lee’s been ill for the last 18 months, I would say 90% of what has been fried in that shop since, and which has got us through to the final of some of these competitions, has been fried by him. By doing this, we’ve got a brilliant member of staff. We’ve employed people who have no basic skills whatsoever and got them involved in basic literacy, english and maths. We also support the local college so we go in and do talks about what it’s like working for a small independent fish and chip shop. We don’t attract the people that McDonald’s or KFC do, they want those names on their CV, so we find going to the college is a good source of potential employment. Plus, they know the hours and what it’s like to be on your feet all the time.

Do you find you can step away from the business with confidence now?
Yes, last week, Lee and Emma were away for a week picking up a mobile unit we’ve just bought and touring some of the recognised fish and chip shops along the way. I was away too and we all totally stepped away from the business. If you train your staff well they will develop the confidence and that gives us the confidence then to step away. We also put in a manager in February. It was to help us step back a bit and also a case of we needed to grow the business that bit more. It’s given us the time to look at the business and spend that extra time training.

Is there ever a fear that you invest all this time and money in training and development and then staff will leave?
We’ve never had that fear. We have had staff leave obviously, but we’ve also got a lot of staff that have been here for years too. We make a commitment which is to give everyone a good grounding in their future careers wherever and whatever that is. We want anyone who walks in our door to go out of it a better person for the future. Obviously we hope they do stay, but we shouldn’t be afraid to train anybody to be a better person.

When we started the business, there were two conditions I laid out to Lee. The first was that I wanted people queuing up outside the door, wanting to work here, and the second was the quality of the food. The reason being that if you’ve got the people that want to work for you, they will provide the quality of food and the quality of food will keep the customers coming back.

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