Restaurants Reap the Rewards of Hiring Military Veterans | Food Newsfeed
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Dishes like these Elk Meatballs at Little Sparrow are a siganture of Chef Melissa Ortiz's refined cooking. Ortiz, who served in the Army, says her military skills propelled her culinary career.

The Battle to Break Through

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Despite possessing desirable skills, like a strong work ethic and discipline, the path from military to restaurant service is often a complicated one for veterans.

By Danny Klein April 2016 Employee Management

As Aaron O’Reilly surveyed the demographics of Michigan City, Indiana—the soon-to-be home of his new restaurant, Fiddlehead, he noticed an alarming reality in the Hoosier State, not to mention the entire country.

The 2014 unemployment rate for all veterans was 5.6 percent in Indiana, a slight increase from the national mark of 5.3 percent. More concerning, however: the rate of unemployment for post-September 11 veterans came in at 10 percent, higher than the 7.2 percent national figure.

Something wasn’t adding up. On a personal level, O’Reilly was raised in a family where his uncles and grandparents served and were revered for it, and they found jobs easy to come by when they returned home. Why had that changed?

“The sentiment in the U.S., I suppose, has just changed toward veterans,” O’Reilly says. “Maybe they’re seen as more of a liability, especially in the case that they have post-traumatic stress disorder, which a lot do. I get that, but I don’t agree with it at all. Veterans are out there, and they make amazing employees. You just have to give them a chance.”

The restaurant industry, he thought, might just be an ideal place to start.

Think of it strictly as a numerical jigsaw. According to the National Restaurant Association, there are currently more than 250,000 veterans employed in the restaurant industry, a number expected to grow by more than 25,000 in the next five years. The NRA also estimates that 1.7 million new restaurant jobs will be created in the next 10 years, and that 10 percent of the current U.S. workforce is part of the burgeoning industry. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that of the 21.2 million men and women veterans in the country in 2014, 573,000 were unemployed across all sectors, and 10.5 million were not in the labor force, meaning they were neither employed nor seeking employment.

That outlook left O’Reilly thinking about the big picture. While the opportunities are surely there, from a mathematical standpoint, for veterans to find jobs in the deep restaurant pool—especially given the discipline, work ethic, and cool-headedness that syncs so well between the two—how can the parties be introduced? O’Reilly believes there’s a long-term solution that goes beyond just basic hiring quotas.

“We felt that we had to do something to help the unemployment rate as well,” O’Reilly says of his co-owner Mary Koselke. “We weren’t planning to hire a manager at all, or have a manager on duty, because we were planning on running the ship. So we thought, ‘Well we could use it as an opportunity to train an employee that we wouldn’t normally have on staff.’”

In September, O’Reilly hired Jeannie Little, a 50-year-old Desert Storm veteran, as Fiddlehead’s first veteran “intern.” She left her shift at Steak ’n Shake one night, interviewed, and was hired on the spot. The position will run one calendar year, with Little being trained in each aspect of the business, starting as a server in the front of the house and working her way to the back, where, as 2015 was coming to a close, she was already assuming managerial duties. O’Reilly says Little has exceeded all expectations. “She’s been an inspiration to our staff,” he says. “In my opinion, military people make the perfect employee in any field. They have the discipline down. Complaining is zero to null. Their work ethic is phenomenal. The fact that they’re not being swooped up and taken by every kind of industry is mind-boggling.”

The Beer Army

Ten days had passed since Captain Todd M. Siebert was killed in action during patrol of Iraq’s Anbar Province. Despite losing friends and fellow Marines before, Dustin Canestorp was struggling to process the harrowing news, which detailed an 82-mm mortar striking Siebert’s vehicle. Canestorp, the founder and owner of Beer Army Burger Co., a craft brew–focused restaurant in the historic riverside town of New Bern, North Carolina, recalls walking, weapon at his side, with an Iraqi interpreter named “Jaguar” and talking about the American Dream.

Then, the camera clicked. “That was really it,” he says of a 6-year-old photograph posted on the restaurant’s website. “That was the exact moment in time when I made my decision to pursue my own dream. I didn’t know what it was going to be exactly, but I had a pretty good idea it was going to involve beer.”

