When Juanita Chajon, research and development assistant at Eli’s Cheesecake, had trouble giving directions to Saritha Sangram, a hearing-impaired coworker, Chajon knew communications needed to be improved. “I had to write down everything,” Chajon says, and this slowed down operations in the specialty kitchen of the Chicago-based cheesecake factory. She went to Jolene Worthington, vice president of operations, to ask for help. “Jolene challenged us to go to the next step,” Chajon says, and encouraged her to enroll in a five-week signing class. Chajon found the class so successful that she’s signed up for a second class, and three more Eli’s employees have signed up as well. Best of all, Eli’s pays the $60 tuition per class for the employees.

This feature of an open communications program sprung directly from a pressing company need. For years, Eli’s, located on the northwest side of Chicago, was hard-pressed to find enough labor. The family-owned and operated restaurant company decided to make a virtue of the diversity of its neighborhood, where some 20 different cultures are represented. Eli’s draws about 60 percent of its 240-employee workforce from a five-mile radius around the factory. Ten percent of the company’s labor force has disabilities, and many others are from immigrant communities, including Bosnian refugees, who came to the United States in the mid-90s. Tapping a talented pool of workers is one thing, says Marc S. Schulman, president and son of founder Eli Schulman. “But it doesn’t help if you can’t communicate with the shift. Then you have a real problem,” he says.

Indeed, communicating openly and clearly with its diverse workforce is central to keeping the bakery running smoothly as it produces about 19,000 cakes a day for sale all over the world. “Now that we have open communications, we understand that we are all one team. We are able to solve problems,” says Worthington, who’s been with Eli’s for more than 17 years. “We have been working at this for eight years, and it is in the last four years that it has been working really well,” she says. “First of all, we agreed to improve our mode of communications. We posted our shared values on the walls of our meeting room and lunchroom. Once we stopped tolerating a lack of respect or cynicism, we began to appreciate team negotiation and improved problem resolution. We encouraged each other to come to meetings with solutions rather than gripes.” One measure that Worthington uses to assess success is the turnover rate. Last year, Eli’s lost six people out of 240. Schulman adds that the company has reduced its turnover rate during the past four years by five-fold.

To make sure that everyone understands each other, Eli’s makes sign language and English-as-a-Second-Language classes available to any worker who wants to take the classes. Through programs at Wright College, a neighboring community college, Eli’s has developed a partnership to provide its workforce with language and computer classes at a relatively low cost because the college is community-based. The partnership extends further: Eli’s hosts many neighborhood events in conjunction with the college, including a weekly farmer’s market in the summer and holiday events throughout the year.

Two-way team communications begin each day with five-minute team meetings followed throughout the day by three additional product evaluation meetings. This noon-time evaluation team also accommodates rotating associates who work in the office. Every Wednesday, the company holds triage meetings with foremen and managers to assess problems that arise during the week. “Everything at this company depends on the heart and hands of someone,” Worthington says. She stresses the importance of making employees feel that they’re in control of their work and workplace through continual communication.

The process of keeping Eli’s employees fully engaged leads to extensive cross-training, which aims to ensure that the workforce is adaptable and can keep operations running smoothly, even when employees are out sick. “What I like about [Eli’s] is that you’re always changing,” says Tina Troche, foreman of the packaging department, who’s been with the company five years. “We’re always challenged. The company encourages you to have goals,” she says. “Everybody is cross-trained to do every job across departments.” On any given day, Troche says she might go from working in her own department to the decorating department, depending on the day’s labor needs. Troche highly values the company’s respect for its workforce. “Leadership listens to us and encourages us to come up with new efficiencies,” she says.

In times of economic stress, worker flexibility can be critical to a company’s ability to respond quickly to market changes and new opportunities. “Diversity of the workforce and flexible training gives you an edge, especially in a volatile marketplace that we’re facing now,” Schulman says. In fact, take a stroll through Eli’s fragrant bakery, where cheesecakes of almost any imaginable flavor roll out of the ovens, and one can see the payoff. Since all of Eli’s production and packaging line workers are cross-trained to operate across departments, the company is ready for any challenge. When a large retailer recently ordered truck loads of product, Eli’s was able to dedicate production lines solely to the order and still keep up with higher volumes on other lines. With a flexible workforce “there are enough niches that you can open and take advantage of,” Schulman says.

Company: The Eli’s Cheesecake Company
Website: www.elicheesecake.com
Industry: Frozen foods, gourmet desserts
Location: Chicago, Ill.
Number of employees: 240
Sales: $30 million