By Steve Zagor — Dean, School of Restaurant and Culinary Management

Why should I get a culinary or hospitality education? Can’t I just get a job and learn the business while I work?

What a great question and one that should be asked. I hear this almost weekly. As a dean and instructor at ICE, I often meet dreamers who are navigating the very intense process of looking down a long, unpaved and rocky road to the future, evaluating what can only be termed a “seismic” career change. Some may have MBAs or JDs with significant experience and incomes in other fields. A few may have families with kids at home. Others might be reentering the business world after a hiatus. And there are also those who are entering the work world for the very first time. Though they come from different places, they have similar a goal: a career in culinary or hotels.

Rommel Gopez

So let’s examine the above question and see if there is an easy answer.

News media and blogs continually publish stories about the shortage of talented people in our industries. Restaurants and hotels have an unquenchable thirst for talent in both front-of-house and back-of-house. It seems like a no-brainer: find a conveniently located restaurant or hotel, get a job and then begin the learning process under the supervision of a current business operator.

This may be doable. You may encounter a few slammed doors before one opens to accept you — after all, you have little or no experience. But eventually, someone will probably hire you. Now what? You will be in an entry level job focused on hourly or daily tasks at hand. Sure, you will be learning, but your knowledge horizon will be narrow and opportunities for bigger perspective far off.

The larger, more important question should be where are you being taught and who is teaching you. More likely than not, you’ll be learning in a local operation from someone who has come up in the business one step at a time and just knows his/her way of doing it. In some cases, there may be a few company procedures to help in daily operations, but the reality is: you will learn someone’s current knowledge, not necessarily the best or only way, but someone’s way. Not to mention, your hoped-for mentor has little or no time to train, viewing you as somewhat of a burden.

Why care? Further, should you care if your place of employment is doing great? In short: YES. Definitely, you should care a lot. Most operators of individual restaurants, local hotels and small business groups do not know how to operate with maximum efficiency. They don’t know all of the small things that can make a giant difference between marginal and profitable — not to mention, they aren’t necessarily aware of the newest technology and key industry issues. Many managers in small hotels and food businesses have a singular approach. In fact, often these people don’t know what they don’t know.

Learning the right way as well as alternate ways to operate is vitally important to succeed in businesses that at best are competitive and at worst, complicated, multifaceted, but seemingly easy.

Here’s another secret. Learning how to cook and how a kitchen works is a valuable asset, but knowing how to run the full business with all its operational controls, labor issues, purchasing systems, financial aspects, new technologies, marketing and social media opportunities, etc. will be a major advantage when compared to your competitor who began as a restaurant prep cook or hotel desk clerk and worked upward for years in an environment with limited exposure. In the end, to be a success, whether as a business owner or a senior manager/chef for someone else, making a profit will be the key. Several well-known guest chefs who recently visited ICE told our classes that they wished they knew more of the business side when they started out.

So, are culinary and hospitality programs the answer? In many cases, the answer is yes. It’s an opportunity to learn the best approaches from experienced pros whose only job is to teach. Plus, a school provides a network of contacts and expertise you can call on long after you leave. It’s like having a personal group of mentors who will be there to give advice and shadow you as long as needed.

Is school always the answer? Not for everyone. It’s not inexpensive. Personal financial situations may make it challenging as an option. And, there is the question, “Why should I spend thousands on an education when I will be earning a small salary after graduation?” The answer is: if you view the education as your entry for a job, that’s not why you enroll. You go to school for a career not just a job. The first job isn’t the end game. It’s a valuable step on the ladder.

Now, you might be thinking: he’s an educator. Of course he thinks school is a great route. Yes, that’s true, but I’m also a former owner/operator of multiple food businesses and have consulted and mentored many others. I’ve learned through experience how many opportunities are squandered by surprisingly well-known businesses. In many of these situations, just a bit more knowledge could make things better.

Whether you choose formal education, practical experience or a combination of both, there is no assurance you will succeed. There are many other factors that influence success, and not everyone’s goals are the same. Hopefully with your learned ability and knowledge, the first job will be a quick step. What is learned in formal education should make that rocky road smoother and your speed faster to get to where you want to go.

Interested in learning more about ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program? Click here for more information.

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By Rick Smilow, President of ICE

The largest appetite for food in America is found at our landfill sites. That is where much of the estimated 70 billion pounds of food waste in our nation goes each year. Internationally, it’s estimated that one-third of food produced worldwide, worth around US $1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. The United Nations Environment Programme “waste facts” include:

  • In the United States, 30-40% of the food supply is wasted, equating to more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.
  • Nationally, organic waste is the second highest component of landfills and the largest source of methane emissions (a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming).

