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SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- Bakery training at Harp's Food Stores here is no longer the icing on the cake. It's now a basic ingredient for the chain.Once regarded as a luxury to be accomplished in-store "when there's time," training has risen on the priority list. From now on, bakery managers and employees will be put through a formal, ongoing training program that's conducted at a central location."Now that

SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- Bakery training at Harp's Food Stores here is no longer the icing on the cake. It's now a basic ingredient for the chain.

Once regarded as a luxury to be accomplished in-store "when there's time," training has risen on the priority list. From now on, bakery managers and employees will be put through a formal, ongoing training program that's conducted at a central location.

"Now that we can put employees into an atmosphere that's dedicated to training, we'll be able to teach them in a week what would

have previously taken two months," said Dan Kallesen, bakery director for the 28-unit chain.

"It's been difficult to train at store level because managers are judged on their numbers," making them reluctant to give more than cursory instructions because it would slow production, Kallesen added. The most innovative aspect of the new training program is the way in which the chain is "partnering" with one of its suppliers. It's teaming up with J.W. Allen & Co., a Wheeling, Ill.-based manufacturer of mixes, fillings and icings, as well as frozen cakes.

The supplier is doing the training, full-time, in a Harp's in-store bakery. Harp's has leased the bakery in its Fayetteville, Ark., store to J.W. Allen and also has sold the equipment in it to the manufacturer. That's not all. The retailer also has given up a valued, longtime employee in the process. Leon Martin, a 20-year veteran of Harp's, is now working for J.W. Allen as bakery training manager at the store. And Harp's doesn't mind at all.

"Leon's the perfect person for this. He's familiar with all our bakeries and our procedures. And now he can devote the time necessary for training our people," Kallesen said. While benefits will accrue quickly for Harp's, the major benefit for J.W. Allen -- aside from the obvious customer service the training constitutes -- is longer range. The supplier, which doesn't limit training to Harp's employees, is aiming to increase the skills of America's in-store bakery personnel. That, in turn, is expected to push up quality, production and profitable sales of baked goods. The end result: The supplier eventually will be selling a lot more of its products to its retailer customers.

What Harp's expects to get out of the arrangement is not just the obvious either. Certainly it expects to get better-trained managers and staffers who will turn out a quality, consistent product more efficiently. But the side effects will be nearly as valuable, Kallesen added.

"We expect this to cut way down on turnover. It'll boost morale among our employees. They'll come out of this program knowing what's expected of them. And they'll realize we're interested in them, in their careers," Kallesen said.

He said previous training at store-level could be frustrating for staff as well as for managers. Giving instructions piecemeal and in a hurry usually precluded telling employees why certain procedures are carried out.

"In the training bakery, they'll be told the whys of everything as they're taken through procedures," Kallesen said. Showing the trainees "the whole picture" is expected to hold their interest and help them remember.

"We'll tell them, for instance, why we take the temperature of the water to be used with a cake mix. If the water isn't the correct temperature, the cake can come out heavy," Kallesen said.

"Everything has to be balanced, including getting enough air into the mix. Bakers often blame it on the mix when a product doesn't turn out, but they shouldn't."

Training manager Martin said that besides giving detailed instructions, he'll also show trainees tell-tale signs that indicate a production problem.

"You can cut a doughnut in half and tell what's gone wrong. For example, if there are a lot of air spaces inside it, small holes, it was fried too long on one side," Martin said.

"Or if it has an odd shape, it's been dropped from too great a height into the grease," he added.

Training will be somewhat tailored to the participants and will be organized by task. For instance, trainees will go through an entire procedure, with explanations along the way, and time for questions, Martin said. Whatever the task, ways to minimize shrink will be given sharp attention all through the procedure.

"For instance, if we're running a bag of French bread mix, they need to know what yield they should be getting from it, and how to get it so they're not losing money," Martin said.

Martin and his full-time staff of eight at the training bakery will also instruct employees in equipment maintenance and repair. Duration of training will differ.

"If we just want to make a good doughnut frier out of somebody, three days would be enough. But if we want them to cover two or more tasks, a week is minimum," said Kallesen. He estimated cost of training at about $1,000 a week per person. While Harp's doesn't have to pay J.W. Allen for the training, the chain does pay its employees their regular salary while they're in training and also pays their expenses, including putting them up in a hotel, Kallesen pointed out.

