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TRICKS OF THE TRADE: ProStart students learn valuable job skills. 

Cooking Up Opportunities

A new partnership between the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and area high schools supplies in-demand culinary workers to Central Minnesota resorts.

By Lynette Lamb

Tom Kavanaugh, co-owner of Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort, is glad he no longer runs a restaurant. “I used to hire 70 food-service staff each summer,” he said, “and I could never find that number of workers today.” Kavanaugh now only hires housekeeping and grounds staff. As an onsite owner, he says, he’s better able to manage less experienced workers, oftentimes local high school students as young as 15.

Kavanaugh’s, near Brainerd, is not alone in struggling for summertime staff. According to Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce president Matt Kilian, one area resort was forced to close down its profitable golf course food-service operation because management could not find enough workers to support it.

This workforce crisis, fueled by a combination of Baby Boomer retirements and a tight labor market, continues to expand as the popularity of the lakes region grows. “The Brainerd Lakes area has become a national tourism destination,” Kilian said. “And when people visit, they not only want to experience the area, they want to taste the area. Yet many of the larger resorts and restaurants, in particular, have experienced a significant shortage of hospitality staff, especially chefs and food service professionals.”

The situation has become so challenging that many resorts now rely almost exclusively on workers from Jamaica, Romania and other countries, who must secure seasonal immigrant visas—which can be difficult to obtain. Roughly 500 overseas workers fill out the Brainerd Lakes hospitality job ranks each summer.

Savory Solutions

To help resolve the issue, local resort owners and chamber staff came together in late 2016 to address the labor shortage and discuss possible solutions. Their winning idea: To become part of ProStart, a program sponsored by the National Restaurant Association, which trains high school students in culinary and other food-service skills.

ProStart is working together with an existing Brainerd Lakes Chamber-sponsored program called Bridges Career Academies and Workplace Connections, which has for nearly 20 years trained high school students for jobs in manufacturing, health care and other industries. The Initiative Foundation has provided regular funding to Bridges, a nonprofit, since its inception.

“Because we already had working relationships with area schools and resorts, it was easy to pull ProStart in,” said Mary Gottsch, executive director for Bridges. “We got it started really quickly.”

The ProStart program began in fall 2017 and has proven to be wildly successful, with 330 high school students in five school districts taking part. Instead of enrolling in traditional home economics classes, these high schoolers take Foods I and Foods II, which are taught in conjunction with a professional chef as a mentor. Students learn higher-level culinary and entrepreneurial skills; some also form cooking teams that compete at the state and national levels.

“The idea is that any student who completes the program develops lifetime cooking skills, and a subset of those students will see a pathway into a local culinary career,” said Kilian. Thanks to grants from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation, each of the five area schools—Pillager, Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, Aitkin, and Staples-Motley—was able to invest in the ProStart curriculum, train its teachers, hire a chef mentor and invest in additional professional equipment, from knives to blenders.

The hope, said Aitkin High School family and consumer science teacher Kelly Bast, is that “students will be able to walk into a kitchen job and have some basic culinary skills they can immediately use.” Meeting the chefs and other resort professionals who visit her classroom also allows students to start networking and find mentors in the field.

One of Bast’s own students is among those ProStart graduates who has put her education to good use. Emilee Miller, who was in the program for two and a half years at Aitkin High School, is now a chef at 3M’s Wonewok Conference Center just outside Park Rapids. “If it wasn’t for ProStart, I don’t think I would have gone into a culinary job, which I really love,” she said. The best reward, Miller said, is when she has finished preparing the food and takes a step back to admire her cooking triumphs. “Then I just get this big smile on my face and am so proud of my work!”

Even if they don’t pursue cooking professionally, students learn the life skill of cooking from fresh ingredients, something that many students have never done, said business and ProStart teacher Ann Hutchison of Pillager High School.

Top Chefs

 Bast, Hutchison and other high school faculty have taken part in the ProStart Summer Institute training at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wis. “The chefs there did a fantastic job helping us understand proper culinary methods and techniques so we can transfer that knowledge to our students,” said Bast. “It’s also a great opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and get ideas for implementing the curriculum into the classroom.”

Roughly 90 students were enrolled in Aitkin’s ProStart program last year, said Bast, with some going on to work in the local resort industry this past summer. Besides mastering knife skills, creating basic sauces and stocks and other cooking fundamentals, students learned restaurant management, nutrition, safety and sanitation, purchasing and other food service essentials.

They also took regular field trips to area resorts and kitchens. Staples High school students, for example, saw the entire operation at Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake, while other ProStart students visited Grand Casino, Grand View Lodge and Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge. “They’re not just learning from texts, they’re learning from chefs,” said Kilian.

ProStart students can complete the program with a one- or two-year certificate that is recognized by area resorts. Kilian and Gottsch are determined to grow, perhaps even double, the ProStart program over the next few years. With the closing of two major Twin Cities culinary programs, Kilian said programs like ProStart are needed in Minnesota—and in the Brainerd Lakes area—more than ever before.

“The Brainerd Lakes area is synonymous with Minnesota tourism,” said Kilian, “and has grown economically largely through tourism.” When people vacation, he added, they spend five times more on food than they typically budget for it. “We have to have experienced, top-notch chefs to deliver on that demand.”

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