Alex Koons’ 4 Steps for Interviewing Potential Pizzeria Employees

Does anyone want to work anymore? Yes, but to find the right person, you need to be patient and follow this four-step interviewing process.

By Alex Koons

Hiring new team members has been a huge challenge for restaurants coming out of the pandemic. It’s something many owners and managers have complained about. There have even been whole panel discussions on this topic at multiple pizza trade shows.

I, too, have felt the stress of not being able to find great people to join my team at my restaurants. So I started thinking about what things were like before the pandemic. And you know what? People were hard to find back then too. This isn’t a completely new challenge—there’s just a new target on which to place blame.

When I was 18 working at a grocery store that was struggling to find staff members, I remember people saying stuff like, “I guess no one wants to work anymore.” That was 2003. Twenty years ago.

Related: 4 tips for hiring and retaining better pizzeria employees

Here is something that took me years to understand: It’s always worth waiting for the right person for the job to come along. Even if you are dying to fill a position, even if you needed the help two weeks ago, even if you are personally filling in just to keep the ship from sinking, wait for the right person. Don’t hire the easy option.

I’ve made the mistake of hiring a friend, someone else’s friend, someone who seemed “good enough,” or even a person with red flags flying around their head that were “overlooked.” This has led to employees calling me from jail, the hospital, or just not showing up. It has led to employees stealing, lying, harassing or getting into fights with other members of the team, vandalism, cuts, burns, tears and bruises…

It’s easy to be blinded when you’re under the gun.

a young woman in a gray shirt and black visor talks on the phone while slicing a pizza in a delivery box
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The golden rule of hiring, according to my interpretation, goes like this: As long as you aren’t a piece of s—, people will want to work for you. So make sure you got that going for you. Throw in a higher pay than what’s offered anywhere else, and always respect your employees’ time.

The right people always come along—maybe not exactly when you need them, but they will always show up, especially for pizza shops. The coolest people work at pizza shops.

I am obviously biased, but I’m telling you, the easy hire is also the really tough fire six months later. When you create opportunity and treat your people with love and respect, the need to find someone new presents itself less and less.

How do you find the right person you ask? The answer, in my opinion, is: You have to work for it.

Related: 5 ways to put a stop to pizzeria employee turnover

To help find the right people for my pizzerias, I have created an interview process that entails some work. Requiring a candidate to go through multiple steps allows you to not just hear someone talk about working, but to make them put actions to those words. Here is an outline of the four-step interview process I use to hire.

Step 1: Email Interview. After I receive a potential team member’s resume, I use the email interview as an important introduction. This is a painless way to see how timely someone is and how thorough they are with their answers. It’s an easy way to filter through a list of candidates by asking important questions about availability, experience and a little bit about the person before asking them to hop on the phone.

Example questions:

  • How much experience do you have?
  • What is your availability?
  • What do you like to do outside of work?
  • When are you available for a phone interview?

Step 2: Phone Interview. Here is when I dive a little deeper to try and get to know the person a little better. The biggest thing I am looking for here is that the person is ready for the interview—i.e., that they pick up the phone on time. About half the time, in my experience, the interview process is over when the interviewee doesn’t answer their phone. When the phone is answered, I am listening for confidence, clear answers, and high energy. All in all, I am also just trying to get to know the person a little better.

Example questions:

  • What attracts you most to this position and company?
  • What was the best thing about your last job?
  • Tell me about a time when you had a difficult working relationship with a colleague. What was the challenge, how did you address the situation, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Who has the best pizza in (your town)?
  • When are you available for an in-person interview?

Step 3: In-Person Interview. In person, it’s all about being on time for me. Time is so important in restaurants, and anyone who shows up late will not be interviewed. This step is similar to the phone interview, but it’s more personal because it’s face-to-face. It’s a great way to converse with a potential team member, get to know them, and make sure their personality will fit in with the rest of your team.

Example questions:

  • What is your biggest weakness?
  • What is your biggest strength?
  • How would you define a sense of urgency?
  • What is your favorite restaurant, and why?
  • What is your favorite thing to cook?
  • Name two accomplishments that you’re extremely proud of.
  • What are three things that you will bring to this job?
  • Do you have any questions for me?
this shows a woman wearing a COVID mask, a black shirt and white apron cutting onions on a plastic board in a restaurant kitchen
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Step 4: Candidate Presentation. If the in-person interview goes well, I will ask the candidate to do a task in the restaurant. For example, if it’s a cashier position, I will make a mock phone call. If it’s a driver, I’ll have that person fold five boxes. If it’s a cook, I’ll have them cut onions. This might sound silly, but I am not really looking for someone to be the fastest or the best. I’m just looking for someone who takes it seriously. Someone who doesn’t scoff or get weird about taking a fake phone call or think they are too good to cut an onion the exact way I want it done.

This four-step interview process has proven to be a much better process than what I was using before, which was basically hiring people after speaking to them for five minutes. You or your GM will have to put in a little more work to vet someone great, but I will say, with 100% of my heart, that you get what you put in. I hope this helps. Always wait for the right person! Good luck and godspeed!

Alex Koons is the owner of Hot Tongue Pizza and Purgatory Pizza in Los Angeles and a columnist for PMQ Pizza Media.