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How free on-site childcare slashed turnover at my small business

Starr Edwards, founder of Bitchin’ Sauce, shares how offering free childcare augmented retention and hiring, especially during the worst of the pandemic.

How free on-site childcare slashed turnover at my small business
[Photo: goodmoments/iStock]

When Starr Edwards was a teenager, she tried experimenting with a raw vegan diet. “This was not during the plant-based movement that we have now,” she says. “Everything [vegan] generally tasted like cardboard, so I decided that if I wanted to eat something that tasted good, I was going to need to make it myself.” So Edwards whipped up a creamy, almond-based vegan dip. Years later, when she started selling the dip at her local farmers’ market, it was so well-received that Edwards realized she could build a business around her recipe.

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Over a decade later, Bitchin’ Sauce is on track to sell more than seven million tubs of sauce across 10,000 retailers nationwide. And at a time when the childcare industry is understaffed and reeling from the pandemic, leaving many working parents in a bind, Bitchin’ Sauce is providing a rare benefit to its employees: on-site childcare, free of charge. The company also pays its childcare workers competitive wages, along with the same benefits offered to other employees.

Edwards talked to Fast Company about why she started offering childcare benefits and what the impact has been on retention, particularly during the pandemic. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

“It was really important to me to be a present mom”

I think that the childcare concern is really a huge part of just our brand DNA. It’s my son on the tub of Bitchin’ Sauce. He was one and a half when I started Bitchin’ Sauce, and the main purpose of starting my own business was to provide for him, but also to not be in a situation where I have this beautiful little child that I never get to see. So it was really important to me to be a present mom.

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Bitchin’ Sauce gave us this incredible flexibility, where we got to take him to the kitchen every day, and he was right there with us. We would basically tag team—mom or dad watching him, making sure that he was all taken care of, and then the other person trying to make the sauce and [doing] whatever needed to happen. I really loved that. I thought it was such a great thing that at least he knew that we were always present in his life. And I really never wanted anyone else to have to make that choice of: Do I go and work for $15 an hour, which I then have to pay directly to daycare providers? Or do I stay home and try to do this myself and risk not having income for my family?

Two years ago, we expanded our footprint at our manufacturing facility. And the first thing that I decided was I’m going to have Bitchin’ Kids. We’re going to open it up to the employees who have babies and need a place for them to go during the day. Everything kind of fell into place. We have this amazing director of childcare. She was a friend of the family, and she was looking for a position. I was like, ‘I have a great position—let’s make this happen.’

Also, my chief of staff was amazing in putting it together. A funny story about how I hired her: She was a high school volleyball coach, and she was pregnant with her second child and was about to give birth within two weeks, and I [said], you should just come work for me. She was like, ‘I’m giving birth.’ I was like, ‘That’s even better! Bring your baby; this will be great.’ She was really instrumental in bringing this project to fruition.

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“Our last quarter, we were at 5% turnover”

[Bitchin’ Kids] has basically been growing as we see more need for it. During the last year, we had the same amount of kids enrolled, but we started seeing them a lot more often. Instead of seeing these kids after school, we were seeing them for the entire day. We brought in people who help with tutoring the kids [and] making sure that they got on their Zoom classes. And we have a bunch of new Bitchin’ babies, so we brought in some more folks who can hold the little guys. There’s actually quite a few infants there right now.

I think we shut down maybe for a grand total of two weeks. But we were considered an essential business in California, so we didn’t shut down entirely, and [our employees] really had no other options. Their options got even more limited due to the pandemic, where it was like even family members that they normally would have called in to help out, they’re trying to keep distance from. So it was a huge benefit to people to have a place where the kids are still being taken care of.

Our last quarter, we were at 5% turnover, which is really incredible based on national averages for this time. We typically have hovered just below 10%. I think one of the things that we have struggled with, and I think other companies are struggling with too, is hiring and growing during this time. And at first, our chief of staff came to me and was like, “We’re having a really tough time just getting anyone who’s interested in this.” And I told her, “Put in capital letters ‘free childcare’ on your postings, and see what happens.” And immediately, there was this huge influx of people. That just made all the difference to them.

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“Everyone touts work-life balance—and this is one of the most essential forms of that”

I think that a lot of [businesses] are concerned about the finances, but it’s not a burden at all. It is only a blessing, and we have very productive employees. We’re not looking to find profits through the Bitchin’ Kids program. This is just an opportunity to care for our people even better—and we just see better productivity. We’ve had our most profitable year since we started Bitchin’ Kids, even during a pandemic.

This past year has been a time [of] moving backward for women in the workplace. And I think that smart companies are going to realize that instead of limiting their pool of talent, they really should be offering something that allows for a holistic work-life balance. Everyone touts work-life balance—and this is one of the most essential forms of that. Can you care for your family and work at the same time? If people can find ways of doing that, whether it’s subsidizing outside care or doing it internally like we have, I think ultimately it’s in the company’s best interest.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.

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