Interview With Val

FindWRK Team

Categories: Employer Interview

November 22, 2022

In this interview, Matt Parkin, Business Development Lead at FindWRK is joined by Valerie Upfold. Val has worked in the hospitality industry for several decades, in both hotels and restaurants. She has worked in Canada and Australia in various capacities including Restaurant Manager, Sommelier and HR Director.

She worked with Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality for 15 years – five in a Manager and Sommelier role at the acclaimed Canoe Restaurant in Toronto and ten as the HR Director for the company. Starting the HR department from the ground up, Val developed all of O & B's HR processes including training and development programs, succession planning and complete recruitment strategies, helping take them from 100 employees to over 1500. She has now been recruiting in hospitality for ten+ years and offers HR consulting, making her a go-to for some of the hospitality industry's most known and loved brands. In addition, Val conducts food TV casting, with an eye for placing the best talent in front of the camera.

Her knowledge of the hospitality industry and the people in it is unparalleled and she lends her knowledge to both Centennial College and George Brown College, sitting on the hospitality school advisory committees. Val has lectured at the University of Guelph's HAFA program and has spoken at a wide range of industry events across the country. Val donates her time, through the Canadian Executive Service Association (CESO), toward economic and social change by supporting the hospitality sector in developing markets.

MP: Val started her career at Oliver and Bonacini working as a restaurant General Manager and HR Director before moving into the hospitality recruiting space. She now runs her own recruiting company: Val Upfold Inc. connecting hospitality companies with top management talent, so great to have you here for a little interview today, Val, and hopefully our audience gets a lot of value from this.

VU: Thanks for having me, I’m excited to talk.

MP: Awesome, so let’s start off career path journey wise. What sparked your interest in the hospitality space after studying commerce at UWO and what’s kept you in the industry since then?

VU: I think a lot of us ended up in hospitality restaurants because we worked in the industry through university. So, I bartended and served in bars and restaurants all through university, travelled around the world and obviously that’s a transferable skill, so I was able to work in lots of different countries. When I was working in Sydney, Australia, someone just said “do you want to try to be a manager,” and I thought oh, ok, sure, so it started like that. I started managing and then came back and got the job at Canoe and then moved into HR, so I mean I think that, even I can remember doing a project at Western and then it sort of donned on me, ‘I can be in business and be in restaurants, I can kind of pair these two things together. And that’s when I started to think of it as more of a career, thinking of opening my own place. I think what got me into it and kept me was just the energy, the adrenaline. I needed to do lots of things at once. I’m not the kind of person who just wants to sit somewhere, so it gave me the business side of it but also being able to do different things everyday really.

MP: I love that, it’s nice for people to hear who often have an interest and they don’t think they can make a career out of it, right? So, it’s really great that you were able to find that and combine your love and passion for business and restaurants.

VU: Yeh, it was great.

MP: And for those who have followed in your footsteps and maybe they’ve gone and opened their own restaurant, a lot of time staffing is a challenge, so do you have any guidelines that you think employers should consider, whether it’s to fill their roles themselves or maybe to come to someone like you to get some help.

VU: I mean really I just do management and executive roles, but I would always say to people because my background is HR - like you said, I was HR Director fo O & B Restaurants, which has you know when I started there were 3 restaurants and when I left there were over 20 and now there’s probably over 30 - I would say it’s always better to promote from within, because that’s one way you’re going to keep the best people. I‘m always preaching ‘retention, retention, retention’ because if you keep someone around, it’s going to cost you way less money in the long run, they already get your culture, they understand who you are, you already know them. It’s always going to be hands down the best thing to do, except, for a couple of reasons: 1) is if it’s a confidential search, there’s someone that maybe you are unhappy with and you need to find someone to fill their spot, so you wouldn’t be able to advertise it. Or, maybe it’s that there’s no one left to promote, you’ve already promoted everyone, you need to bring someone new in. Or, maybe you do have people to promote but sometimes it’s good to bring in new ideas and shake things up, so retention is really important. But you also need to bring other things into the mix as well.

MP: I like that, I like the retention piece. We’ll come back to retention in a second. Do you find that a lot of clients, I’ve seen this too, people will say, ‘I don’t work with recruiters.’ What are some typical misconceptions that you find people have when they’re saying that and what are some things that are not so true about working with recruiters.

VU: Yeh, it’s funny, I don’t know if people are saying it less these days because there’s such a labour and talent shortage. I haven’t actually heard it at all this year in fact. People who used to say it are now dropping cheques off to me, retainers, begging me please, please, please to do the work, whereas they might have been the ones before who were saying ‘I don’t use recruiters.’ I think think that when I got into recruiting, I was aware of that preconception of recruiting, I remember going out with a friend, and saying that recruiters can be kind of sleezy, and I remember her saying, maybe that’s industry but that doesn’t have to be you. A lot of people think that they’re paying for something that they could be doing on their own. They don’t understand the full cycle of all the things we do, they don’t understand the full value behind it, so I think that is a big part of what I’ve done, too, is try to educate people about what recruiting is. It’s the same thing with HR, there’s so much more to all of that and I think it’s just educating people about what it is because there have been unethical recruiters out there, people who are just throwing everything against the wall, whatever sticks, making some easy money, but I think it’s just educating people in all the different things that recruiters do.