Meanwhile, up to 14% of Americans have food insecurity and globally, millions of people are at best, malnourished and at worst, starving. With all of the issues that the world faces today, food waste may seem like a benign problem but it’s linked to much larger global problems and presents a great opportunity to help address hunger and economic insecurity both today and in the future.

Zero Food Waste

Food enters the waste stream at many links along the chain of food production and consumption. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 40-50% of food waste comes from consumers and 50-60% from businesses. One of the major causal factors in America is that quality standards at the retail level are largely based on appearance. Growers, farmers, supermarkets and retailers throw out produce with minor blemishes believing that those products won’t sell. Fortunately, there are companies of all sizes addressing this issue. Here are a few to take note of.

Imperfect is a California-based company that sources from growers across the state and delivers boxes of imperfect and discounted produce, via a subscription service, directly to customers’ doors for $12-$18 per box. The startup’s goal is to repurpose produce that retailers and distributors reject while helping to generate extra revenue for farmers and making local produce more affordable.

Another good example of a company dedicated to effective waste management of produce is Snact, in Kent, England. Snact buys unwanted produce from British farmers that is either “too big, too ugly or simply too abundant.” They blend this unwanted fruit into a smoothie of sorts, then dry the mix into snackable “fruit jerky.”

Snact

Snact Team (photo credit: Snact)

One of ICE’s major suppliers, Baldor Foods, is gaining national attention for its leadership in tackling food waste. They are leading the charge on finding innovative uses for typically discarded food scraps and “reshaping perceptions of what is truly worthy of going in our landfills.” Their food scraps, such as vegetable and fruit trimmings, have been rebranded as “SparCs” and are now being sold to a wide range of customers including restaurants (for their stocks), juice companies and animal feed producers.

Some of the world’s largest companies are participating in food waste initiatives. Walmart found it expedient to dump an entire carton of eggs if one was cracked, rather than replacing the damaged egg with one of equal freshness. Now the company is testing a program that uses a laser system to etch individual eggs with product information, enabling workers to easily substitute a new egg with the same specs. If adopted nationally, Walmart projects that the system could save roughly five billion eggs a year from premature scramble.

Chefs across the country are putting into practice the “no food waste” ethos. Dan Barber, chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns and founder of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY, made waves when he launched wastED: an organization that hosts pop-up events devoted to the theme of food waste and re-use. Asked about his upcoming wastED pop-up, Barber explained, “Let’s take the trend for juicing. What happens to all the pulp that’s leftover in the juice-making process? It gets thrown away. So we’ve taken it and repurposed it into a vegetable burger — a juice pulp cheeseburger in fact.” (“New York’s Biggest Food Waste Chef Is Bringing Pulp Burgers to London,” Munchies, Feb. 24, 2017.) Meanwhile, on the west coast, chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are developing a fast-food chain called Loco’l. Unlike the typical fast-food joint, Loco’l will serve more wholesome foods while cutting costs by minimizing food waste — integrating what would otherwise be scraps (such as meat trimmings and veggie ends) into the recipes for regular menu items.

zero waste food

For its part, ICE is committed to supporting the movement to eliminate food waste. In fact, we’ve partnered with The New School to host the innovative Zero Waste Food conference on April 28-29, bringing together visionary chefs like Massimo Bottura and Missy Robbins to explore ways to minimize food waste. Sustainability is one of our most significant long-term challenges. Food professionals have the opportunity to make an impact by creating more sustainable food networks.

Click here for more information on the Zero Waste Food conference — and buy your tickets today!

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By Stephen Zagor — Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management 

Picture this: You’re a new sous chef clocking 55 hours a week and bringing in $40,000 per year. Suddenly, as of January 1, 2017, abracadabra! You’ve magically found yourself with an additional $450 per week (approximately $23,000 per year) in your pocket. Holy Wolfgang Puck! Did you just win the lottery? Were you an heir of a distant aunt who just died? As it turns out, you have just benefitted from an amendment to the New York Wage Order that raises the New York exempt level (that is, exempt from overtime) from $35,100 to $42,900. This means that anyone being paid less than $42,900 per year in 2017, whether salaried or hourly, is entitled to overtime pay of time-and-a-half for every hour worked over 40 per week. The new law stands to affect restaurant workers at every level, from dishwashers to sous chefs to managers. Diners can expect to feel the impact too.

restaurant burger

To clarify, this is a New York State regulation. The federal government passed a similar regulation that would have increased the exempt threshold to $47,500. However, at the last second, an enlightened federal judge froze the implementation of that rule. Nevertheless, by 2019, the New York threshold is scheduled to climb to a whopping $58,500 — way ahead of the proposed federal figure. Again, this means that anyone paid less than $58,500 will be eligible for overtime. That is a whopping 67% increase from the 2016 base.