Canestorp sat down and calculated the lost time. Of the 20 years he was in the Marines, he was physically absent—not in his house, with his family, or sleeping next to his wife—more than 1,800 days. “It makes you realize if you’re going to do something with your life, you probably better get started soon,” Canestorp says.

The dream began on humble-enough ground, with home brew, poker, and some good-natured bickering on the state of craft beer in the area. Beer Army grew from a festival to a bottle shop to a brewery, which eventually closed due to a conflict with a distributor. As luck would have it, just a few days later he heard about the closing of Ribeyes, a Bengel Hospitality concept. Canestorp messaged owner Buddy Bengel, and the local restaurateur was in, and suddenly, so were burgers. Now, Canestorp, who had no prior restaurant experience, was set to open a 7,000-square-foot unit with a deeper purpose. “People have loved it [since it opened on June 17], but it’s really all about our foundation,” Canestorp says, speaking about the Beer Army Foundation—a nonprofit community outreach organization that hopes to award 50 scholarships to students of all backgrounds by the end of 2017. “That’s what honors Todd’s name and his memory, and the other guys before and after him.”

Learning Curve

O’Reilly isn’t alone in his thinking. From an educational standpoint, culinary institutes around the country are racing to equip veterans with restaurant-ready skills. In September, The Culinary Institute of America held its annual Armed Forces Forum for Culinary Excellence at the Greystone campus in St. Helena, California. Thirty-six military members participated in the week-long educational event that offered interactive seminars, hands-on cooking activities, and other training sessions led by CIA instructors and leading foodservice executives, suppliers, and industry leaders.

“With more than 1.7 million new restaurant and foodservice jobs opening in the coming decade, the [National Restaurant Association Military Foundation’s] goal is to connect with military personnel and help them further develop the skills and passion, … and prepare them to find rewarding careers in the restaurant sector following their service to the nation,” says Rob Gifford, executive vice president, strategic operations, and philanthropy at the NRA.

Similarly, the New England Culinary Institute linked up with the Coast Guard, also in September, to train 24 of the Guard’s cooks in a six-day-a-week, eight-hour program that lasted 28 days on the Vermont campus. This was just the first showing of what the school hopes will become a lasting relationship. “Once they get out of the service, they can potentially come back here and complete a program,” says Richard Flies, the school’s executive vice president. “They can enroll with the GI Bill and finish their bachelor’s degree.”

And a multitude of universities, including Kendall College and Johnson & Wales, honor the GI Bill, Post 9/11 programs, and other options that build a bridge for future possibilities. Melissa Ortiz, the 30-year-old executive chef at Little Sparrow in Santa Ana, California, traveled a very similar path to swift success. She used the GI Bill, after plenty of friendly pestering from peers, to enroll in the Art Institute of California—Orange County after investing nearly eight years of service in the 18th Airborne Corps, 126th Finance Battalion of the U.S. Army.

When Ortiz returned home, her ambition kept straying back to food, and to those military nights cooking camel—without realizing it—on a makeshift grill of rocks, two sticks, and a metal rack in Africa. And, even further, to the distant, childhood memories of making tortillas in her grandmother’s kitchen, using a step stool just to peer over the stove.

A Chef Decorated with Military and Culinary Medals

“You know the comic strip, Beetle Bailey? Just slop cooking on a plate,” says Chef Derrick Davenport, who has enough titles, medals, and awards to make even the nation’s most acclaimed cooks blush. “The military sometimes has this stigma that we’re just throwing chow on a plate.”

Does that perception mesh with a man who made squab crepinette with port wine sauce, mushroom bread pudding, carrot purée, and a summer vegetable medley for a group of judges? Chef Davenport laughs at the question, before expressing pride over what followed next: He went on to defeat three other chefs to become the American Culinary Federation’s Chef of the Year in 2015, the first military member to ever top the annual competition.

