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Promoting the importance of the foodservice industry

Area organizations are doing what they can to plan for expected industry growth

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March 23, 2023

APPLETON – According to the Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA), the number of jobs in the foodservice industry in 2030 is estimated to be 276,700 – a growth rate of almost 16%, or 37,500 new jobs from what was reported in 2021.

And like with many other industries, the pool of work-ready individuals is not big enough to fill the estimated number of positions.

In its most recent State of the Restaurant Industry Report, the WRA said though the industry added back most of the jobs lost during the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants remain understaffed.

“65% of operators say their restaurant currently does not have enough employees to support its existing customer demand,” the report states.

With that in mind, area organizations are doing what they can to help foster growth in the foodservice/restaurant industry over the next seven years in an effort to be better prepared.

One recent effort to do just that was the 21st Annual ProStart High School Culinary Competition organized by the WRA’s Educational Foundation, which was held at Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC).

More than a dozen teams from around the state competed in a variety of events throughout the day to get a chance to compete at the National ProStart Invitational hosted in Washington D.C. 

The competition focused on two aspects of the restaurant industry – cooking and hospitality management.

However, Alex Vernon, ProStart manager with the WRA Education Foundation, said there’s more to the food industry than just cooks in the kitchen.

“There are so many opportunities out there, not just necessarily in a restaurant or hotel,” Vernon said. “There are cruise ships, casinos, resorts, food photography, food journalism and more. Think beyond the table, there’s also being a food scientist.”

Vernon said ProStart was developed by the National Restaurant Association Education Foundation about 23 years ago, as a way to connect the industry in the classroom.

“It’s a cool thing because a lot of the students connect with a ProStart class, culinary class and a hospitality class, because it’s their home, it’s their community, their group,” he said. “Students are able to put their own spin and apply creativity.”

A highlighted aspect of the ProStart competition was the hospitality management section, wherein students were able to present and pitch a restaurant idea to a group of judges – which Vernon said shines a light on another facet of the culinary industry, the business side.

“The goal (of ProStart) is to get more workers and more future leaders of the industry at the ready so that way they can come run Fox Valley Tech, they can go run Lambeau Field, they can be the ones running these global hospitality companies,” he said.

Wide-encompassing industry 
The “food industry,” Mike Balistrieri, culinary instructor at FVTC, said, is really an umbrella term in and of itself.

Balistrieri said oftentimes, working your way up the chain starts with working at the lowest-totem-pole position and gaining an understanding of the industry.

“The potential for advancement as far as what wages can be is tremendous,” he said.

Alex Vernon

Vernon agreed, saying culinary and hospitality are an industry of opportunity.

“No matter what skill level you have (or) what type of education background – you’ll notice (the foodservice) industry is the most diverse for a reason,” he said.

Vernon said earning potential has a variety of facets.

“There are hourly positions, there’s salary positions – plenty of ways to work (your) way up the ranks,” he said.

Vernon said the COVID-19 pandemic brought adjustments to the industry, such as wage increases, which drive the demand for not only bodies but also talent.

Talent, he said, that can be grown through programs, such as ProStart.

“What we’re trying to do is set the students up for success,” he said. “So, when they graduate high school, they automatically have a boost on their resume. When looking for jobs or further education they can have something like ServSafe on their resume, which is our food safety program.”

These programs and accreditations, Vernon said, are essential to understand and have as much importance as knowing how to use a knife properly.

“I think if you have an interest in food, there’s going to be a job out there for you in this industry,” he said. “Some will have a back-of-house culinary interest. Some will have more of the front-of-house or people interest. Some will focus on costing out every recipe for management.”

As he mentioned before, opportunities don’t stop at the kitchen.

“If you have a passion for chemistry, you can become a food scientist and come up with the next flavor of ice cream,” he said. “Or, if you like photography, and you like food, you can be a food photographer. Or, you could write for Bon Appetit Magazine.”

Industry challenges
In addition to the challenge of finding workers, Vernon said the increased cost of goods and supplies is also causing obstacles in the industry – another product of the pandemic.

“There are so many great restaurants and foodservice establishments out there that it’s a survival of the fittest as far as keeping in business,” he said. “If you’re not adapting, if you’re not paying the right wage for your employees – you may go under.”

Much detail went into plating dishes before students presented them to the judges. Chris Rugowski Photo

Another struggle, Vernon said, is keeping with modern trends.

“It (may be) hard to keep current in modern trends, but that’s also the nature of the beast,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition, which is good.”

Vernon said though there are struggles, the food industry itself is pretty recession-proof, for a simple reason – people will always need food, it’s a necessity for survival.

“There will always be a push for food,” he said. “Even if it’s not at a fine dining steakhouse, even if it’s pick up or delivery through the restaurant.”

The role education plays
Kania Mader, a junior at Kimberly High School and a participant of the event, said interest in the food industry runs in her family.
Mader said her grandfather is a chef and runs a catering company, which she’s been involved with since she was little.

“It’s important to have cooking classes in school because I didn’t realize how many people didn’t know how to make certain dishes,” she said. “Some people don’t (even) know how to fry eggs.”

Mader said when it comes to learning – all aspects of the process are important.

“Some people don’t know how to wash dishes properly,” she said. “It’s such a good life skill, and being able to teach people in high school and prepare them for college and beyond is vital.”

At the technical-college level, Balistrieri said students have an opportunity to learn a variety of skills and techniques.

“Our students in the majority of their classes are going to be put in the kitchen, working with the food – whether that’s in the bakery or making sauces and soups,” he said. “So, it’s that opportunity to learn the diversity of food that’s out there.”

From there, Balistrieri, said instructors begin working with students on the elective courses to drill down on what specialty they want to go into, and ultimately what career path they want to follow.

“It’s incredibly important to take a class on supervision and cost controls and also in sales and marketing,” he said. “That prepares them not just to be a cook, but to develop into a chef or manager. To be ready to take that next role in their career.”

Balistrieri said being a chef is more than just someone who makes food.

“A chef has to be a leader, a teacher, a manager and more,” he said. “Outside of being a chef, if you want to work in this industry, whether it’s in hospitality or in baking, all of the business principles one learns on a collegiate level will apply if you want to get an upper-level job.”

Enter ProStart – which Vernon said focuses on promoting the foodservice industry itself, as well as post-secondary education to support a career in it.

“ProStart fills the culinary void,” he said. “Us coming into a high school automatically lifts the program and gets students more interested because they can compete, they can do career days and career events. We do virtual learning series. We do a virtual competition series. Our goal is to open students’ eyes to what the industry is all about.”

2023 competition winners
In total, 80 ProStart students competed at the 2023 event.

The winning teams in the culinary competition include:
1st place – Westosha Central High School2nd place – Pulaski High School3rd place – Badger High School
The winning teams in the management competition include:
1st place – Pulaski High School2nd place – Franklin High School3rd place – Badger High School

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