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Hospitality School offers opportunity and more to students

Larry Nagengast/Delaware Public Media

There’s an unmistakable feeling of pride in Keith Murray’s voice, a sense of confidence he hadn’t felt in years.

“This is a 14-week course, and by week eight I found a job,” he says. “They work me like a dog, and I love it, because I’m providing for my family again.”

This week, Murray, 34, was among 10 graduates of the Hospitality School, a 4-year-old private, nonprofit program housed in a small building on the Holloway Campus of the state Department of Health and Social Services south of Wilmington.

“The most important thing I learned is that I can do it. I found a lot of things I didn’t know I had in me,” he says.

That self-discovery is helping Murray chart a new path in his life – a lift that got of track when he faced armed robbery and weapons charges as a teenager and, more recently, a drug possession charge.

“I’m a felon. It’s hard for me to get work,” he says.

Rick Carter, 48, who started working in the food service/hospitality industry when he was 13, founded the school after contemplating a career switch and earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in human services from Wilmington University. He abandoned his plan to become a psychologist when “I realized there was no way I could sit in a chair for eight hours a day listening to other people’s problems.” He decided he could better achieve his goal of helping people by teaching them what he already knew – the ins and outs of the food-service industry.

“We work with people who are facing barriers to employment,” he says. That includes men and women with attention deficit disorder, high-level autism, the hearing impaired, the homeless, and felons like Murray.

Most participants are referred to the program through the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. A three-year grant from the Criminal Justice Council of Delaware underwrites one class per year. The school schedules four 14-week sessions annually, and also offers two semester-long programs for students at the Ferris School for Boys. In September, the school will begin a third program, also funding by a Division of Vocational Rehabilitation grant, providing after-school instruction in culinary arts for high school students who have disabilities.

“Using food is an art. We use it as therapy to change [the students’] ways of thinking,” Carter says. “The food creates a spark within them to build self-esteem.”

Once accepted into the program, students receive a uniform, a professional knife set, a meat thermometer and cutting gloves, plus transportation in the form of a DART bus card or a gas allowance if they have a car. 

Classes run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week for 11 weeks. On many days, the food the students prepare in the morning becomes their lunch. Sometimes they serve a four-course lunch in the school’s dining area to groups from local businesses and nonprofits that Carter has invited to learn more about the program. These visits give students the opportunity to learn customer-oriented skills like serving, setting tables and getting the food out of the kitchen on time. The program concludes with a three-week internship at local restaurants, hotels and dining facilities.

Chef and culinary instructor Paul Kubik, a former executive chef at Bank of America and catering chef at AstraZeneca, provides instruction in kitchen safety, food safety, knife skills and in preparing different types of foods – salads, vegetables, breakfast items, meat, poultry, seafood, baking and international cuisines, including Asian, Indian, Italian and Mediterranean.

In addition, the program includes job coaching and instruction in interview preparation, resume writing and life skills.

“Every student is a little different in their skill set,” Kubik says. “The goal is to be ready for an entry-level position – a prep cook or a utility position – jobs that usually pay about $10 an hour.”

After 14 weeks, “the skill level is still pretty basic,” says James Van Cleaf, executive chef at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Newark, which takes students as interns and has hired several after their graduation. “They usually start in a utility role – dishwashing or food prep – but their sanitation skills are good, and that’s important,” he says.

Wayne Green, at 48 the oldest student in the current class, didn’t know much about cooking until he took a culinary arts class while serving a 13-year prison term on narcotics conspiracy charges. While staying at a halfway house in Wilmington, he became curious about the catering business that provides food to its residents.

Carter owns that business, Pineapple Catering, and sometimes hires Hospitality School students to work at special events. He uses some of the profit from the business to provide scholarships to students who are not referred by the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Inquiring about the catering business brought Green, a native of Washington, D.C., an interview at the school, and his eventual admission.

“I’ve learned a lot from Chef Paul [Kubik], especially about the creativity of cooking,” Green says. He completed his internship working in food service at Delaware Park, and hopes to be hired there.

He hasn’t seen much of his four children, ages 20 to 28, while in prison. “Now I want to put my mark down, show them that I am a father, that their father is not a drug dealer,” he says.

And, he says, if he gets a fulltime job and does well, he would like to save enough money to buy and operate a food truck. “I’ve got a long journey ahead,” he says. “I have to stick on the right path.”

It costs between $750,000 and $1 million a year to run the program, with revenue from Pineapple Catering helping to cover some of the expenses. “Food costs keep skyrocketing. And when you’re training, we’ve got to allow for mistakes. If you forget to add baking soda to a batch of cookies, you have to do it again,” Carter says.

He hopes to build Pineapple Catering’s business, especially with nonprofit organizations, as a way of plowing additional funds back into the school. Pineapple Catering has handled special events for the Wilmington Montessori School, Wilmington University and others, Carter says.

Through four years, Carter is pleased with the performance of the school and its graduates.

With 10 to 12 students per class, more than 140 men and women have completed the program. Carter said he has only had to tell two students they had to leave the program; 85 percent of the graduates have been placed in full-time jobs, and 80 percent of them have remained with their employers for a year or more.

Businesses that have accepted interns and hired graduates include Embassy Suites Newark, Delaware Park, the Westin Wilmington, Acme supermarkets and Mrs. Robino’s restaurant in Wilmington.

Murray, whose early excellence in the program helped him secure a full-time job on the evening shift at the Olive Garden restaurant in Christiana, is determined not to let this chance at a fresh start slip away.

Recalling his first felony conviction as a teenager, he says he didn’t realize his mistakes would leave him branded. Since then, he says, “I’ve had many different temp jobs but when I wanted to get hired permanently, they always had to let me go.”

The most frustrating part of the experience, Murray says, “was that I’d go for interviews, and see them writing positive remarks and all these high numbers [in their notes], and then I’d tell them I was a felon and they’d put a big zero on the form.”

He was hoping his performance as an intern at the Westin hotel will lead to fulltime work there. “I don’t know how they do hiring people with my background,” he says, “but I definitely want to show them that given the opportunity, I’ll give it my all.”

Murray must have made a strong impression. Westin hired him this week.

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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