One of the company's key retention strategies is a pitmaster apprenticeship program.

It’s no secret that it has become increasingly important to love where you work. We spend a lot of time at our jobs and it makes a world of difference when we’re passionate about what we do and who we work for. With over 4 million Americans quitting their jobs each month, employee retention has become one of the biggest challenges facing hiring teams across the country. As the headlines have stated, this has hit the hospitality and restaurant industries particularly hard. Many industry leaders are left asking, “How do you navigate the war on talent and create an environment where employees want to stay long-term?”

One company rising up to the challenge is Sonny’s BBQ. Whether you’re at one of their restaurants or in their corporate office, it’s not uncommon to find people who have been with the company for many years. Training Manager Beth Kanupp has been with the company for over 20 years and has helped develop one of the brand’s key retention strategies: the pitmaster apprenticeship program. 

Kanupp started hosting at her local Sonny’s BBQ while she was in high school. After falling in love with the brand and culture, she went all in. Her efforts were recognized by promotion after promotion, landing her a general manager position in less than four years. As a general manager, she found her calling training team members, and eventually, she transitioned onto Sonny’s human resources team.  

“When I first started working with Beth, it was clear to me that she not only had a deep passion for training and development but a propensity to create something that truly reflected our vision at Sonny’s,” said Christie Schatz, Chief Talent Officer at Sonny’s BBQ. “We knew Beth’s strengths would make her a strong leader and her hard skills from her time spent in-restaurant gave her knowledge of day-to-day operations.”

Leaders like Schatz quickly recognized Kanupp’s talents for employee education and were quick to invest in her strategies, which included revamping Sonny’s pitmaster training program. The pitmaster apprenticeship course was first developed in 2013 to give all Sonny’s team members a clear advancement path within the restaurants. 

Under Kanupp, the program has evolved to recognize the diverse array of talent among team members, nurturing their strengths to encourage growth. This strengths-based approach sets Sonny’s apart in the hospitality industry.

“In traditional restaurant environments, the primary focus is on the guest experience. And while this approach can work, instead we prioritize our team members so they are empowered and motivated to deliver our signature hospitality and create a best-in-class dining experience,” explains Schatz. 

Understanding team members’ natural abilities and skill sets remains the foundation for all employee engagement and development initiatives throughout the company, including the pitmaster apprenticeship program.  

During a pause in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kanupp and her team took time to evaluate the program, enhance the courses and evolve the process. “Sonny’s has always been willing to invest in team members,” says Kanupp. “We want this new version to reflect that investment by empowering our pitmasters and their apprentices to lead.”

Investing in employees is pivotal to employee retention. In a Workforce Learning Report from LinkedIn, the study revealed that 93% of employees would stay at a company longer if they invested in their careers, and 70% of US employees agree that they’d rather leave their current company for a company that is known for investing in their development. 

“Retention is critical in a competitive labor market,” said Schatz. “One of the greatest tools we have to support our team members is investing in their futures. This is why we believe that development is so important for our people. We want them to clearly understand their roles and advancement opportunities, connect with our company as a whole and develop meaningful relationships at work.” 

After relaunching the Sonny’s pitmaster apprenticeship program, Kanupp remains hopeful that investing in team members will continue to be what separates Sonny’s BBQ from the rest. “If you want to invest in yourself, Sonny’s will invest in you too.”

Tanner Wenzel is a communications professional working across the hospitality industry for casual, quick service and restaurant brands. His love for food pairs well with his motivation to write about it, and he’s always ready to visit the next best restaurant in search of amazing cuisine. 

Expert Takes, Feature, Labor & Employees