Canadian Pizza Magazine

Pizzeria workflow: No ‘I’ in team

Colleen Cross   

Features Business and Operations annex jessy's pizza karen horton patrice and associates pizza workflow ross horton staffing tillson pizza

When your pizza place gets busy, communication, organization and teamwork are the order of the day

Steve Tran is co-owner of Tillson Pizza, a family business that uses cross-training to maintain a steady flow of pizza. Photo courtesy Tillson Pizza

Ask any operator. A pizzeria is a hopping place, especially during the supper rush, those whirlwind nights-before-the-long-weekend and the insanity that is December. When orders are pouring in, how do you keep things moving and manageable while keeping your own sanity?

We spoke with pizzerias and staffing experts to glean a few ideas for keeping your team moving like a well-oiled machine.

Charbel Makhlouf has owned and managed Jessy’s Pizza in Dartmouth, N.S., for seven years. The busy pizzeria in the community of 67,000 on the eastern shore of Halifax harbour, is a hub for an elementary school, high school, community college and hockey leagues. The shop offers eat-in, takeout and delivery service.

Makhlouf’s employees range in age from about 20 to 60, and on any given shift, he has six people working, including himself. A cashier takes orders, handles cash, and – when there is time – walks orders out to the tables and clears them afterwards. Typically there is one cook there through the day and two or more at suppertime and during busy periods. Tips go to the cashier, who shares them with other staff on


As owner, he is on site all day and at other times as needed. He does the prep work himself – including making the dough, mixing the sauces and chopping vegetables. “I like to do it myself as a way to maintain consistency,” he says.

He moved the shop to the highly competitive Main Street to capture more business and feels the higher rent has been worth it. But with that extra business comes challenges.

Most of the time things run fairly smoothly. “The challenge is the time we have versus how busy we are during the suppertime rush,” he says. With two phones ringing, Friday is very busy, he adds. “Everyone jumps in when needed, including the drivers.”

When there is a slowdown or issue, “you hear it right away,” he says. And because they have an open kitchen, so do customers.

“There could always be a little bit more communication,” he says. “We try to put everything on the order sheet. The problem is with new hires. Customers want pizzas made in all different ways. There is no time for the cashier to talk to the cook, so it’s important they write down the details.”

Employees must work as a team to keep the orders flowing, he says. “It directly affects my business.”

Steve and Le Roi Tran have owned and operated Tillson Pizza, a mainstay of Tillsonburg, Ont., for the past 15 years. The couple immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong during the Vietnam War, living first in Toronto then settling in the growing town with a population of 15,000.

Daughter Phuong Tran is proud of what her parents have achieved. Tran and her three grown siblings – sister Suong, and brothers Duong and John – have worked in the business most of that time alongside a few part-time staff.

They have carryout and delivery and have no seating area, a strategy Tran thinks makes the business efficient.

The store gets very busy during the supper hour. Often there is a quiet lull but everyone is ready to spring into action when the phone starts ringing, Tran says.

She agrees teamwork and good communication are important. All team members are trained to perform all jobs – front counter, prep work, pizza making and delivery – and they float between stations as required. Cross-training allows multiple people to work on one big order and scheduling becomes less of a headache, she says.

Of course, they all have their strengths, Tran says. Steve and brother Duong regularly do deliveries, Tran herself often works the front counter expediting orders and Le Roi’s specialty is doing the detailed prep work.

Building an efficient operation and happy team starts with the hiring process, Makhlouf and Tran agree. When hiring cashiers, Makhlouf looks for someone who is detail oriented. “Volume is hard, so they must communicate a lot in writing,” he says. “We need someone who can keep a cool head.”

A resumé is no indication someone will be a good employee, he says. “People who have good qualifications don’t always work out.”

He has them work for a couple of hours to see how they handle themselves, a trial-by-fire method that helps him evaluate workers. “You get a feel for people even in that short time,” he says. “You see who has the ability to hustle.”

The hands-on owner doesn’t often take time off, but when he does, it typically takes two employees to replace him: one to manage the restaurant and the other to do the prep work. “I have recipes for everything, of course.”

His ideal candidate is someone who can fill the role of cook and nighttime manager – and potentially fill Makhlouf’s shoes when he is away.

Because Tillson Pizza is a family business, their recruiting consists of hiring high school students for part-time work. When they do hire, Tran says, they look for people who are flexible, have good time-management skills, communicate well and are team players.

“Your dinner rush or lunch rush is only a couple of hours,” she says. “We learned very early and very quickly that whatever happens in that rush you can’t take personally and you can’t dwell on. So, anyone who is very flexible and easygoing is who we look for.”

Both Makhlouf and Tran have plenty of ideas for keeping their teams happy and motivated – these ideas may be boiled down to one concept: communication.

“Make sure employees know what’s expected and what the rules and regulations are, Makhlouf says. “Writing down your expectations takes a lot of stress out of the training process and makes it automatically easier for you to manage,” he says. “When the night shift comes in, it’s a little easier when they can go over what went wrong through the day.”

To this end, he set up a whiteboard: on one side he writes down significant changes; on the other, he writes down recurring problems. The board is located in the employees’ rest area, giving them time to relax and think about the points.

Managers should realize employees are their greatest source of information, Tran says. “They’re the ones who are working the different stations, they’re the ones who know when time is tight and when the pressure’s on in the kitchen, they know what’s going to make it faster and easier for them.”

“Putting yourself in your employees’ shoes is the best way to know what’s working,” she says. “It’s so easy when tempers are hot for people to say, ‘Why don’t you do this faster?’ ”

It’s helpful if managers can take a hands-on approach. Her parents, for example, will go to different stations and help if a person is falling behind or needs some help, and see what can be improved next time. “They can then make changes – not just ignore the problem. That night or the next day, they’ll try something new. If it works, stick to it.”

Every part is important, she emphasizes. “In a pizza kitchen it starts with a phone call and making sure it’s accurate, to the dough and making sure it’s thick or thin, to toppings to making sure they are what the customer wants. When it comes out of the oven, it’s making sure it’s cooked well and cut and the front line needs to give it to the customer hot and at the right price.”

Just one error can really affect the operation, she says. “We know that as soon as that hiccup happens, it can cause problems for everyone – not just that one station.”

“Not all industries are like that, but for the pizza industry, because it’s such a high turnaround rate, from the minute you make a pizza to the time you it’s sent out – it’s about 20 minutes – is not a lot of time. One error can really set everybody back.”

Karen and Ross Horton of Patrice and Associates, a recruiting firm in Niagara Falls, Ont., agree that good communication and a high level of empathy can go a long way towards helping a restaurant run smoothly.

“The best managers lead by example and work shoulder to shoulder with staff,” Karen says. Creating a level of appreciation and understanding for all roles is key. Gatherings before and after shifts are a good idea and working one on one also can be beneficial, she says. She also recommends managers be observant when working with each staff member, for example, watching an employee enter orders into the POS system can help you spot potential problems in the process.

“It’s important to hire people who value teamwork. Ask them to tell a story of how they helped someone out,” Ross suggests.

Another way managers can help staff operate smoothly as a team is to practise showing appreciation and positive reinforcement, he says. Having some form of compensation based on overall team performance can go a long way. “The challenge is that people can get so busy,” he says.

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