Alum Strategies for Adapting Your Skills During COVID-19

JWU graduates have a reputation for tenacity. True to form, alumni in the culinary and hospitality realm are doing everything they can to stem the fallout from COVID-19.

Leslie Ferrier '90, vice president of Human Resources for the Momofuku Restaurant Group, digested a substantial pay cut and helped create a 501(c)(3) charitable organization to ensure its flock of 1,000 employees were provided for in the best possible manner. “Everyone gets their cross to bear,” she says. “But it’s important to remember that this too shall pass. We will have a changed world after this — as it was after 9/11 — but the world is not ending.”

Her advice to students about to graduate? “Now is the time to study all the job descriptions and various industries and compile a strategy for getting the job you want. Hospitality is never going away, but being a professional involves problem-solving so you have to use grit. It’s important to hone your skills right now.” The suggestion also applies to alumni who have been furloughed or laid off.

On a lighter note, she adds, now is the time to accomplish those things you never had time for (like cleaning the attic in her case) or taking up yoga. “And it’s a good lesson to remember not to live beyond your means — have some money in the bank to rely on,” she adds. “You have to figure out a job that allows you to put some money away and a profession that will provide enough to live on.”

“It’s important to hone your skills right now.”

Ferrier envisions more aspiring chefs may want to learn the business side of the business while in culinary school. “All your creativity goes out the window if you don’t know how to run the restaurant as a business,” she says. “You need to understand what a P&L [profit and loss statement] is, how to negotiate, you need to understand labor laws and so on. It may seem boring, but if you are already operating in the red and have a crisis like coronavirus, what do you do? It costs about $15,000 just to sanitize the restaurant.”

Matt Schechter '05 is regional director of national accounts for NYC & Company, the destination marketing organization plus convention and visitors bureau for New York City’s five boroughs. “For those in event planning, relationships are more important now than ever,” he says. “Build relationships with colleagues, classmates, professors and the alumni base to put yourself in the best position for job opportunities. Make sure your LinkedIn profile is buttoned up because people are online now more than ever before. I also think that in the future technology may be a complement for the industry — there may be more simulcasting of conferences, for example.”

He suggests that alums look to tourism boards and convention and visitor bureaus as a resource. “Our site describes what we are doing for relief efforts, as well as which restaurants are doing delivery service, which is a great way to support the industry.”

According to Schechter, groups such as the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence, the Professional Convention Management Association and Meeting Professionals International are an excellent venue for webinars and online courses (some of which are currently offered for free), job postings, scholarships/financial assistance and career advice; there are often also individual chapters for each state or region. “MPI also partners with charities dedicated to hunger and homelessness,” he adds. “If you can help others in need during this time, business karma goes a long way.”

Even with their businesses on life support, alumni are doing just that — using their unique resources to help the community. While schools are closed, Providence restaurateur Derek Wagner '99, '19 Hon. has been offering free sandwich meals to kids at Nicks on Broadway as well as discounting takeout for hospitality and medical professionals. Andarrio Johnson '00 of Cuzzos Cuisine in Charlotte has also been serving free lunches to children; donations can be made to his Culinary Connections 501(c)(3). Similarly, Bonnie Moore '92, a culinary consultant and Real Food for Kids board member, is involved with the recently-launched Chefs Feeding Families project.

Additional resources for relief funds, education, networking and moral support:

Numerous local and state agencies are also offering loans, grants and relief, so consult with your communities to see what is available.


MAJORDŌMO | Photo by Molly Matalon