"But if we get a good employee out of it, it's worth it. People development is most important. We could buy the best equipment and ingredients in the world, but if we don't have the people, it won't work," Kallesen said. He added that employees like it that Harp's will train them for the bakery. "If we have a good employee, maybe a wrapper who wants to become a baker, we can train them there. Or a checker who wants to get promoted, we'll consider sending him or her to bakery training.

"We haven't found experienced people in the job market, and we need to take care of our people. Especially in this area where we're competing with a low 2.5% rate of unemployment. We have a big chicken plant here that employs lots of people," Kallesen said.

In addition to reduced turnover and uplifted morale, he predicted other benefits from the training program.

"We'll be able to spot a person's strong points and weak points early. We'll report that to the respective manager or supervisor so they can follow up in the store setting," said Kallesen. Harp's will put some of its existing bakery managers through the training course first.

"Some came up through the cake-decorating arena and haven't had that much experience baking bread or in other areas of production," Kallesen said.

After the managers complete the program, assistant managers will be trained. Also, store managers who run a store that's getting a bakery department for the first time after a remodel, for example, will get overview training.

"We need for them to know, for instance, that we can make X dollars more if we put a bakery display table at the front of the store at particular times," Kallesen said.

While much of the training will focus on the techniques of the baking process, customer service and merchandising will also be emphasized. One segment of the training is devoted to handling customer complaints. And the store itself is its own lab when it comes to how and where to display products.

"That's part of the beauty of having the training center in a store," Kallesen said. Mark Richard, J.W. Allen's Division II vice president of sales and marketing, agreed.

"It's been our objective all along to train supermarket bakery people, but until recently we'd take the people to one of our facilities to do it. Having the training right in the supermarket, I think, is ideal," Richard said.

This is not the first such arrangement for J.W. Allen. It has a similar agreement with a Milwaukee-area Pick 'n Save unit, operated by Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis. That one has worked well, Richard said.

Why this particular Harp's store for this training site? "The location of the store is good and the volume is enough but not too high. It's medium. And the equipment is fairly new," said Richard. The bakery's location, at the back of the store, is less than ideal, Richard said. "My preference is the first corner up front, starting the traffic pattern," he said. But the training center's accessibility is a plus. The town has an airport, making it easy to fly trainees in.

This month the training center will be opened up to trainees other than those from Harp's. Part of the agreement with J.W. Allen is that the manufacturer can train others at the site.

And the manufacturer will give its own salespeople overview training and its own technical assistants brushups at the facility.

Richard said J.W. Allen hopes to open four more such training centers in cooperation with retailers in the next three or four years. The centers would be strategically located across the United States for accessibility.

Asked how the company decides on which of its customers it would like to make such a training arrangement with, Richard said philosophy is a major factor.

"We'd want them to have the same goals we have. For instance, our major aims are profitability and quality. We don't believe price should dictate a product's quality," he said.

And, of course, the customer has to believe in investing in people. Ideally, an in-store bakery should have 70% full-timers and 30% part-timers, Richard said. "But my guess is that, industrywide, the average is more like 50-50."

Harp's has a bakery staff that is about 70% full-time, Kallesen said.

Partnering of the sort J.W. Allen is doing with Harp's for training is not common in the industry, according to Richard. "As far as I know, none of our competitors is doing anything like this," he said.

"This is very much a working-together arrangement," said Kallesen, adding that he and Martin meet on a weekly basis and also keep in close contact on any product development or merchandising decisions.

In addition to paying rent to Harp's, J.W. Allen also pays a portion of utility costs and advertising costs. Also when it comes to buying packaging or other products that J.W. Allen doesn't manufacture, the leased bakery is treated as any other Harp's bakery would be," Kallesen added.

"If I'm looking to buy a truckload of frozen pies, which J.W. Allen doesn't make, I'll call Leon and ask him how many he can use and he'll be charged in the same manner as any of our other bakeries," Kallesen said.

"An outsider wouldn't see any difference in this bakery since J.W. Allen began leasing it," Kallesen said. "The products carry a Harp's label. And the bakery itself doesn't look any different than a bakery in any other Harp's store."

It's just that it's being run by J.W. Allen, which has its own profit-and-loss statement.

Naturally, the training bakery's bottom line dips below the chain's average bakery because there's a training manager and there's labor intensity involved in the training process.

"We went into this with the goal of breaking even," said Richard. "What's most important to us is showing our customers how to increase their sales and profitability."