FoodWorks: Connecting Dots
By Wendy Allen | Photos By FoodWorks 0
Every year, magazines and people’s choice surveys rank Madison as one of the top places to live in the U.S.—the schools are great, it’s relatively safe, there’s lots to do, it’s not too big or too small, and more. However, while overall unemployment may be low, rates among communities of color are very high. As the FoodWorks co-founders, Jonny Hunter, Matt Feifarek and Chandra Miller Fienen, put it, large segments of Madison’s population “find Madison to be an extremely difficult place to thrive.”
Yet there are jobs. Lots of them. Madison area food-based businesses have been experiencing serious shortages of qualified cooks and prep cooks for years, which puts strain on business owners and limits not only the growth of our local restaurant scene, but also the long-term success of caterers, bakeries, and makers of local packaged goods. FoodWorks, established in 2014, aims to connect those who need and want jobs with food-based businesses that need help through an innovative new training program called First Course.
Why not go to culinary school? First, culinary school is expensive. And time consuming. And the positions in demand—cooks and prep cooks—don’t need specialized training. But they do require a certain amount of skill with the tools of the trade and comfort with the high-stress, fast-paced nature of a kitchen. FoodWorks’ First Course curriculum is unique because it’s only three weeks long. The content is limited, focusing on safely and comfortably performing basic skills and learning about the different fields they may work in, such as a restaurant compared to an artisan canned goods operation. “It allows for someone to take the class and enter the workforce instead of spending upwards of two years in school,” says Hunter. “Mostly, our goal is helping people understand how a kitchen works so they can succeed.”
And we need them to succeed. Hunter estimates the Madison area is short more than 200 cooks between 30 businesses. There’s a reason for this shortage: kitchen jobs are hard work. They have really early or really late hours, can be dangerous, are almost always stressful, and—the elephant in the room—they don’t pay very well. However, the worker shortage, as well as national media praise for innovative restaurateurs who are addressing the front- versus back-of-house pay disparity, may be turning the tide on the issue. Hunter says, “We have definitely seen pay increase because of the worker shortage. We [First Course instructors] also work hard to make sure our students are getting opportunities to work in kitchens that pay more and offer a better benefit package.
“Another thing we do that I think is special is we pay our students so that they can take the class if they have other obligations that would cost them money.” For many people whom the program actively targets, it can be enormously challenging or even impossible to take time away from job hunting, or to quit a job that provides some income in order to take a class, even if that class would open up new opportunities. When you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, three weeks without pay is a big risk. So FoodWorks provides a $1,000 completion bonus and accelerates job placement for each of its graduates. Currently, graduates of the First Course pilot program, which concluded this past summer, are working at Sardine and Stella’s Bakery.
The First Course pilot was partially funded by the City of Madison, and this summer, FoodWorks launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that exceeded their goal, with $56,500 funded by 407 people from Madison and around the country. The program is completely volunteer powered; all funds are invested in the students and into refining and open-sourcing the industryexpertdeveloped curriculum.
Hunter says the future includes another session this fall and one day getting their own space so they can run the program on a regular schedule. Their goal is to offer ten sessions per year, which would mean up to 200 graduates per year entering the workforce with skills and options to move up and around.
The jobs are out there, they just need the people. The people are out there, but they just need the training. With a community service model, FoodWorks is connecting the dots, and impacts will ripple outward to touch so many within our community and beyond.