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Food service program is expanding

Enrollment up, major kitchen upgrade planned

STERLING – Food service workers always are in high demand, and the Whiteside Area Career Center is preparing local students for careers in the commercial setting.

The vocational center, which has had a commercial food service program for at least 25 years, is experiencing a surge in enrollment in the program, so the center is renovating its kitchen and expanding its catering services.

“The foods classes people remember from high school, the goal was to learn to cook for yourself or your family,” said Kim Purvis, executive director of the career center. “Our classes, the goal is to learn to run a restaurant or a cafeteria – large-scale operations.”

In the last 10 years, the program has not been full time; in fact, 3 years ago, it was suspended for a year. Enrollment long has struggled.

“Jobs are in high demand, but they’re never high-paying jobs,” Purvis said.

But 2 years ago, the program experienced a resurgence. A new instructor, Joe Hunt, a chef at Timber Creek Golf Club in Dixon, brought a new approach and real-world experience to the program.

“When I went to cooking school in Chicago, it was set up where 33 percent of the time you were in the classroom, 33 percent you were in the lab and the rest of the time you were working on your own,” Hunt said. “So when I got here, that’s the approach I took. And it seemed like the students really embraced that.”

Enrollment grew, from 15 students 2 years ago, to 25 students last year, to an anticipated more than 40 students this coming school year.

“I thought something like that would take 5 years,” Hunt said. “It’s exciting to see it move and grow this fast.”

Over the years, catering has been a part of the food service program, but in the last few years, the business has grown along with the program.

“We already catered our own events in this building,” Purvis said. “But we have started to host more meetings here, and food service has provided anything from a light breakfast to a full lunch for those.”

“I told her I would never tell her ‘no,’” Hunt added. “The more real-life experience we can give the students, the better.”

Between increased enrollment and growth in the catering business, the career center is planning to expand its kitchen.

The existing kitchen is small and has just one cooking station – one range and one flat-top grill or griddle – and cannot accommodate an average class or the demands of the catering business. The current setup also has no dining area; the program serves food, at meetings, for example, in a classroom on the opposite end of the building.

“It’s like trying to teach a computer class with just one computer,” Purvis said.

The new kitchen will be 50 percent bigger, with three cooking stations, but capabilities for as many as five, and be attached to a dining area equipped for “working meals” that could include presentations and guest speakers. It will be near the parking lot and much more convenient to meetings hosted at the career center.

The career center board approved renovations up to $300,000. Work is slated to start in September. The new kitchen won’t be up and running until the next school year.

In the meantime, the career center wants to amp up its catering business with a focus on “small but big” groups.

“There’s a need for it in our area,” Purvis said. “It’s hard to find a location to seat just 50 people. You could have [an event] in a restaurant, and it would be too small, or in a hall, and it would be too big. Services for those in-between-sized groups is important.”

“We hope that as the community sees a youth movement toward [the industry] ... that they will be excited about it and support it, too,” Hunt added.

Need catering?

The Whiteside Area Career Center student food service program can accommodate groups of up to 40 people for events between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Students can provide later, light breakfasts, full lunches and simple refreshments for meetings and other events.

Call the center, 815-626-5810, or email Kim Purvis at for more information.

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