Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

A cloud of misconception has hovered over the Pocahontas County High School ProStart class. It might appear that students are simply learning how to cook when, in fact, the students are learning the ins and outs of the culinary world.

Yes, the students cook and they cook well, but under the simulated workplace curriculum, the students are also learning how to create and manage a restaurant or catering business.

Teacher Teresa Mullen brought her real-life experiences to the students and helped them build the respectful reputation that the business – For the Love of Food – has earned itself.

“Our program is not just cooking,” Mullen said. “They’ve got to do food costs, menu pricing. They have to do everything on the management side. They have to understand about profit/loss. There’s business math involved. It’s all things you need for commercial foods. It’s definitely not like family and consumer science.”

Along with learning about menu items –  appetizers, entrees and desserts – the students are also learning the management side of the culinary business. In the management class and competition, the students must create a restaurant plan – including a menu, layout design and contingency plan for every possible issue that may occur with customers.

“They have to come up with a business plan,” Mullen explained. “They have come up with marketing tactics. They have to explain why they chose the cuisine they chose and how they are going to make money.”

It may sound easy enough to plan a menu and come up with a look for a restaurant, but the students have to plan ahead for unruly customers or customers who might need medical assistance at the drop of a hat.

“They have to prepare how they would handle customer complaints,” Mullen said. “How will they handle allergies. They have to make staffing choices and explain why things on the menu are priced the way they are.”

For the management competition, which is coming up in March, the students will present their plan to judges who will act as potential investors. After the presentation, they are given scenarios on the fly to see how they can handle the pressure of running a restaurant.

“They have a question and answer session where they’re given real-life situations and they have to say how they would handle them,” Mullen said. “One of the questions they might get is, ‘you have a guest that is walking out the door and they start to choke on a toothpick, what are you going to do?’ So that’s the management side.”

The culinary team also has a proposal and menu to create for competition, prior to the actual faceoff. The day of the competition, they have to cook the items on their project menu in one hour with two butane burners.

Along with class studies and preparing for competition, the students’ business has become a popular catering service used in the county.

They have catered the eighth grade luncheon and Green Bank Elementary-Middle School volunteer appreciation brunch for several years, as well as other school-related events.

While they are good at what they do, there are some events that Mullen will not sign up the students for because of the level of perfection expected for those events.

“Weddings – those are things I stay away from,” she said “I will not allow my students to cater weddings or anything like that. First of all, I feel those catering events are for professionals, not for students. It’s your wedding. Your special event is not the place for my students to learn.

“I try to stick to learning experiences, and are viewed in that way by the people attending,” she continued.

Instead of high-stress events, the students are able to learn and grow through catering events for their peers and teachers. This year, the class provided lunch for the teachers, which has helped build their expertise in making small meals.

“We are doing teacher lunches this year, so several times a month, they’ll come up with a menu, I’ll email it out to the teachers and say, ‘hey, this is what we have to offer,’ and it gives them a chance to experience what it’s like to have to prepare food right now.”

As a seasoned chef, Mullen, who still cooks at Snowshoe Mountain Resort, shares stories with her students from the restaurant – in the dining room, as well as the “back of the house” or kitchen – to give them a glimpse of real-life situations she has dealt with in the past.

“I try to give them the most accurate experience to what food service is going to be,” she said. “Some of those experiences are things that they will never have here, that they’ll only get if they go into a kitchen. We do talk about how the customer is not always right – sometimes they have crazy expectations and how to address those things. I share what happens in the back of the house when something happens versus what the guest actually sees.”

Whether they are preparing to go to culinary school or entering the culinary workforce after graduation, at the end of the day, it’s for the love of food.