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Guest Speaker: 20 Years to Success

guest_dec11Of the three things you can manage—cost, quality and quantity—you can realistically only manage two. Or so thought the Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College     .

By James E. Trebbien, CCE, CCA

Omaha, according to some of the people who study such things, has more restaurants per capita than any other U.S. city. In addition to this amazing number of restaurants, the menu is varied, diverse, excellent and reasonably priced. The quality of the restaurants is excellent. As in most major metropolitan areas, to be a chef or restaurant manager in Omaha takes a lot of education and knowledge because of the competition, choices, culinary talent and business sophistication.

Due the these facts and due to the growth in the number of people who want formal education as they enter, or continue to be a part of, the food and restaurant world, The Institute for the Culinary Arts at Metropolitan Community College opened its new culinary center on November 30, 2009. The building took four years of planning and construction, and that is after 20 years of perfecting the curriculum, the schedule and the image.

The ICA is an unusual culinary school. We have gone from fewer than 100 students to more 800 in 10 years. That would be 800 amazing students. We are good, and people know we are good. Let me tell you why I think we are unusual, and why we have grown so much.

The first reason is because we are accredited by the ACF. I don’t think that being accredited in itself is necessarily great, but the process to become accredited is great. In 1991, at our first accreditation visit, I sat with Mary Petersen and Chef Steve Jilleba in an empty classroom from about 5 p.m. to way past midnight discussing where we were as a culinary school. They firmly told me that although we were going to be accredited, we had a long way to go. We had fewer than 50 students. Mary sent me to see other schools as a part of an accreditation team. That is when my eyes were opened, when I saw many great schools in action. (I have since visited about 100.)

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The second reason is a theory I have, and have always taught my students. It goes like this: As a manager, you have three things you can manage—costs, quality and quantity. There is a corollary: You can choose only two of the three to manage. No one ever gets all three. They contradict each other too often. But, perhaps we did get all three.

First let me tell you about the three, and then I will tell you how we accomplished all three. Let’s look at each component.

Costs: As part of a community college, you compete for funds with other parts of the college. Tuition is just a part of the total funding you need to operate. Money is hard to come by for every program at the college. Quality: If you wish to draw the best students to your school, you need to be as good as anyone, public or private. You need to have a stellar reputation. You need to be a school of choice. Quantity: If you want to be good, you need healthy enrollment numbers.

Here is a peek into how we did it and continue to do it:

Costs. We ask everyone for funds. Our president and our board support us. Community partners have donated a lot of money, time and effort to the ICA. We are cost conscious. We work diligently to keep food and labor costs down. We all work long hours. We sell much of what we produce. We have a cutting-edge curriculum that uses product wisely and efficiently.

Quality. We are as careful about our image as we are about our costs. We have an absolutely excellent Bistro, where second-year students learn. It serves food that is amazing. We do events at the ICA that are the kind you call your friends and tell them about on the way home. Every one of our classes is expected to operate, in a quality way, 100% of the time. We have amazing full-time and adjunct faculty and staff. They are committed to the discovery and application of what they teach. We have people with a wide and varied range of strengths and skills. We work hard, and we work smart.

Quantity. We established ourselves as a “brand.” We recruit, just like a sports team. Our graduate placement is high, as we work to find a job for everyone who needs a job. We made sure and continue to make sure that we are in the news. We have a far-reaching outreach program. We have thousands of people tour our building each year. We have events; we involve our students in the events. We are everywhere we can be. We work and work to do the things we do best even better. We have a culture of always wanting to do more, and do it better than we did it last year. We are a family in that we argue, we plead, we get frustrated and then we work toward common goals and visions.

So, as I said earlier, of the three things you can manage, you only get to choose two. For example, it seems you can be cost-effective and have a lot of customers, but it might be hard to also be a gourmet restaurant at the same time. Another example, you might be a gourmet restaurant and make money, but it is hard to be a gourmet restaurant that also is really large. I believe we did all three because we set out to manage our costs and to grow. We did the things mentioned above in order to grow and to be cost-effective. We added the quality, without sacrificing cost management and growth through the sheer dedication and passion of the people involved.


James E. (Jim) Trebbien, CCE, CCA, is dean of Culinary Arts, Hospitality, and Horticulture at Metropolitan Community College (MCC) and executive director of the Institute for the Culinary Arts at MCC.

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