ProStart – A taste of the real world

Opportunity knocks in the restaurant and food service industry for ProStart culinary students at North Branch, Cambridge-Isanti high schools

Paige Mulnix and Aubrey Denyes stir potatoes in boiling water in their ProStart class at North Branch High. Photo by Jon Tatting08

Paige Mulnix and
Aubrey Denyes stir potatoes in boiling water in their ProStart class at North Branch High. Photo by Jon Tatting08

Local high school students are getting a jump-start on an industry all about restaurants, food service and hospitality through no ordinary culinary program.

It’s called ProStart, a nationwide, two-year program that brings industry and the classroom together in helping students acquire both culinary techniques and management skills in preparation for the real world. While some indeed go on to pursue careers in the hospitality industry — the second largest behind manufacturing in Minnesota — others simply enjoy cooking and the advanced skills that come with the ProStart program for independent, healthy living after high school.

While Cambridge-Isanti High School is approaching its fifth anniversary with ProStart, North Branch Area High School is in its inaugural year with the program, instructed by family and consumer science teacher and service occupations coordinator Marilyn Fagerness. She said her interest in starting a class, such as the culinary program, had been on her mind throughout much of her 30 years with the district. Her interest in the field goes back to college, where her undergraduate concentration was food service occupation.

“I like relevancy,” she said in response to why she started the program at North Branch High. “(ProStart) gives something tangible for the kids, skills after they leave high school.

“Employers are looking for ProStart kids. They are very supportive of schools, and students have a leg up in terms of the training,” she added.

Developed with feedback from industry and academic experts, the program includes relevant and timely topics ranging from global cuisines to sustainability. Students often come to an employer ready to make an immediate impact, as they learn safety and sanitation, kitchen and management essentials, customer service and communication, culinary arts, leadership, purchasing, inventory and cost control among other topics.

The pinnacle of the program is the ProStart National Certificate of Achievement in which students earn by completing the program, passing two national exams and accumulating 400 hours of work experience with a mentor. The achievement is linked to National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation scholarship opportunities and articulation benefits at more than 60 of the country’s leading hospitality, culinary arts colleges and universities.

Sam Collova, a senior at North Branch High, is one of 16 students in the school’s ProStart program, an elective that requires completion of the basic foods classes. He shed some light on the class as a student who is not entirely sure of his future plans, yet he’s not ruling out the food industry.

“I figured it would be more advanced, more technical and more independent with higher expectations, but I can see myself doing this, cooking or management,” Collova said of the program. “We learn what to do in emergency situations, and timing is everything to satisfy the customer. You have to be fast and efficient and safe at the same time.”

Collova noted he enjoys cooking in a team setting and takes satisfaction in seeing the end product. He and classmates have made meals including chicken pot pies, soups, mashed potatoes and garlic cheese bread with fresh herbs and spices.

In addition to the culinary side, ProStart teaches students about safety and sanitation, common and essential knife cuts, production, cost and other areas. Fagerness said the class will gradually evolve to include more sophisticated meals and skills, such as menu building, palate training and steps to be mindful of when starting a business.

“I hope students gain an appreciation for the industry, an appreciation of food and employable skills,” she said.

The North Branch students work with mentor chef Sharon Thompson from Taher Inc., a food service management company that contracts with the school district, and David Garvey, who serves as vice president of food and beverage at Grand Casino Hinckley.

Fagerness enhanced the experience by organizing a field trip to the casino’s extensive kitchens.

“We toured eight kitchens there, and the kids were blown away at the sheer size and the amount of the food,” she said.
The students also paid a visit to the long-established ProStart program at Elk River High School, where students run an actual cafe for the school community.

ProStart competition

ProStart reaches 90,000 students in 1,700 schools in 47 states and beyond, with national and local support from industry members, educators, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and state restaurant associations. The program has only grown since it began with 100 students in six schools in 1997.

Competition is part of the program, as well, with students from different schools competing against each other in culinary and management areas at an invitational event. The next statewide competition is later next month.

“I wasn’t planning to compete, but the students wanted to,” Fagerness said. She compared the competition to the competitive food shows on television, which can become quite intensive with the skills the students are expected to know and execute on deadline.

Beyond the state level is the National ProStart Invitational, a competition held each spring that showcases the talent of the top ProStart students as they compete in culinary and management events. Culinary teams have 60 minutes to prepare a three-course meal with various skills, for instance, while management teams develop an original restaurant concept and apply critical thinking skills to the common challenges that managers face.

Every year, more than $1 million in scholarships are awarded to the top five teams in both events from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation and attending colleges. Scholarships also are available from the Hospitality Minnesota Education Foundation, which awards students pursuing postsecondary education for careers in food service, lodging or hospitality management.

Land of 10,000 places to eat, drink

A driving force in the Minnesota economy are restaurants, which generate tax revenues through sales, provide jobs and build careers for thousands across the state.

These eateries can offer healthy choices for their customers, give back to their communities and pay attention to their impact on the environment. For many, restaurants contribute to a community’s quality of life, where families, friends and colleagues gather in all occasions of life.

According to recent figures from the National and Minnesota restaurant associations:

  • Minnesota played host to 10,043 eating and drinking places in 2012. Two years later, restaurants were projected to register $8.5 billion in sales while accounting for 260,800 jobs or 9 percent of employment in the state.
  • In 2024, restaurants statewide are projected to employ 278,100 people, representing 6.6 percent job growth or 17,300 jobs over 2014.
  • For every dollar spent in Minnesota’s restaurants, an additional $1.13 is generated in sales for the state economy. Every $1 million spent in these restaurants means an increase of 27.9 jobs statewide.
  • Nationally, 990,000 eatery locations serve millions of guests every day, with $683.4 billion in sales, employing 13.5 million people — or 10 percent of the workforce.