For the past 15 years, Chef Davenport, who spent seven previous years in the restaurant industry, has cooked—at multiple levels—in the military, proving that employment doesn’t necessarily have to come outside of the service for aspiring culinary professionals. He’s worked at the Pentagon, for the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent time on submarines, and trained 50 Afghan Army soldiers how to properly treat and handle food, all the while being named Armed Forces Chef of the Year in 2013, and Armed Forces Master Chef of the Year in 2014. He’s currently a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the Navy and its leading culinary specialist.

It’s been a fun ride to where I’m at now,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a minute of it.” The inspiration struck in school, when one of his instructors, a master chef with a Navy background from the 1960s, waxed on about old military tales. Chef Davenport wanted to live his own adventure, cook, and make a difference serving his country. Where else, he asks, can you combine all three ideals? “Magic sometimes happens around a good meal and relationships are forged that wouldn’t happen elsewhere,” Chef Davenport says. “I’ve been very fortunate to play a very small role in that.”

There was just one minor complication, however. “When I thought of chefs, I thought of those weird hats. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I could do that,’” she says, laughing. “Then everyone reminded me that I’ve been wearing a pretty interesting uniform for years.”

Chef Ortiz set a goal to open or lead a kitchen by the time she was 30. She was 29 and 11 months young when she was called up from her sous chef position, a job she held for less than three months, to the starring role at the popular eatery featured as one of 16 restaurants on the premier season of Bravo’s “Best New Restaurant” series in 2015. Chef Ortiz, who began culinary school “not knowing how to hold a knife,” believes her military background propelled the journey.

“You learn discipline, structure, and when it comes to cooking in kitchens later, you’re ready to handle anything they throw your way,” she says. “Not everyone can handle the kind of hard work it takes to be a chef. It doesn’t even bother me in the slightest.”

Recruiting veterans has become a focal point for many national full-service chains, and Ned Lidvall, the president of O’Charley’s Restaurant & Bar, which has more than 200 locations across 17 states, says he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

“We employ a lot of veterans,” Lidvall says of the 41-year-old company. “We don’t have a standing initiative around attracting veterans, but we have a strong history of providing a great workplace for them to thrive in, and I think that’s something you see around the country.” Like other full-service chains, O’Charley’s also seizes every opportunity to recognize veterans in its local communities.

This past Veterans Day, O’Charley’s honored its 150th veteran as part of a 3-year-old Hometown Heroes campaign, which celebrates a local serviceman or servicewoman whenever the restaurant reopens an updated unit. Lidvall adds that O’Charley’s founder Charley Watkins served 20 years in the Marines as a pilot before retiring as a major in 1963. “We’re going to continue to focus on making this a great place for veterans to work,” Lidvall says. “And, as I think everyone knows, this is an issue and an opportunity for us in this country.” 

20,000 Lessons Under the Sea

Howie Velie, the associate dean, culinary specializations, at The Culinary Institute of America, served in the Navy onboard a fast-attack submarine before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Many years later, he still finds the irony amusing. “We had chili underneath the polar ice cap, which is literally chilly,” he laughs. “We thought it was the funniest thing in the whole world.” Velie had spent eight months submerged at one point, so he was allowed a moment of levity. In all sincerity, though, the four years he spent in service from 1986-1990 shaped his culinary life. In this case, service led to the educational forum, where a military background—not surprisingly—armed Velie with the leadership skills so often coveted by the CIA.

After holding “maybe 10 total positions” and bouncing around the industry, including corporate executive chef jobs at Nestlé and Majestic America Line cruises, Velie was plucked out of the kitchen and placed into the classroom by a job headhunter in 2009. He quickly, efficiently, and resourcefully climbed his way into his current supervisory role.

The ladder to get there, he explains, isn’t all that different from his time under water, when impossible tasks had to become routine in order to survive. With 110 people to cook for and only five working in the kitchen, the around-the-clock job involved baking bread, cakes, and pies, and crafting a chili he would soon become famous for. “They thought it was magical or something,” Velie quips, admitting he would sneak chilies from ethnic markets onboard.

Just days after returning to his hometown of Poughkeepsie, New York, Velie, at 21, landed a job as a sous chef of a conference center. “I was clean and organized,” he says. “I was used to working ridiculously long hours already at a young age. It totally made all the difference.”