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Sharon Lykins Wants YOU to Join the Culinary Workforce

“If you are going to be successful and move up in product innovation, you need the sense of urgency that comes from knowing every aspect of the business.”- Sharon Lykins

Sharon Lykins has one wish. She wants the broad restaurant industry to do better at amplifying all aspects of the culinary careers that are available to people.

Lykins is the senior director of product innovation at Denny’s and came to that position in an unconventional way.  Growing up in very small town in Kentucky, there weren’t a lot of expectations for Lykins and her peers. Her very first job, like the first job for so many, was frying french fries at McDonald’s at the age of 16. But she admits, there was a certain love there. “At the end and you just kind of get bitten, you kind of stay in,” Lykins says of foodservice work.

She had always loved to cook, and in school her best subject was science. When she went to University of Kentucky, she needed to figure out what she wanted to do with her life and took a scientific approach. “I went to every college on UK’s campus individually to see what majors did they offer, and what could I do with that, and frankly, how much money can I make with it? I found food science and couldn’t believe it was a major! I graduated with only two other people at University of Kentucky in that field,” Lykins told Nation’s Restaurant News.

After starting her career in Denver, she worked for Cinnabon and AFC, beginning in product development, but then shifting into the purchasing side of things. Lykins really wanted to understand how her work was affecting what everybody else was doing around her.

“If you are going to be successful and move up in product innovation, you need the sense of urgency that comes from knowing every aspect of the business,” she said. “My truck did not show up today and that's my main problem, and what am I going to do about that? So, I took a director of purchasing role, and I learned a lot about how product development really has to take into consideration the system around you, and how you're going to affect the supply chain.”

Taking on that purchasing role eventually led to an international role with Churches, which gave her a perspective she found valuable, learning how to use the purchasing arm to open countries globally. When she left her international role, she took a serious look at her resume and asked. “What am I missing?”

“I felt like I was missing processing,” Lykins said. “so I went to Gold Kist poultry to focus on the processing side of the industry and get that perspective. That processing experience is invaluable. To have the experience of working on processor line, makes you appreciate what goes into every part of product development. I feel like over my career what I've tried to do is get experience in every aspect of product development that affects the outcomes. It makes me a smarter developer. I might now be working on the whole plate, but I still know where the chicken comes from.”

Lykins loves her work at Denny’s and wishes more young people were aware that there are so many types of opportunities in the industry. She feels the restaurant industry in general gets a bad rap, and many people don't realize it is a career path.

“There’s just so much growth to be had,” she said. “I remember there used to be a commercial to train to be a medical assistant, and I used to get so angry because the commercial would start out with a server at a diner watching a boy pour a milkshake onto the floor, and she has to clean it up. And then the implication is that you could be this medical assistant, and wouldn’t that be better or more respectable?  OK, maybe, but honestly, I always thought as a medical assistant, you're still cleaning up. It isn’t necessarily better. And you’ll always be an assistant, it isn’t like they can promote you to doctor. We have accountants and purchasing folks, lawyers and finance people, all kinds of different kinds of jobs in the restaurant industry. And it is one of the only careers that you can start out in an entry level position and work your way up to the very top. As an industry, I don't think we do a good enough job telling that story.”

Choosing the corporate path was a thoughtful decision for Lykins, who knew that the traditional chef career was not going to be a good choice for her.

“It was about life balance,” she said. “I looked at it and said, well, if you're a really great chef and you have a really great restaurant, then you're going to be expected to be there at all the really high-profile times. All the weekends, all the holidays. So, even at the very beginning of my career I knew I wanted the culinary aspect, but I didn't want that aspect, or that pressure. And so, when I found food science, I thought I'd just landed like a pig in a mud puddle! I was so excited and that is the path I chose, and I have never regretted it.”

Lykins is clear on how all her background comes into effect with her role at Denny’s.

“Our job, of course, is to create something that the guest actually wants to eat,” she said. “But we then must put the processes behind it so that chefs or cooks across 1500 restaurants can do it the same every time. And we must ensure it makes the franchisees and the corporation a profit and brings value to the shareholders. It's very rare that all of those four things align exactly and that is a tough challenge.”

Those challenges of scale are the puzzles that Lykins loves to attack.

“There are so many times that you find an ingredient that you want to use, and it's the perfect ingredient, and you know that if you could bring that ingredient in, it completes the dish in the best way and it's going to really please the consumer,” she said. “But it’s made by an outside vendor that's not within your current system. And maybe you have a vendor in your current system that has similar capability, but it's not going to be quite as good. You have to go with them because it would completely mess up your distribution system if you went the other direction, and so that is probably the most frustrating and challenging thing. Trying to balance what the consumer needs with what operations can actually achieve.”

This admission is far from a complaint when Lykins discusses it. “As frustrating as it can be in the process, when you get the product done and it is successful, and you overcame those challenges, you know there’s just nothing like that feeling like you did it,” she said. “I mean, you really accomplished something.”

Lykins uses her story her passion for the industry to try and inspire others. The importance of opportunity within the wider scope of culinary is something she wishes were highlighted more in schools. She was fortunate to stumble into her small department at UK but knows so many would not have known to go exploring options the same way she did. She would love to challenge the entire industry to do better about amplifying all the amazing aspects of what can be pursued.

“I would love for us to advocate for our profession more,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I really do feel like the restaurant industry has been so good to me. I grew up in this little small town in Kentucky, and I started my career on the French fry station. But I've been to China and India and Indonesia and the Philippines and Australia and Mexico and Costa Rica, I’ve been everywhere because of this job. It is such a fantastic pathway for so many people. Half of Denny's managers are people of color, and the majority of our franchisees are minorities. The restaurant industry is such an amazing opportunity for so many and somehow? We’re looked at in a negative light, even thought we have the most opportunity for people to grow. We’re 4% of the GDP, we should get more credit somehow.”

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