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24th Annual Meeting: Workforce Development Panel

February 5, 2020

Our Annual Meeting on January 28th, was quite a day. The Inn at the Round Barn was lovely and attendees enjoyed networking with old friends and new acquaintances. Our last panel of the day discussed a complex issue that touches every aspect of the food and farm sectors - workforce development and staffing shortages.

Reimagining Vermont’s workforce to thrive in 2020 and beyond: We discussed the current challenges in Vermont for our farms and restaurants. Our panelists discussed staffing, recruitment, and they all spoke about the importance of work place culture. To learn more about our panelists, check out their bios.

Vermont Department of Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington joined us as moderator.

Panelists include:

  • Cara Chigazola Tobin (Chef-Owner, Honey Road - Burlington)

  • Kate Hays (Director of Dining, Wake Robin - Shelburne)

  • Tim Fishburne (Sales Manager, Pete's Greens - Craftsbury) was not able to join us during the session.

  • Gary Symolon (Regional Frontline Recruitment, Sodexo)


Commissioner Harrington - Many of us are in constant state of training due to turn over. The Vermont unemployment rate is currently 2.2%. Could you tell us a little about yourself and your staffing?

Cara - Honey Road is a Middle Eastern dinner-only restaurant in Burlington. We have 41 employees. We are a little over-staffed so that if we lose someone doesn’t put pressure on others, sick, vacation

Gary - I’m an executive chef at Sodexo, I work in recruitment as well.

Kate - I’m the Director of Dining at Wake Robin. We have 5 dining rooms, 400 people. We are 45% local/organic. Staffing is challenging and we need to have creative recruitment measures.

How has the industry changed?

Cara - In the past, chefs worked hard and played hard. We couldn't have family/friends outside of the kitchen back in the day, now there is a more thoughtful environment. We aren’t working 80 hours anymore. It is closer to a regular job. We’re more aware of physical and mental health. Rather than deciding where are we going drinking after a shift, we are getting home to bed to go to the gym in the morning. It makes for a more sustainable profession.

Gary - There is a quality of life in food service. We used to be closed in the summers at our universities, providing a nice break. Now, institutions sell their space in summer for camps, meetings, and rental space. This allows us to keep our staff year-round. There are peaks and valleys during the semester that make it conducive to having a life.

Kate - We are mindful of staff. Our benefits are the greatest asset for our staff members. We often recruit people from restaurants who want to make a shift and we also capture seasonal help from other places like the Inn at Shelburne Farms when they are closed for the season.

Cara - We make decisions based on personal experiences we’ve had in the past. We’ve learned what not to do from past jobs. It is all about being fair to people. We are closed for holidays. We offer career advancement and paid parental leave. We choose to invest money in programs like that. We choose to invest in our staff. If a staff member wants to buy a book or eat at a restaurant and it is considered research, we support that. We offer a $15 minimum wage; it’s expensive but it helps us retain staff. Most of our staff has been there from the beginning, besides our seasonal help.

Gary - University semesters are really busy, then there are seasonal breaks. We learned how to stay fully staffed. There is a tuition reimbursement program for staff, and several take advantage. Retention is hard. We try to create an environment in the kitchen around learning and staying safe. We try to have an environment where they want to be there and stay.

What are you concerned about for the future?

Kate - I work closely with our HR manager. Who do we tap next, new Americans have been hired, the new frontier is felons. We can’t have them working on the Wake Robin campus because of our vulnerable community, but that is a direction some places are going. We used to get UVM students as servers. High school students don’t really work because of the schedule. They have to be home too early. We all have to think outside all the boxes. I do several interviews a week. Hospitality and healthcare intersect at Wake Robin so it is not a normal food job. We are looking at every model we can. We do a lot of training. You are a server who needs to know about cognitive decline. We create an environment of education for employees. We offer hiring incentives. 

Gary - The people coming in now are unskilled. A chef has to spend time training, which takes time away from other tasks. Another challenge is sign-on bonuses. The market is so tight, we might hire and start training someone for a couple weeks and they’ll get an offer of a few cents more and they leave. They don’t think about having a job that offers benefits like we do.

Cara - We’re the new hot thing in town and everyone wants to work there, but how long can we keep it up. We ask ourselves how we are going to remain successful, how do we do something new, how do we stay relevant and ahead of the game. This is a fleeting industry. What happens when the next new hot thing comes around?

What type of staff culture do you try to build and why is it important?

Cara - We are LGBTQ friendly. We are women friendly. Whatever we can do to support our staff, we’ll do that. Everyone is welcome at Honey Road - employee or guest.

Gary - Sodexo is built on diversity and inclusion. We build relationships in communities to build the workforce. We offer programs, classes, and mock interviews in our training to support our staff.

Kate - The culture at Wake Robin is important. It’s all about being fair and doing the right thing. During our quarterly performance reviews, employees interview supervisors about what’s working well, where they want to go. Helping staff get to where they want to go is the best feeling. We have a culture of caring. We have a high level of care and the feedback from residents is wonderful. Every person has something to say - it takes me an hour to get out the door after dinner! 

3 tips or insights to manage workforce shortage, recruiting skilled talent, retaining staff?

Gary - Managing from the heart. It is the golden rule. Manage someone in the way that you would want to be treated. Hire someone with a different ability, managing to strengths, bring different perspectives.

Cara - “Hire yourself”, what do you want from an employer? Cook for yourself, your mother, and the worst restaurant critic at the same time. If you are a nice person it will take you far. Being fair, reasonable, and honest is a big piece of it.

Kate - The VT way is having 3 jobs, anything you can do to make more money, take care of staff. Kindness is everything.

What’s one thing that needs to happen in the next 5 years, as a state or industry, that will help us?

Cara - Childcare, health care, better housing, getting younger people to move to VT. Make it easier for small businesses to operate in the state. It’s hard to own a business here. It’s expensive to live here. People move here who want a better quality of life. We need more people to live here.

Gary - I agree with Cara. We need more people.

Kate - And better transportation. We need better transportation overall.

For resources and more information about staffing and workforce devolpment, visit


Thank you to the moderators, panelists, and everyone who joined us for the 2020 Vermont Fresh Network Annual Meeting! We especially want to thank the The Inn at the Round Barn Farm for hosting us and Joe's Kitchen, American Flatbread - Lareau Farm, Cabot Creamery Co-operative, The Inn at the Round Barn Farm, Karim Farm & Creamery, King Arthur Flour Bakery and Cafe, Stowe Cider, and Red Hen Baking Co. for providing lunch and sweet treats for the day. And thank you to Mad River Taste Place for hosting our after party.

We also want to thank our Affiliate Partners, Burlington Free Press, Black River Produce, Farrell Distributing, Foley Services, Hotel Vermont, and Vermont First, and our 24th Annual Meeting business sponsor, Front Porch Forum.

Thank you to Flavor Plate for donating their time and effort to the design and co-development of our website.