Nov 30, 2023 - Business

Pizza-making, anyone? Whole Foods aims to revive culinary apprenticeships

Illustration of a certificate with a pizza-shaped stamp on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Butchery, cheesemongering, cake decorating and soon pizza-making: Whole Foods Market is reviving the flagging art of culinary apprenticeships.

Why it matters: In an era of labor shortages, apprenticeships are a proven workforce training model that inspires employee loyalty and drives customer satisfaction.

Driving the news: Whole Foods aims to add at least two new apprenticeships annually to its growing roster of career development programs, which already help employees become butchers, Certified Cheese Professionals and bakery decorators.

  • The next two apprenticeships: pizza-making and produce specialist, to be followed by fishmongering.
  • These are paid, learn-on-the-job positions, typically with no experience required.
Cathy Strange, a Whole Foods executive, stands in front of a display of tomatoes and cheese.
Cathy Strange, Whole Foods' ambassador of food culture, showed off the Parmigiano Reggiano on opening day of a Jersey City, N.J. store. Photo: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

Where it stands: "We have the most certified cheese professionals in the world," said Cathy Strange, a 32-year Whole Foods veteran, who in August was given the new position of "ambassador of food culture."

  • Strange, an ebullient brand champion with a Julia Child-esque vibe, was named to oversee the apprenticeship programs by Jason Buechel, who took over as Whole Foods CEO in 2022 from founder John Mackey.
  • It's "one of our four core pillars to invest in our team members' development," Strange told Axios during an opening-day tour of a Jersey City, N.J. store earlier this month.

How it works: Whole Foods' apprenticeships are intense and time-consuming,

  • The butchery program involves two six-month phases combining training and on-the-job experience.
  • Becoming a Certified Cheese Professional (CCP) takes years and involves passing an American Cheese Society exam.

Details: Cheese apprentices start by working on the store floor and taking an online course called Cheese 101.

  • Trainees then move on to a "foundational learning" course that "breaks out the categories and goes specifically into the cheese criteria" and product descriptions, Strange said.
  • After 4,000 hours β€” two years β€” "you have the ability to apply to be a candidate for the Certified Cheese Professional program, which is a half-year of training."
  • Candidates not only sit for the external exam, but also visit Whole Foods' cheese-making partners at their farms.

πŸ§€ Slice deeper: Earning the certification translates to more money and broader career options.

  • "The fact that they invest in us so much for education β€” and the connection you get with your [cheese] producers β€”Β is a big part of the reason why we come to work every day," says Sean Collier, a 15-year Whole Foods veteran who just earned his CCP this year.
  • "It's a source of inspiration," says Collier β€” who also became a Certified Cicerone, a qualification for beer experts, in 2013.
  • "So Whole Foods actually invested in me twice," he told Axios. "I'm a beer nerd and a cheese nerd now."

What they're saying: "We're really proud of it," Dana Stanley, who directs culinary execution and education at Whole Foods, tells Axios of the company's cheese apprenticeship β€” which began in 2012 and counts more than 300 graduates.

  • "I've been selecting team members to take the exam since the inaugural year," she said. "We try to push so many people through it because we want to grow the industry. And when you become a CCP, you have a responsibility to move the industry forward."
  • "So it's not only about what are the history of the cheeses and what the cheese has always been, but it's really looking towards the future, deciding: What does the future of cheese look like?"

Zoom out: Whole Foods is taking a different approach from most supermarket chains, which prioritize management training as a career path.

  • Other supermarkets' apprenticeships tend to tilt away from hands-on food expertise: Price Chopper has a program for truck driving, and Tesco has one in finance.
  • But a few do advertise apprenticeships: Gerrity's Supermarkets, for example, a regional chain in Pennsylvania, offers apprenticeships in meat cutting.

What's next: Details are still being worked out on the pizzaiola training program, but it will involve learning to stretch a proprietary dough that's become standard across all the stores, said Jeff Turnas, Whole Foods' SVP of culinary.

  • The apprenticeship is "intended to be one that's got some art to it, but anybody can, with the proper training, really stretch the dough," Turnas told Axios. "It's an easy stretch."
  • That said, there will be "no shortcuts taken" in the training program.
  • "Really, you are training people in the art of making pizza versus a pre-formed, pre-baked or parbaked crust," Turnas said.
At left, a pizza maker offers slices to customers at a Whole Foods store; at right, a butcher carves meat inside a Whole Foods.
Pizza-making will soon be an apprenticeship opportunity at Whole Foods, just as butchery is today. Photos: Clifford A. Sobel for Axios

The big picture: Under Buechel's leadership, Whole Foods has been reinventing its corporate culture in a way that aims to get all employees whipped up about the food β€”Β its quality, sourcing and sustainability.

  • "When Jason took over from John Mackey, he had some ideas as he was out in the field speaking with team members," Strange said.
  • He saw "there was an opportunity to re-engage and inspire around our food" and the stories of the people who grow and produce it β€” and the company's view of itself as "mission-driven."

Fun fact: A "turophile" is another name for a cheese connoisseur β€” derived from an irregular formation of the Greek word for cheese, tyros, according to Merriam-Webster.

The bottom line: Supermarket jobs are better known for high turnover than for launching successful careers for artisans, but Whole Foods' approach could break that mold.

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