Grieco Dishes on CHF Scholarships Program

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Industry veteran Charles Grieco dishes on the history and importance of the CHF’s scolarship program

F&H: The Canadian Hospitality Foundation has existed since 1962 but came under the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s jurisdiction about 23 years ago.  What is the mandate of the CHF?

Charles Grieco: Our mission and mandate is to provide financial assistance, through scholarships and awards, to the best and brightest qualified men and women achievers seeking life-long careers in the foodservice and hospitality industry. 

Has the number of scholarships grown since the OHI took it over?

When we started, we paid out something like $37,000 in scholarships a year. Today, we pay out $220,000 in scholarships. And it’s only in the last year or so that we’ve had to reduce that amount slightly because of the financial challenges the industry has undergone. It’s all related. But now the industry appears to be on the way back.

Consequently, it’s being asked to step up to the line. Over the course of the next five to 10 years, the hospitality industry is going to face a severe labour shortage. There’s going to be even more of a demand for well-trained people who are well-educated, and possess professional level, skills-based training. The industry desperately needs them.

On a yearly basis, how much does the CHF raise?

At this point we have been giving out $220,000. That is the amount we need to net out from the principal activity of the CHF Ball and gala dinner, held annually in October.

How many recipients do you award?

If you take the number of universities and colleges the CHF selectively targets across Canada, maybe there are three to five students per institution who receive scholarships, ranging in value from $2,000 to $3,500.

Do students supplement a portion of the cost of education?

They do. We know what student indebtedness is today. Students have to borrow money to finance a two-year education and it’s now ranging well upwards of $20,000 in total. And if you’re in a three- or four-year course of study, it’s even more. The rough rule of thumb tells us that total student indebtedness should not exceed what a student would expect to earn after graduation in their first year of employment in our industry.  Keep in mind repayment of student loans begins almost immediately after graduation. There is no grace period and no forgiveness.

What requirements must students meet?

In the past they were asked to fill out an application and, in some instances, they wrote a 500-word essay on a subject related to their chosen field. The criteria is merit-based. If you don’t have your GPA, if you haven’t succeeded, if you haven’t been out working in the industry part-time, if you don’t have great recommendations from employer(s), you don’t get the scholarships.

How easy has it been to award this money? 

Over the years it became difficult to give away scholarship money, as applications for such funds declined. Consequently, two years ago the CHF Board said, ‘Okay, we’ll target a select number of universities and colleges across Canada, and to each one we will give so much money and will say: You pick out the successful student(s), send us his or her information, and if that student meets our criteria, we’ll simply approve your selection.’

Do you think the CHF was promoting the need for scholarships and awards well enough?

There was a lot of fault to go around. I think it was the fault of the hospitality industry, the CHF and the men and women seeking education and training from our industry, together with the respective universities and colleges. And, perhaps it has something to do with our culture. If you know anything about the U.S., their educational world and scholarships — they produce huge books that list every scholarship under the sun — and students apply for them like nothing on earth. But here we don’t.  There is also the fact that student loans were easy to come by and recipients not carefully told what lies at the end; student loans must be retired with interest. They cannot be forgiven or wiped out by bankruptcy. It’s a fact that when you receive a CHF scholarship, it does not have to be repaid.

It’s very Canadian of us.

Yes, unfortunately it’s very Canadian. And yet, the industry is the same, and the demand by the industry for well-trained and professionally educated personnel is the same. So the industry really has got to be out there and sell the business of scholarships. If they’re willing to reinvest in their employees through professional development and training, then somehow we’ve got to get people more interested. That’s why when we give money to the colleges and universities, as we do today, under our guidelines and criteria, we know those scholarships are awarded to qualified candidates.

Over the years, how much money has the CHF given out?

In total, in excess of $1 million.

It’s easy for the industry to donate to worthy causes during good times, but, when times get tough, many companies reduce the number of donations they make. How do you motivate companies to keep contributing even during challenging times?

