Think Tank

May 26, 2020, 0:24
The Event that Changed Everything
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The Event that Changed Everything

06 May 2020

Let’s grab the opportunity to lead change rather than have it chase us down the wrong path.

By Paul Sorgule, MS, ACC

I wrote a novel with the same title “The Event that Changed Everything” in 2015 – little did I know that something similar would actually take place in 2020. These are unprecedented times, times that call for radically changing how we approach education and what our role might be. Everything will be different now – EVERYTHING! We cannot assume that once the country gets a handle on this pandemic, we can safely return to the way it was. It is imperative we come to grips with this reality and begin to chart a course for a different future.

This may seem harsh, but every indicator points to the need for dramatic change. Some of this change was already chasing our everyday understanding of culinary education. Now we have been met with an abrupt reality change as our programs come to a sudden halt. As we wrestle with a quick fix of trying to convert our programs to online formats, we should actively think about the big picture and strategize for a true paradigm shift. In our hearts we all know that this is true, so let us stand together and seek exciting new solutions. Here are the real challenges:

The restaurant industry is in serious trouble
The multi-billion dollar restaurant industry has come to a standstill and it is probable a significant portion of independent operators will not survive. This means our industry will suffer a dramatic downsize since the majority of restaurants in the country are small independent operations. The belief that people will flock back to restaurants and bars as soon as we are in recovery from the pandemic is overly optimistic. We have quickly become a cautious society with real fears about crowds and interactions with others. The psychology of this mindset will take time to overcome. So, as the surviving restaurants begin to reopen over the next few months, they will need resources to weather a storm that will last for quite some time. Staffing will be closely managed, and cost-saving measures will probably outweigh the instinct to push new innovative products and services.

If the industry is in trouble – so is culinary education
There will be far fewer opportunities for our graduates if restaurants fail at an alarming rate and caution is the rule of thumb. This is reality. One of our greatest selling points for decades has been the tremendous employment opportunity that awaits graduates upon graduation. Internships and permanent positions will exist, but not nearly as numerous as we have known.

This reality will become clear to potential students who have already expressed concern over the cost of a culinary education and the time it takes to pay back loans. The admissions office will have a much more difficult time finding applicants for their programs. This will put a heightened strain on scholarships and discounting. You should prepare for even more enrollment challenges.

The economic downturn is not likely to improve overnight
Trust in the future will be damaged for a period of time. Jobs will come back slowly and the stimulus funding will lose its impact when careers are lost or on hold. Disposable income will be less likely as those who do return to full-time work will focus on saving for the next challenge rather than free spending on everything from cars to education and restaurants to clothing. History demonstrates how this pattern holds true. It is human nature.

The traditional methods of delivering a culinary education will likely lose traction
The luxury of taking part in a residential college education will make less economic sense to many Americans. Working while going to school is more likely. Community colleges will be in the best position to survive and maybe even thrive. A flexible schedule, inclusion of online delivery, short residencies, certificate programs, stackable certificates that lead to an eventual degree, and customized programs that allow a student to specialize will make the most sense.

Colleges will likely look at economies of scale
The hardest reality will come from college administrators’ decisions. Tough decisions about which programs to keep and which ones to put on the shelf will be made. Culinary education is expensive to administer, requiring smaller class sizes and loads of space and equipment. If enrollment becomes even more challenging, it is likely colleges will put the brakes on our programs.

Now, this seems like doom and gloom – but the first part of recovery is always admitting you have a problem. We have a problem. What can be done? As I have promoted for some time – we (those of us in culinary education) must put aside how we have viewed our role in the past and begin to think far more creatively. Those program administrators and faculty members who do move in this direction are the ones most likely to survive. Here are some thoughts:

Serve the industry
Our customer breadth needs to expand. Culinary education needs to take the lead on helping the restaurant industry find solutions and recover from the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Research, consulting, development of case studies, representation of the industry within important organizations, restaurant assessment exercises, cross training of restaurant employees, etc. should become a standard part of our work. We need to help the restaurant industry understand how important we are to their success and become trusted advisors and ambassadors.

Partner
We have assumed that we are doing restaurants a favor by sending our students to them on internships. The reality is that those who approach it correctly must invest considerable time and resources in delivering effective internship experiences. We need to ask: What’s in it for the restaurant? What can we provide as noted above in “Serve the Industry?” We must focus on creating win/win relationships.

Develop contemporary educational products
It is time to think beyond degrees – in fact, we should begin by questioning the importance of a degree for those students who knock on our door. What other products make sense in 2020 and beyond? Develop products such as certificates, certifications, job training, focused skill training, life-long learning through online teaching, YouTube videos, and delivering training on-site for larger employers. Our portfolio of educational products must expand to address a changed market.

Create efficiencies
I know the best education is hands-on and when class sizes rise above 20 it becomes difficult to manage. The list of defenses is long, but we also must admit that the cost of delivering this type of education puts a strain on every institution. Raising tuition for culinary arts courses is counterproductive. What is the solution? We must openly discuss ideas leading to cost efficiency WITHOUT LOSING QUALITY. We cannot simply say it won’t work. We must find ways to make it work.

Build lasting student career relationships
Finally, we should consider viewing enrollment in a culinary program as a lifelong contract between the school and the student. Their education and our responsibility for it should not end when we hand them a degree or certificate. How can we be there to help students and graduates at various stages of their careers? When we do this then a college education becomes a true investment that continues to payback throughout careers. This type of investment will always make sense.

This is a time for tough love. Let’s grab the opportunity to lead change rather than have it chase us down the wrong path.

PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER – THINK DIFFERENTLY


Paul Sorgule, MS, AAC, president of Harvest America Ventures, a mobile restaurant incubator based in Saranac Lake, N.Y., is the former vice president of New England Culinary Institute and a former dean at Paul Smith’s College. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..