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Prepping the Next Wave of Hospitality Workers, ProStart Expands in MN

Integrated Arts Academy students prepare and serve appetizers at ProStart’s Stars of the Future event in December. The fundraiser helps cover travel expenses for winning state teams to attend the National ProStart Invitational.

“We’re in the people business.” It’s an oft-repeated line from those in the hospitality industry and begs the question: What happens when a people business doesn’t have enough people? 

The labor shortage is affecting restaurants throughout the state, and in the Brainerd Lakes region where tourism is a key economic driver and Crow Wing and Cass counties have more than 180 resorts between them, it’s of particular concern. 

Training the next generation of the hospitality workforce is a priority, said Tom Kavanaugh, co-owner of Kavanaugh’s Sylvan Lake Resort in Brainerd, which is why he’s working with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce and local school districts to help expand one program he sees as part of the solution to area high schools.

“We don’t have trained culinary help, there’s a real shortage,” explained Kavanaugh, which is exactly why he wants to see Minnesota’s ProStart program extend its reach throughout the state. ProStart, a two-year high school program teaching culinary skills alongside foodservice management, is run through the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation in partnership with the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation. Students make connections with industry leaders, compete at the state and national level, can earn scholarships and, Kavanaugh stressed, get real-life experience they can use in future careers as cooks and chefs, managers and even restaurant owners.

“I think it’s the future of our industry,” said Kavanaugh, who since 2007 has held various roles within ProStart, including as a competition judge and chef mentor. “A lot of culinary programs have become too expensive for kids, especially if they don’t know if it’s what they really want to do. At the high school level, with ProStart, they can find out if this is really what they’re interested in and want to pursue.”

Thanks to the efforts of Kavanaugh and other restaurant owners and business leaders in the area, five schools—Pillager, Brainerd, Aitkin, Pequot Lakes and Staples-Motley—will add ProStart over the next year. 

Since its 2006 launch in Minnesota, ProStart has grown to include 44 schools, while the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to students pursing post-secondary education for careers in the restaurant industry or in lodging management. Betty Fisk, HMEF coordinator, said one of the program goals is to “elevate the reputation of the hospitality industry,” and “present the hospitality industry as a career opportunity.”

“The board saw we needed to be preparing a pool of potential employees,” said Fisk, a statement echoed by Pete Mihajlov of Parasole Restaurant Holdings, who as a member of the education foundation’s board of directors was involved in launching ProStart in Minnesota.

“One of the biggest challenges we have as operators is attracting young men and women to our industry,” said Mihajlov. “The labor issue began to surface even in 2006 and we knew ProStart would be a critical component … ProStart gives them a taste of not just what restaurants have to offer but the broader foodservice industry.”

At Elk River High School, where the ProStart culinary competition team will seek its fourth straight state title in March, instructor Monique Sabby said the curriculum focuses on industry standards.

Alyssa Savage from North Branch, who took first in knife skills at the 2016 MN ProStart  invite, dices carrots.

“We’re doing weights, we’re costing recipes,” she explained, also noting the focus on food safety and sanitation. “It’s real-world training.”  

Elk River’s ProStart students also run the school’s Hallway Café, a 90-seat restaurant with full commercial kitchen. “Our principal and district really support that career pathway,” Sabby pointed out. “It’s really where we need to go as far as our curriculums. Really connect the pathway from high school to post-secondary to a career.”

Industry connections, too, are crucial, and Elk River’s culinary team was given the chance to tour Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable restaurant in Minneapolis and cook its competition dishes for the acclaimed chef/owner. Senior Avalon Donat, who had already staged at La Belle Vie, walked away from that experience with an offer to work for Kaysen. 

“Everything we learn carries over and continues to build on itself,” said Donat. “Working in a kitchen is extremely stressful and you have to constantly be ready for whatever is next. One of the very first things I learned in the classroom that I have taken to heart is the term mise en place—or ‘to set in place’ … whether that’s scaling out all the ingredients to a chocolate soufflé or writing up business plans, being physically and mentally prepared for the task at hand is essential.”

“The delicacy, precision and discipline it takes to be a part of these restaurants is incredible,” Donat added. “It was such an amazing opportunity to work side-by-side with the best in the industry and soak up everything they had to say and the advice they had to offer.”

And even for those not considering a hospitality career, ProStart teaches transferable skills such as customer service, creative thinking and time management, while the culinary and restaurant management competitions give students the chance to engage directly with successful professionals. 

“The industry wants to bring in that next generation,” said Sabby. “And that’s what ProStart is for.” 

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