Speaking of the Food Industry
According to the 2010 census, we have nearly 800 languages spoken throughout the five boroughs, with over 170 languages spoken by students in our public schools. In a city with such linguistic diversity, it makes sense our workplaces see representation from a least a few languages. Where many of us communicate in English as our native tongue, others speak English as a second language. Our food industry sees a variety of spoken languages as varied as the cuisines.
As Ed Clark, the warehouse manager for Citarella at Hunt’s Point says, “Even with a college education, speaking English ends up being a prerequisite for advancement—you need to be able to understand and communicate in English.” He notes, “Managers need to be able to make presentations and prepare written reviews, so having fluency becomes necessary to move into a management position.”
Citarella, a long-time, family-run food purveyor known for their quality seafood has strong ties to the community. With over 1100 employees company-wide, over 300 work at their Hunts Point warehouse and many speak English as a second language. With a majority of the warehouse employees being Spanish speaking, he says you’ll find speakers of French, Farci or Arabic on the warehouse floors, too.
Clark says the company promotes from within and one of the core values is education or increasing knowledge—that any employee can be taught at any level. “It’s important,” he says, “if the objective is to grow, to access the talent in every individual; the Citarella family will go to great lengths to give individuals the knowledge they need to succeed.”
“We are a family business and value our employees, many who have been with us for a number of years. We want to invest in their future.” Says Mary Checo, Citarella’s human resources manager.
That’s where ESL Works comes in.
The human resources department identified Rachael Nemeth of ESL Works, already known for work with Union Square Hospitality Group and started implementing the program at the Citarella warehouse during the summer of 2016. Now, with nearly 50 students and four ESL Works classes being offered, there’s currently a wait list to enroll. The classes are voluntary and Citarella offers the classes at no charge to employees. Nemeth launched ESL Works in 2016 with one class and is opening the new year with over 20 classes across the NYC metro area and will be online in San Francisco. Citarella is also adding ESL Works Master Classes in 2018 to their program to focus on leadership communication for new managers.
Esteban Rojas, a savory kitchen manager started with Citarella 17 years ago, working in the sandwich department. He enrolled in the ESL Works class nine months ago. He said he signed up for the classes because he was starting to work with new employees. “The people I was working with were native English speakers and it was challenging.”
Rojas says the class has shown benefits beyond the workplace. His young daughter will sometimes come to him with questions. “One reason to learn the language better is to be able to help her with homework—
I’m so thankful for the class, I learn more and communicate with others in a better way.”
While some employees like Ronnie Duran the cheese department manager who enthusiastically signed up for the ESL Works classes and sees the benefit for refining their use of verb tenses or learning about idioms, others point to the practical use of the language in everyday circumstances.
Luciano Ponce, the overnight supervisor for the kitchen who started with Citarella in 1994 and graduated from the program just a month ago says, “I travel out of the country a few times a year, and it’s a smoother process when going through security at the airport,” and notes it’s easy to unintentionally answer questions in the wrong manner if you don’t fully comprehend what’s being asked or navigating these sorts of situations. He adds, “I was skeptical at first about signing up and a little shy, but after two or three classes, I was doing ok and it gave me more confidence. I have the ability to help my twin boys and integrate into society more. I encourage the staff to consider the classes.”
Says Checo, “Obviously we are very excited about ESL Works and the progress we have seen with our employees. We wanted to offer them this opportunity because we believe in their potential to possibly grow within our organization and did not want language to be the barrier that would hold them back from potential opportunities.”
Clark has even noticed a change at the warehouse. “Some of the employees might never have interacted in this way before, either because of their schedule or as a result of working in different departments. The learning environment has provided a community building experience and you see more friendships,” and adds, “there’s a different outlook, you see a higher level of performance as their perception of their job shifts.” He continues, “People are more engaged and excited about really trying to speak English, but it’s also about the humanity, the connections being made.”
“We want the industry to know that we are here, and the outcomes of this program are measurable – within the past six months alone, one-third of ESL Works students have reported earning promotions or higher wages. English training is more than a workplace benefit, it's a legitimate professional development tool that can transform the productivity of a workplace and change the industry,” says founder of ESL Works, Rachael Nemeth.
Says Lisette Pichardo, “While being in a class such as this has a positive impact on your work environment, it also has a benefit in that it opens your ears, it’s easier to understand the lyrics of a song, the news, or a movie and if you are motivated, you’ll find a way to learn. The opportunity is here.”
Pichardo came to Citarella seven years ago, brought from her last position by Carolina Perego, a native Italian speaker who is now the executive pastry chef for the company. Pichardo serves as Perego’s assistant. Perego has lived around the world, working throughout Italy, Japan, in Hong Kong and Singapore and London.
“I came to Citarella and while I am able to communicate in Spanish, it’s important for us all to be able to communicate well in English – it’s important for me to expand my vocabulary to better communicate with my staff and be an effective leader,” says Perego who manages a team of 44 in the pastry department.
Nemeth says, “We want managers of non-English speakers to walk away remembering E Pluribus Unum (“Out of many, one”). Everyone tells their own story at work and in life. And when an employee is promoted as a result of learning English, then everyone wins.”
In this season, Jhonnattan Diaz, promoted this year to the position of overnight warehouse manager puts it best, “The opportunity was offered and I wanted to improve. I needed to understand all that my boss wanted. Being a part of the classes as it was the way to move up in the future and gain confidence. I feel agracido – so grateful – for this opportunity to grow in responsibilities and improve myself and do the job well.”