MP: I resonate with that education piece and the part that you mentioned about stereotypically being sleezy. I found for me, I do a lot of sales in my role, and so when I got into sales, you know that stereotypical connotation of, of ‘oh you know, ‘the sleezy door-to-door sales person’ was present. But for me, I’m helping people solve their problems. And instead of selling my time, I’m selling a solution, so I like to think of it that way because it helps de-stigmatize it.

VU: Yeh, and I agree and I think what you’re saying right, recruiting is basically selling, you’re selling to the clients and you’re selling to the candidates, but it’s a different kind of selling, so we just need to be able to see the value in it.

MP: Exactly, and speaking of value, I’m sure there will be times that you’re reaching out to job seekers, you’ve got roles you need to fill and they’ll say, no I’m not interested. What are normally turn-offs for job seekers when you’re offering them roles and what kinds of things can employers be doing to help their jobs and their positions stand out to candidates?

VU: I think right now and I’m only speaking specifically to hospitality, we’ve just come out of a pretty dark patch for hospitality. People are wary to leave becaus they think that it’s first in, first out. There have been a lot of lay-offs over the last three years. I think that’s what’s hard for people now, people aren’t comfortable leaving, it’s taking a lot more to get people to leave. One thing that I could say that’s taking that whole thing out of the picture is too many people are working on the same search at times. If people see the same job advertised too many times or on too many channels they could get turned off of it. If you have the same turnover in the same job, switch up the title, because people do see that stuff and it’s a small industry. People talk, so it’s good to kind of keep those little things in mind.

MP: And that ties into that retention piece you were mentioning because for me as a job seeker, if I was applying to a role that had been posted multiplfe times, over the last year, I would wonder, why are people not staying in that role. Is the compensation not good? Is there something about the culture? Is there not a good work environment? There could be some issues there.

VU: Definitely, I think the other thing that employers need to consider now is that obviously money is important and everybody wants to make money and pay their bils, but there are other ways to attract talent. You can show off other aspects of benefits or flexibility. Maybe there’s flexible benefits where young folks can choose gym equipment over RSP, or one weekend a month off. It doesn’t have to be things that cost money. It could be trips you take with your staff, the way that you show off your culture. People won’t leave if there’s something that’s keeping them there or which makes them feel secure. There’s more to it than money.

MP: Absolutely, we saw it on a survey that we did, that people are looking for growth opportunities. Money was still in the top three but it wasn’t the top one.

VU: Of course, it’s always going to be there, but again, having a career development path is important. If you’re a small operator and you don’t have a big HR department, that’s ok, just come up with something where you’re listening to people and you have some proof that people have been promoted. You can do basic stuff, that makes a difference.

MP: And you mentioned job sharing, is that something that you can elaborate on a little bit?

VU: Yes, this is something that we did at O & B a few times, managers perhaps want to work part time, they still loved the industry but were perhaps new parents. In large companies, there is usually more than one person who wants to work part-time or go to school part-time. Hospitality has been fairly slow to pick up the things that other industries do, but it works. People get caught in a box where they feel they have to work a lot of hours to get ahead, but that’s definitely not the way it is. It helps with retention and attraction. It’s good for the employees and the employers.

MP: I’ve seen some retail stores pick up that concept with co-managers, so that could be something that hospitality could pick up.

VU: I think they should for sure, because operations people can’t work from home, so there has to be other ways to do flex work.

MP: You posted about mental health and wellbeing in the industry recently, what are some things that stand out to you?

VU: I think that the one really important thing is just that people are talking about it. I don’t know if you know Not 9-5? It talks about the way we all need to do smart serve or safe food handling, or first aid. You may also need to have Not 9-5. I know there’s a chef’s running group right now, and it’s important to make sure that people are taking their breaks. We’ve all known that the hospitality industry is the hardest hit when it comes to mental health or substance abuse. That only got worse during covid, so it’s just thinking about and recognizing it and talking to people. It’s important to keep it front of mind for managers and just make sure that there isn’t that same stigma attached that there has been, because if we know we work in an industry that has high levels of that, then we need to do extra work than other industries really to prevent it.

MP: I love that, going above and beyond to taking care of your people first, because we’re in the people business in hospitality. You have to treat your people right, so that they treat the customers right.

VU: Yes, exactly and if you have to work a lot of hours, and it comes down to working smart, not hard. It can feel like you’re doing a lot of work, but that’s not necessarily true, so recognizing that is also something that’s been different over the past couple of years.

MP: Yes, working smarter and not harder, I like that. I wrote a piece recently on efficiency vs. prioritisation and sometimes, just because you’re getting a lot of stuff done, it might not be the right things.

VU: I think that’s funny because we used to say we’re always focusing on the urgent rather than the important. There’s always urgent stuff happening and then we forget to do the important stuff, so it’s keeping that in mind too. There’s always some sort of fire to put out but the things that we should be working on get pushed to the back, so thinking how to sort of balance those two as well.

MP: Yes, that makes a lot of sense. The Eisenhower Matrix there where it has the urgency and the importance and helping people delegate and eliminate. Well, those are all of the questions we have for you, do you have any parting words of wisdom?

VU: No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think it’s an exciting time for hospitality, there’s lots of new things happening, there’s lots of opportunity to continue getting better, but we can see that things are changing, that we’re starting to catch up with other industries. I think it’s just getting people back into the business that is going to take a bit longer, but there’s lots of glimmers of hope.

MP: That’s awesome, well thanks for joining us, Val. Where can people get in touch with you?

VU: My website is pretty easy: and my contact info is there.

MP: Awesome, thanks so much, Val.

VU: Alright, thank you.