If you are a floor manager or sous chef, don’t run out and put a down payment on a beach-front condo in Costa Rica just yet. Do you think a restaurant owner will pay this increase? Not likely. Instead, what may happen is a reduction in hours, so the overtime burden will decrease or even disappear. Otherwise, if the distance to the new base from current salary is minimal, the base salary will be raised to $42,900 — a nice extra stipend, but probably only enough for a cabana rental in South Florida.

That’s one side. Now let’s look at it from the restaurant’s perspective. First off, it’s likely that most owners haven’t even heard of this new law. Unless they are a member of a trade association and regularly read their bulletins, they’re probably blissfully in the dark. That is, until they are discovered to be noncompliant and fined tons of back penalties and taxes.

Next, if our restaurant owner is paying salaries at the old $35,100 threshold, one option is to increase those salaries to $42,900. That’s a 33% increase. If more than one salaried employee falls into this range, the total increase could be financially unsustainable. The only other option is to reduce hours. Then, the issue becomes: Who will do the work? The answer: wage-earning employees. Either way, this could be a big labor cost burden on the restaurant. Combine this with highly publicized minimum wage increases and the changing tip landscape, and the new labor world will be oppressive.

So who benefits in this equation? For starters, the state — with higher payroll taxes from higher wages plus the penalties from non-compliers. The restaurant owners? Not likely; just another challenge for a business model that is already on the ropes. The guests, then? Definitely not. Who is going to pay for these extra labor costs? You got it: the diner. If you thought burgers were getting expensive last year, get ready for even pricier patties. This change is just one of multiple wage increases occurring in 2017 and 2018. Buckle your seat belts, diners, there is more to come.

Want to take a deeper dive into food business studies? Click here for more information on ICE’s Restaurant & Culinary Management program. 

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By Stephen Zagor — Dean of Restaurant & Culinary Management Program

“Is New York Too Expensive for Restaurateurs?” read the recent New York Times headline. What’s going on here? Are we about to experience a restaurant Armageddon? To read recent well-written and thoughtful stories in The New York Times and New York Post about the extremely challenging New York business environment for new and existing restaurants, one would think we are on the threshold of a cataclysmic event. Will our lives be mostly composed of delivered meal kits and food courts?

New York City flatiron building

Well, skyrocketing rents are very problematic; the new labor laws and wage and hour policies are challenging; food and ingredient costs are never a bargain; and burdensome laws and regulations targeting food businesses appear in an endless stream. Each of these is a serious issue on its own. Now add doing business in New York City with its unique issues and sprinkle in intense competition from the most restaurants per capita anywhere in the United States. The result makes you wonder why anyone would be in this business. Let’s open a dry cleaning business – it must be easier.

But wait. Is this the whole picture? Maybe there is still one hugely important critical piece missing from the story and it could tilt the balance between feast and famine: Do most owner/operators really know how to run their businesses? To be a popular chef or even a restaurant owner doesn’t necessarily mean someone really knows the “how-tos” of the business of restaurants. After all, in calm or even choppy waters, the restaurant business is challenging but doable. Yet when the economic storms roll in, if you don’t really know the operating side of restaurants, there is no surviving. Read between the lines – all of the forces mentioned above (rents, higher wages, new laws and competition) are forces imposed from outside, tossing operators around like a ship in a storm. What’s missing here is what is going on inside the ship. Does the captain know what he/she is doing?

I was recently shown a space by a woman who is an experienced restaurant GM and budding restaurateur. It was a closed, fully built restaurant on a busy street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It could seat 40 guests plus a handful more at the tiny bar. She was in love with the space; it had the bones to become the cute café she had always dreamed of; it looked great and had a low investment and easy conversion; she even lived nearby. Then I saw the rent — it was astronomical. It required strong, seven-figure sales to survive just the landlord. If she had signed, she might have lasted a year. She would have been working for the landlord, not herself. It would have been just the beginning of not knowing how.

