Every Monday for several weeks, veteran restaurant manager Mike Ringley has come to Easterseals Arc and given participants a taste of the restaurant business.
The five young people in this first group to use the new Hospitality Learning Lab pack a lot into their Mondays. They’re divided into two groups. One group begins the day in a classroom where Suzanne Vertigan, a member of the Easterseals employment services team, guides them through lessons on food safety, kitchen tools, time management, customer service and more. The other group joins Ringley across the hall, where they take turns making entrees and side dishes in the gleaming new kitchen of the Hospitality Learning Lab.
The eight-week program is an intensive introduction to restaurant work. The aim is to prepare participants for entry-level restaurant jobs. Participants who successfully complete the program earn a Food Handler certification from Ivy Tech Community College. Even if they don’t choose to pursue restaurant jobs, they will have learned lessons for more independent living.
When students taking their turn in the kitchen finish cooking each item on that day’s menu, that’s where the true taste of the business comes in. They eat the omelets or waffles or other dishes they’ve just made, and Ringly reinforces lessons they’re learning in class. On this day, he reviews highlights of customer service.
Some students are so caught up in what they’re learning that they press Ringley to tackle great questions.
“What do you do if you have a rude customer?” Collin asks Ringley.
“It’s best not to engage a rude customer other than answering questions and being polite,” Ringley tells Collin. “Wait for a manager to get involved.”
Jonquia, another participant in the Hospitality Learning Lab, absorbs a point from Ringley on the importance of smiling and talking to form warm relationships with customers.
“The smiling and talking is hard with a mask on,” Jonquia says.
Ringley agrees. “You lose that face-to-face. The masks are going away someday. Hopefully soon,” he says.
The participants’ time in the kitchen with Ringley is a deep dive into the practical application of everything they learn in class with Vertigan. Minute by minute, he weaves those classroom lessons into the kitchen work.
“What did you have on your hands?” he asks Nick, who’s just cracked eggs into a bowl for the omelets.
“What do you have to do?” Ringley asks.
“Wash my hands,” Nick says.
“Good!” Ringley calls out.
Until just before the pandemic, Ringley had been general manager of an IHOP for 14 years. Now he works as a dispatcher for Waiter on the Way.
His long tenure in the business enables Ringley to show off a few tricks of the kitchen. A crowd-pleaser he performs: With a mid-air slide of a frying pan and a snap of his wrist, Ringley flips a frying omelet onto its less-cooked side. At the same time, he encourages the people he’s teaching not to be put off by cooking imperfections.
As he slides the first omelet onto a plate, he says, “It’s not the prettiest thing, but it will taste good!”
Vertigan points out that everything students learn are skills that can make participants’ lives better, no matter where they work.
- Learning about kitchen safety, kitchen equipment, utensils, dishwashing and cooking helps equip participants to live more independently.
- Customer service teaches skills that help a person navigate daily life, no matter what job they perform.
- Food prep helps anyone who wants to cook.
- Measurements are crucial in cooking and many other areas of life.
- Time management, on or off the job, helps anyone make the most of life.
- Basic first aid can be essential, and not just in a kitchen.
- Baking math helps people learn math they can use for far more tasks.
- Consumer shopping helps people make the most of their food budget.
Preparing their lunch each day under the guidance of a restaurant pro builds enthusiasm too.
“I like it,’ says Sarah, as she polishes off an omelet. “I like to cook food.”