You go back. You restate and reinforce the industry’s need for well-trained, better-educated personnel. We go back to them year after year. And some years, as you know, while they’re not in a position to provide the kind of contribution they have in the past, they’ll say, ‘we’re very interested, we still understand the necessity.’ And when things get better for them, invariably they come back. The CHF is fortunate to have a strong Board of Directors, under the able chairmanship of Paul Glover, and is proactively keeping the need for scholarships front and centre, positioning this work as an essential investment in the industry’s future.

Are you prepared that you may lose some of that funding?

I think you have to be, but fortunately over the years, we planned for such an eventuality. All of us fall on hard times, from time to time, and we work our way out of it and as the industry works its way out of it and becomes more profitable, they are more able to reinvest. They understand this is an investment in their future human capital.

How many companies contribute to the CHF, either through buying a table at the CHF Ball, by making donations or by being a special level sponsor?

They’re all connected. If you look at the CHF Ball, which takes place this year on Oct. 20, at the Westin Harbour Castle, you will have 900 people in that room — all of whom have contributed from $450 a ticket all the way up to $25,000.

Which companies have contributed $25,000?

To date, we have Unilever, The Globe and Mail, GFS, Trimen, and TDL. They’re  joined by Saputo, Maple Leaf Foods, Canada Bread and Andrew Peller at a slightly lesser level.

Do you think it’s easier to say yes to the CHF because money is earmarked for students?

If you’re serious about your business and about reinvesting in it — whether it’s a capital investment or precisely an investment in human resources — it’s very important to you and you don’t forget that.

Obviously, from a student’s point of view, their challenge is having sufficient money to pay for their professional training and education and we’ve seen the impact that has on them.

In the U.S., student indebtedness is growing faster than personal credit-card indebtedness. I doubt it is much different here in Canada. Astounding, but it’s true. And we all preach that the population has to be better educated, and  better trained. But that costs money. It doesn’t come free of charge. So our governments make money available through student loans fairly easily today. The loans are backed by government, and that’s why we’re seeing a rate of borrowing higher than personal credit-card indebtedness. It is easy. That’s the downside, but that’s the reality. The only way around this is to increase the funding for scholarships to the very best of our ability and the industry should — no, it must — understand it’s in their best interest. It really is about the future of your business, and it provides you with that competitive edge necessary to compete on the world’s stage of hospitality and tourism.

This is going to make their labour situation better, their staffing better. It is about that competitive edge.

Unfortunately, we do not have a buoyant apprenticeship system in the Canadian hospitality and tourism industry. Consequently, the best source for successful, skills-based, well-educated people for our industry comes out of our culinary schools within our universities and colleges across the nation.

Do you think funding is a student’s biggest challenge? Or is finding a job, or the transient nature of foodservice workforce a bigger challenge?

We have eliminated that transient image of the workforce. There’s potential for a life-long career in this industry. Consequently, the better educated and trained you are, the more likely you are to find jobs that have a life-long component to them. Our hotels and restaurants are always looking for better trained, better-educated personnel. There’s always a ‘help wanted’ sign on everyone’s door in this industry.

This is no longer a job on the way to another job. This is now a profession. And you are highly mobile as a part of it. That was not always the case.

Do you think hospitality students today are better trained than they were when you were hiring them?

Some of them are; there’s no question about that. Look at the colleges that offer a third-year post diploma program that specializes, in say, Italian Culinary Arts — those are extraordinarily well-trained students. Imagine, that student is able to travel to Italy for three months to be trained on the job while working, not on holiday. That’s pretty amazing, and you get the quality of a professional ready to go to work. And you only have to look at those students to see how much better they are than anybody else coming in to our industry.

Do you think today’s restaurateurs are different in terms of how they view their staff? 

