Mentoring, real-word training give ProStart vocational students the edge

Exposure to restaurant industry role models, leaders help define ProStart student careers

This month, about 400 students descended on Washington, D.C. for the 2019 National ProStart Invitational (NPSI). The competition is organized by the National Restaurant Educational Foundation (NRAEF). ProStart is a comprehensive, classroom–to-work vocational program that trains students in the culinary arts and restaurant management.

State competitions determine the winners of each state. They then get to compete at the national level at the ProStart Invitational. For students participating in the ProStart vocational program, the benefits are enormous.

Take for example, Sharon Skutchan of Lincoln, Neb., who is a teacher that accompanied Nebraska’s state champions on their trip to the national competition in D.C. Her experience as a student with ProStart made her a better leader. She became more grounded, she says. Skutchan competed in both the culinary and management competitions in 2013.

Additionally, ProStart gave her the opportunity to become invested in learning. She spent three to four hours, two to three times per week on ProStart within the Milford Public High School system when she was a student. She now teaches there, helping kids train their culinary skills and recipe formulation, bringing the training she received full circle.

Sharon Skutchan, a ProStart teacher who is a private caterer and chef in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Sharon Skutchan, a ProStart teacher who is a private caterer and chef in Lincoln, Nebraska. Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.

Vocational programs connect with students

As a result of ProStart mentoring, It was a teacher, who early on helped Skutchan come “out of her box,” she says. This teacher encouraged her to have more poise and confidence, and be willing to “go into kitchens.” Now a private caterer and chef, Skutchan benefits from ProStart initiatives at the state level in Nebraska. To bring that back to the public school system within the ProStart environment is commendable. “I’ve found the most fun as being a mentor because I can watch the team work from beginning to end,” she says.

Two North Carolina students, Ky’ra Joyner and Micah Thomas, made the most of their experiences at ProStart Joyner was on the North Carolina management team presenting the Flippin Fire concept to judges at NPSI 2019. Both credit the program with helping them make connections with mentors and employers. ProStart mentoring and vocational training work.

Something Joyner won’t easily forget is the moment when a judge asked this: If the temperature is 66 degrees outside and the cooler stops working, and the temperature reads 41 inside the cooler, what do you do? She says students only heard the first part of the question and thought they should throw out the shrimp, which was actually at the upper range of proper safe temperature. The management students had come to too quick of a decision.

Teaching resilience, real-life work examples, ProStart mentoring

The North Carolina team presented the Flippin Fire restaurant concept to judges at NPSI 2019. Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.
The North Carolina team presented the Flippin Fire restaurant concept to judges at NPSI 2019. Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.

Questions like these stay with students, teaching them to be challenged. This type of exposure develops quick thinking in students. Samuel Stanovich, president, Stanovich Hospitality Inc. and area representative, Northern Illinois Northwest Indiana Firehouse Subs, says being exposed to the realities of what it’s like to be in restaurants is a main benefit of ProStart.

Stanovich’s involvement with ProStart has lasted for more than 15 years. “They have a better understanding of what it’s like to work in the industry,” he says. “And not to sugarcoat decisions.” His partners have helped train teams and contributed to ProStart mentoring, in addition to hiring ProStart students.

Thomas competed on the North Carolina culinary team. She was in charge of the appetizer, a Shrimp Escabeche with spiced, poached pear, on top of crunch almond brittles. Thomas then carefully serves them over lavender panna cotta and salted caramel. Students learn to expect the unexpected. She says there wasn’t as much room for equipment as they would have liked, and the team had to improvise, taking more time for the mise en place.

While Joyner was competing for the first time, Thomas competed previously at the state level. This is her second year with the ProStart program. Both North Carolina students say that teamwork is a big benefit of ProStart. Students can also connect with leaders and employers, which is another big benefit. Impressively, they each have already earned a scholarship to Johnson & Wales that can be used at the Charlotte campus. Thomas is preparing to enter the school’s program for Pastry Arts.

Building support at the state level

The North Carolina culinary team compete with heart, learn valuable career lessons.
The North Carolina culinary team members compete with heart, learn valuable career lessons. Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.

Mandy Hines, director of hospitality and education for the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association (NCRLA), works with the North Carolina ProStart program and says there have been many successes working with restaurant chain executives.

The trajectory of each ProStart program centers around the state restaurant associations. In the work that the NCRLA has done, they found success with positioning the programs as a pipeline for future workers. Hines suggests this message resonates with North Carolina-based hospitality companies. In Illinois, Stanovich says the state educational foundation awarded more than $2M in scholarships this year.

The NCRLA has secured significant sponsorship over the years. In fact, sponsors have helped North Carolina students get started with their careers, assisted with the team’s trip to D.C. for the ProStart Invitational, obtain supplies, and other resources and financial gifts. It is the sponsors who provided the team’s travel bags they took to the nation’s capital for the competition.

Developing a mutually-beneficial relationship

Students benefit from the softer skills, including customer service, PR and learning to speak professionally, notes Hines. As part of being immersed in a culture of hospitality, this is to be expected. But these softer skills can start to mold a culinary or restaurant management student into a complete professional.

Another way that restaurant chains benefit from involvement in ProStart is loyalty, Hines suggests. ProStart program students are not only employees, they’re also customers—potentially lifetime customers. Companies, like Brinker, Golden Corral and Marriott, embrace ProStart and the following and goodwill it creates. Companies like these have led the charge in North Carolina and “saw the potential that the program could have,” she says.

Photo credit: NRAEF (featured: Nebraska ProStart team, ProStart video), Eatery Pulse (inline photos)

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