As restaurants and other food businesses try to staff kitchens and front-of-house with reliable workers, and marginalized people seek paths to employment, apprenticeships can help bridge the food industry skills gap.
The Department of Labor recently touted apprenticeships as a way for food and beverage workers to learn on the job. Here’s a look at three food industry training programs across the country.
Fresh Chefs Society in Austin, Texas
Shaleiah Fox grew up in Florida’s foster care system, so she knew that as youth age out of foster homes, they often don’t learn how to cook for themselves. To fill that gap, she created a series of cooking classes for Central Texas foster youth in starting in 2012. “We would take chefs to group homes and do hands-on cooking demos,” says the founder and current board president of the Fresh Chefs Society in Austin, Texas.
When she also noticed a need for job training, Fox and Fresh Chefs Society began pairing culinary and vocational skills in a months-long paid apprentice program. “They work with community chefs, restaurants, food artisans in the Austin community to develop those pre-employment skills like communication, what you wear, how you present yourself and get hands-on experience working in commercial kitchens,” she says, noting that apprentices learn job skills and confidence in the kitchen, which is valuable whether they continue working in food or not.
Fresh Chefs Society has partnerships with a number of hospitality companies in Austin, including the JW Marriott, where one group of youths just completed an apprenticeship learning every aspect of the three restaurants onsite. Other apprenticeships have involved spending time on a farm or working a local ice creamery learning about small-batch production. Apprenticeships with caterers work particularly well, Fox says. “[Apprentices] cook and they eat,” Fox says. “We make sure that [apprentices] always enjoy a good meal to start normalize behavior [around social situations and meals].”
“They work with community chefs, restaurants, food artisans in the Austin community to develop those pre-employment skills like communication, what you wear, how you present yourself and get hands-on experience.”
The program is convenient for participating chefs and restaurants since the format allows them to give back during work hours and serve as positive role models to foster youth. “A lot of people in the restaurant industry aren’t traditional students,” Fox says. “To show them how they can be successful in life without a four-year degree is reaffirming for folks in the restaurant industry.”
Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City
It was a simple misunderstanding that eventually led Jessmyn Rodriguez to start a bakers-in-training program out of her home kitchen. “She told someone she had interviewed for a job for Women’s World Banking and someone thought she said Women’s World Baking,” explains Karen Bornarth, program director for the resulting Hot Bread Kitchen, a social venture that teaches immigrant women to bake and sell handmade bread.
The organization, which also operates as a shared commercial kitchen space for food enterprises called HBK Incubates, moved into its current East Harlem location in 2010, near a tract of public housing. While the majority of women in the bakers-in-training program are still foreign-born, the impact has expanded to include all women over 18, including those in public housing or those rebuilding their lives after domestic violence. “We find those women through a number of different channels: the international rescue community, the YMCA and New Americans program, the New Public Library and ESL classes,” Bornarth says. Women also join through alumni referrals.
One 30-woman cohort recently started four weeks of skills training hosted at New York’s International Culinary Center. “These women will get both baking training and soft skills training in professional skills, conflict resolution, how to manage your life and your job,” Bornarth says. “Foreign-born women receive additional ESL instruction.”
Bornarth says the training serves as “sort of an extended vetting period. They’re learning basic skills, demonstrating a readiness to work and a certain level of reliability and responsibility so that we can send these women into the industry with the Hot Bread Kitchen seal of approval.”
Women who successfully complete the 80 hours of skills training continue to a three-month apprenticeship, where they work at least three shifts per week and earn at least minimum wage. Bornarth says the Hot Bread Kitchen has 30 to 40 employment partners, including catering companies, cafeterias, restaurants and other bakeries. They’re always seeking more, and are open to customizing training for specific needs for barista or front-of-house positions. “They see this as leading to full-time regular employment,” she says. “If they let her go, we’re committed to helping her find work elsewhere.”
Culinary Academy at Westside Works in Atlanta, Georgia
Four years ago, Juliet Peters, culinary coordinator for Atlanta’s Levy Restaurants, helped create the culinary program at Westside Works, a neighborhood program that provides free job training to residents of Atlanta’s westside, a neighborhood Peters describes as “a community of displacement.” In addition to culinary training, Westside Works also provides training in construction, information technology, and certified nursing assistant certification—even hosting training sessions in homeless shelters.
The six-week culinary academy runs Monday through Friday includes lectures and labs on proper knife technique, kitchen safety, baking and pastry, and preparation for passing ServSafe Certification. Some students have kitchen experience and want to further their knowledge but Peters starts everyone with the basics. “Some people can pick up bad habits if they’ve been in the industry,” she says. “You have to realize you’re not cooking at home.”
Through a staffing agency, students also have the opportunity to get paid, hands-on experience at West Nest, a homestyle Southern cuisine concession stand at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium that is managed and operated by Westside Works culinary students and graduates. “People love our sweet potato tots,” Peters says. “We make our pickles, we make our dredging flour, we brine our chicken.”
Peters says graduates take tremendous pride in their work. “The relationship to Westside Works, they take that very seriously,” she adds. “It’s like a family. They’ve all been through different semesters, but they have that bond.” While many graduates go to work at West Nest, the irregular schedule of concession stands doesn’t suit everyone’s needs, which is why Peters helps with placements elsewhere too. “I have other partners in the Atlanta area who look to me for a consistent pipeline of employees,” Peters says.