Yes, definitely. I think what they’re putting on their plate alone tells you there’s a difference. What they’re offering you for that glass is different than it was before. This is the challenge we had with getting operators to promote Ontario wines — imagine Ontario wines in an Italian restaurant? Are we crazy? Now look at it. It’s a generational shift that has brought about those changes, and it’s a generational shift that has brought about the changes in the raw materials we’re buying for the plate. We worry about the provenance of what goes on that plate, and we’re not afraid to tell our consumers “this was grown in Ontario.”

What would you tell companies that haven’t contributed to the CHF through scholarships or through buying a table or tickets?

It’s your future.  It’s an investment in your business — just like buying that new grinder or that new computer.

A lot of times in this industry, and hopefully this is changing, people are more inclined to buy a new grinder or chopper than to invest in their people.

You need well-trained people to run your business. You can buy all the computers you’d like, but without people, those computers don’t run.  That labour-saving device doesn’t work without somebody operating it.

What in your mind has made the industry more understanding?

I believe it’s been people’s interest in food, interest in travel, desire to have leisure time and a related, but fulfilling experience, and the fact that people are looking after all of the things you [F&H] preach about all the time. Unprecedented attention is being drawn to our industry and what it delivers in a heightened and knowledgeable manner. People realize this can be a life-long career — not just a step on the way to another job.

So, you’re saying that there’s been an impact?

Yes, and I think the tipping point came maybe 12 or 15 years ago, when Wolfgang Puck was on the cover of Time magazine and Mommy and Daddy realized that ‘gee, somebody can become that important by being a chef.  Maybe I should tell my son or daughter, who wants to pursue cooking, that they may find an opportunity that is every bit as rewarding as being a doctor or a lawyer.’

Where do you think the industry’s mindset will be in 10 years time? When you look at the future of these scholarships, moving forward, do you think that in 10 years instead of giving out $200,000 you will be awarding $300,000 because there’s going to be more interest?

Definitely, and there will be more demand. This industry is growing, and it will continue to grow. The amount of money being spent dining out is growing exponentially. How much money we spend buying our lunches, breakfasts, travelling, whatever it may be — that’s not going to stop. 

Realistically, there’s going to be greater need for the industry to dish out money in the future. It is a compelling investment; the return is real and it continues to ensure that competitive edge.

Well if they’re interested in their future, then they have to be interested in investing in the human component of that industry.

I like the way you phrase that — it’s an investment. It’s not just giving a donation, and that’s key.

We’re not looking for a donation; we’re looking for an investment. And you’re looking, as the investor, at a return on your investment. That’s well-trained, well-educated human resources. That’s your return. It ensures the sustainability of our industry.

What do you tell people who say ‘why should I train somebody, if they might leave and go to my competitor?’

It’s a reality that every successful operator from restaurants to hotels should recognize. There’s no better proponent of this than one of the most successful hospitality operators in North America — Danny Meyer, who has always said: ‘You can’t hold talent captive; they will leave.’ Once you understand that, maybe you’ll know how to handle them properly. Maybe you will put them in business to expand your business. Maybe you’ll help them to get started in their new businesses — as he just did in New York at the critically acclaimed 11 Madison.

Most chefs know that because they were in that position too, yet the natural inclination is to say ‘well I’m not going to do this’

That’s short-sighted; you can’t do that. It’s a prescription for trouble. Years ago, people used to say to me, on a Friday, ‘Why the hell are you opening all those bottles of wine for your staff?’ My answer was ‘so they can taste, understand and know what they have to sell.’ But they’re going to leave you,’ they’d tell me. Yes, they are. But at least they’ll know how to sell. You have to expect that they will leave, but you hope if you nurture them and give them an opportunity to grow, they’ll think twice about leaving.

So you shouldn’t view the investment as a waste of money?

The investments we make in this industry are by and large never a waste. Better professional skills, well-trained, more competent service people are always better employees. At the end of the day, these are the characteristics that the consumer appreciates and that will result in a real return on your investment and a successful business. 

Interview by Rosanna Caira

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