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ProStart fundraising goal set at $3M

NRAEF also makes changes to student culinary competition

Industry leaders said they have set a $3 million fundraising goal to pay for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s two-year ProStart curriculum, which helps to train high school students to work in the foodservice industry.

The NRAEF said it already has received more than $1 million in donations for ProStart, which offers in-school training for higher schoolers in culinary arts and hospitality management. The program currently has 90,000 students in 45 states working toward the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement, which denotes that they have met certain academic standards and learned core industry competencies.

ProStart plans include investing more resources into the program at the state and national level, increasing the number of schools and students participating, and awarding more scholarships for students looking to attend culinary school or college.

State competitions for the ProStart Invitational also have kicked off, and student teams in the management or culinary competition will vie for a spot in the 10th annual National ProStart Invitational to be held April 29 to May 1 in Overland Park, Kan.

The competition has undergone several changes over the past two years, adding new competencies that judges and industry advocates say have produced students better prepared to enter the industry.

Culinary skills competitors will develop a menu of three dishes, as always, but now also must demonstrate knife skills and the ability to process a whole chicken.

Meanwhile, in the management section of the contest, student teams are asked to develop their own restaurant proposals. The students give a live presentation of their concepts to a panel of industry professionals and must answer judges’ hypothetical operations questions.

Tasking the competitors with creating a restaurant concept and developing menu items, calculating food costs, and formulating marketing plans and operations best practices has made the contest “more engaging with the students and the sponsors and judges,” said Megan Meyer, manager of marketing and communications for the NRAEF.

Carol Vajanyi, director of staffing for the eastern region of Golden Corral Corp. and a judge for the management competition at ProStart’s national invitational, agrees that the NRAEF gets more buy-in from students by making them think. Compared with students going through the old format, current management students show greater willingness to adapt and apply hospitality theories rather than engage in rote memorization when they develop and run their own restaurant concept, she said.

“It was a night-and-day change,” Vajanyi said. “We didn’t make them think before with studying a book. This is more like real-world scenarios that are going to happen: like your hot-water heater breaking down on Saturday night or a guest finding a hair in their food. When I went into the field as a manager, I didn’t know this stuff, so it’s great that we’re getting them early.”

Vajanyi added that she was pleased to see such a large majority of student restaurants she judged to be built around current restaurant trends, like the farm-to-table movement for locally sourced, fresh ingredients.

“They were committed to serving these local foods, and one of the biggest things we pegged them on was why their freezer was three times the size of their walk-in refrigerator,” Vajanyi said. “These are the kind of ‘aha’ moments that they wouldn’t get unless given the chance to be asked these questions.”

Another important focus the past few years for the ProStart program and its culinary and management competitions is setting the right expectations for young people poised to enter the restaurant industry.

“That’s paramount for our industry,” Vajanyi said. “[Foodservice] can let you set your own schedule, make lots of money and be rewarded, but it’s not for everyone. The ones who are going to be the future of our industry … get very serious about it. Those are the people that I want to hire and that I want to have work for me.”

The NRAEF said initial fundraising commitments have come from Brinker International, The Coca-Cola Co., the J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, PepsiCo Foodservice, Sysco, Golden Corral, American Express, Yard House, and Firehouse Subs.

Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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