As a former owner/operator myself and a long-time consultant and educator, I have had the incredible opportunity to see behind the curtain of some of the most respected and famous chefs and operators in America. I also have an army of students who, after learning the “how-tos,” have gone on to work at major and minor food businesses only to discover that many restaurants survive on magic and luck. Words like recipes (knowing the true production cost of products), retailing (understanding the true purpose of your business), yields (how much is left to serve after trim and cooking), Q Factor (cost of the “free” items like bread basket, ketchup, mustard, etc.), and purchasing strategy (proper buying and receiving procedures) are unknown. I can name numerous celebrity chefs whose business acumen either doesn’t exist or is pushed to the side in the name of creativity. This doesn’t include those who play with the cash, and keep loose systems and accountability so as not to get caught.

restaurant-kitchen-8-copy

This is not to say that the new wage laws, tip rules, rents, etc., aren’t major challenges. They definitely are. One celebrity chef recently noted in The New York Times that the way we operate now will not be the way we operate in the future. Still, it’s amazing the number of operators and chefs I have seen who appear successful but are really marginally profitable or not profitable at all. Some don’t even know how much they make. They are simply marketers hoping that “volume covers all sins.” When the going gets rough, it’s easy to look outside and blame everything else but yourself – especially when you may not know better.

Is proper culinary education helpful? It certainly could be. In the words of a student who came to ICE already the owner of a successful restaurant, “After I graduated, I put to use what I learned and made a lot more money with no more effort.” But maybe more knowledge will definitely help some. It won’t relieve the pains of a bad lease signed too quickly. But managing costs and maximizing revenues all present opportunities for change. It’s just knowing how.

Are NYC restaurants in a challenging time? Definitely. The way we have operated in the past will probably not be the way of the future. Being a great operator will require knowing how to run a successful business.

Want to study restaurant & culinary management at ICE? Click here for more info. 

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By Caitlin Gunther

One of the great things about studying at ICE is the wealth of experience that each instructor brings to the curriculum. Culinary Management instructor Alan Someck is no exception. As general manager of two perpetually packed Long Island restaurants for decades, Alan developed an understanding of what makes a restaurant not only successful but an integral part of the community. Between this role and his years of consulting work, Alan has the kind of expertise that only comes with time and the opportunity to study changing trends in the industry. At ICE, Alan shares his insights with each aspiring restaurant owner or food business entrepreneur who walks into his classroom.

Alan Someck

A native New Yorker with the restaurant industry in his blood (his father owned a seafood restaurant in Brooklyn), Alan didn’t initially gravitate toward the culinary world. It wasn’t until after college when he moved to San Diego that Alan was inspired to join the food industry. With a shared desire for local, fresh produce, Alan and friends began a food co-op—a small operation where members would assemble in someone’s backyard and handpick their weekly produce. The co-op, which doubled as a community center, grew until it eventually relocated to a larger space that was previously a pool and dance hall. It was during this era that Alan learned to tap into local needs and organize ways to meet them.

Though he loved the Golden State, Alan eventually relocated back east, where he took the helm of two popular North Fork restaurants, both called Millie’s Place. Recognizing that the restaurant space had evolved into more than a place to eat, but rather, an extension of people’s homes, Alan infused Millie’s Place with the same sense of community that he helped to create in the San Diego food co-op.

Alan Someck and student

Alan with ICE graduate

Asked about the lessons gleaned from his time running Millie’s Place, Alan says, “Hook into the community. Get involved and create relationships with customers.” This entails everything from getting to know your customers by name to giving back to the community—Alan’s staff used to cook Thanksgiving dinners for seniors in the area. A second lesson is to observe what’s going on in the industry. Alan explains, “Once a week, I would go out to another restaurant. Go to restaurants and food shows and learn from them. Your food should adapt to the current trends.” Alan’s final piece of advice? Choose the right location. More specifically: a location that fits your concept. This and other vital elements involved in launching a food business or restaurant are the kinds of discussions that Alan has with each of his students. Says Alan, “I start with the premise of, ‘What’s the experience you want to create?’ Let’s work backward from that.”

With New York City as a backdrop for his classes, Alan is also able to incorporate local restaurants and entrepreneurs into his curriculum. From a guest lecture by Gabrielle Hamilton, author and chef/owner of the acclaimed East Village restaurant Prune, to a field trip into the bakery of Amy’s Bread, guided by owner and ICE alum Amy Scherber, Alan ensures that his students receive a comprehensive food business education.

Today, Alan continues to advise restaurant startups, franchises and restaurants aiming to solve operational conundrums. An avid cultural observer, especially when it comes to the way people eat, Alan keeps a constant pulse on the evolving food industry. Whether inside of the classroom or out, Alan is inspiring the next generation of food visionaries and helping to make their lofty business dreams a (profitable) reality.

Want to study with Alan and start mapping out your own food business? Click here to learn more about our Culinary Management program.

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