I have the privilege of meeting great leaders in school foodservice, but this person really stuck out to me. I saw passion and resiliency in her eyes. The way she lead her team and the business perspective she had for her operation was second to none. You will get a chance to see how she approaches her job and how she generates over $3,000 in a la carte sales on a daily basis! You are about to read part 1 of 2 of my interview. With Lisa Marino, manager at Creekside High School.
Kern: Alright, we’re here with Lisa Marino at Creekside High School. So Lisa, how are you doing this morning?
Lisa: I’m doing great, thank you!
Kern: Alright, so tell me your name, what school you’re from?
Lisa: Okay, my name is Lisa Marino and I work at Creekside High school, St. John’s County Schools in Jacksonville, Florida.
Kern: Okay, and what is your position in the school?
Lisa: I’m a food service manager at the high school level.
Kern: Awesome, awesome, awesome. So tell me a little about yourself, Lisa.
Lisa: Well, I have 4 pugs, I’m married, I’m 51 and I love working in the food service industry.
Kern: You’re a dog lover like me!
Lisa: Oh my God. I do pug rescue. So I get them, you know, I can’t give them back so I just keep them.
Kern: Ok, how long have you worked in FNS?
Lisa: 13 years.
Kern: 13 years, so what did you do before that?
Lisa: I was in New York and I was an owner/operator of a bakery.
Kern: Wow, so do you have a sweet tooth?
Lisa: I do! I do have a sweet tooth, but I have to be good you know? I can’t make those big batches like I used to at the bakery. So I have to cut the recipe down quite a bit for home use.
Kern: Was there a signature recipe that you made that was also your most popular item?
Lisa: Well, for adults it was an old fashioned cinnamon roll. A baking powder recipe. It was fantastic, I would eat one a day because they were my favorite. I was probably about 20 pounds heavier when I owned a bakery.
For the kids, it was ice cookies so every occasion I would do a different kind of ice cookie. For Halloween we would do finger cookies, little eye ball cookies, witches cookies etc. At Christmas, we would do Santas, stockings and snow balls. It was great, it was great. It was a happy job.
Kern: That is awesome. So what led you to come into school food service?
Lisa: Well, when we left New York it was right after 9/11 and property value soared in my area because I was about 15 minutes in New York. It was a good time to move.
We moved down here and I really didn’t know what was I going to do. So I decided from owner/operator working crazy, crazy, crazy hours to a 200-day a year job sounded great. I applied for a food service position and because they just didn’t let you go straight into management down here, you had to go through a year program. After that, I opened my first elementary school two years after I got here.
Kern: You sound a little bit like me because I was lured into the school food industry by having not to work nights and weekends; That was a key deciding factor for my decision.
Lisa: It is because I always worked, for 10 years straight even for all the holidays. I’d be closed on Christmas day but it didn’t matter because I was dead tired from all the work that I put in from working continuously beforehand. You know how it is? Owner/operator, it’s crazy, crazy hours and you never rest, you never rest.
Kern: How was your transition for owning your business to working in school food service?
Lisa: Oh my God, I feel like I’m retired. It’s so easy! It’s so easy, you know what I mean? The only thing I have to worry about is what time we’re serving. Everything else is ready to go, and if I encounter problems I make a quick call to the district and there’s an electrician here, or somebody for refrigeration. You know my food is already here. I order ahead but it’s like I said, it’s like being retired.
Kern: Right. What do you tell a person that says, “Oh, this is a lot of work!” What could you tell a person who may want to get into the industry right now that says, “Oh, this is a lot of work” or wonders “Will it be a lot of work?”
Lisa: Well, I think it is initially. It is work until you get your rhythm and then what I would tell them is: If you think this is hard work, you need to go work out into the real world and then you’ll see what hard work is because working here is a luxury. It’s like you said, having the weekends off and no holiday. We need to be on point when serving the kids. It’s about 2 hours a day that we’re actually serving the kids, otherwise it’s prep. If you think this is hard work maybe you should get out of food service because it is! You know what I mean, it can be rough sometimes.
Kern: Yes, absolutely. Trust me. I’ve worked those 14-15 hour days at Walt Disney World, so I know where you stand. So what is the most fulfilling part of your job?
Lisa: The most what part of my job?
Kern: The most fulfilling part of your job.
Lisa: I would have to say knowing that you’re helping. That we’re here doing a great thing. We’re feeding the kids and you can’t learn or do anything unless you are fed and ready to go. That’s what we’re here to do.
I know I make a difference everyday when I realize how many kids are served and how happy they are to see us. Just taking care of people. We’re in the service industry, that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to serve our customers and mine happen to be students, and it’s fantastic.
Kern: That is great. What is your proudest moment to date, involving your students?
Lisa: Proudest moment… I have some different ones but the most recent one I would have to say is: When the seniors graduate they have to write a letter to someone in the school that’s made a difference. It’s never anyone that I actually knew, it’s just someone who has been affected by work that I do… One student wrote a letter to the assistant principal that she would like to thank me for managing the cafeteria department. She mentioned that I made really great food and that school is stressful enough, that it’s nice to have a place to go to for 30 minutes where she can relax. She also mentioned that she especially likes our outside unit because she doesn’t have to come in and join long lines. She can run out, grab what she wants and go about her business, socializing.
It makes me happy to know that I didn’t actually work with this student, but the impact is important and it’s nice to know that it’s noticed. It’s a really nice thing.
Kern: Well I’m glad you said that because I travel around the country and I get a chance to talk to managers, directors and front line employees on a weekly basis. I always tell them how important the cafeteria manager and the staff members are. I had the same opportunity with my elementary school manager (from childhood). She really played a significant part in my life by making my day at school a lot easier, so I want to thank you for enhancing the experiences of that student and many others.
Lisa: Well, thank you. That’s really nice. This is a great job, you know.
Kern: Of course, with every job there are ups and downs and I’m glad that you have had more ups rather than downs, but what has been your biggest challenge at the school and how do you overcome it? How did you overcome it?
Lisa: My biggest challenge with the school is when I open it. I’ve opened two schools so when I opened this high school, it went from two lines to nine lines plus seating kids. The numbers then were 600 and were going to 1,500 now it’s at 2,000. I would have to say that the biggest challenge is setting up and getting ready, especially with a new routine.
The main thing is that you get your priorities straight. I actually came into this kitchen when the workmen were still here so here I am, and food’s coming in a week and my cooler isn’t ready… By prioritizing and telling them what I needed, and who was going to be there…we were able to get the school open smoothly without me having to cook outside and transporting food back down to the school. However, a new challenge that I’m working on right now with the athletic director is about concessions. I came up with the idea that food services should be a part of running the concession program in the evening because the workers are trained. The concession’s program is mostly volunteer based and I believe it encourages community as the parents want to be a part of their kids’ school. As for the food service workers, they’d be able to work extra hours because their work day is short (6 hours a day is considered full time and nobody can survive on 30 hours a week). They have other outside avenues, but when my workers do the concessions service I am ensured that their hours will be increased in a fun and different environment that will involve them in a school-based activity. That’s a big thing that I’m working on right now and I won’t know the outcome until I’m there, which is by the first football game.
Kern: I think it’ll definitely work out because not only are you creating opportunities for your staff, but you are also getting your external (stakeholders) involved. i.e. That parent, board member, superintendent, thus taking your staff and kitchen to another level. That would be a great addition to school food service, kudos to you for coming up with that concept.
Lisa. Yeah, yeah. I’m very excited about that because it’s new and it’s exciting for me. Of course, doing my job is fine but I like the idea of something new. It’s nice, it’s nice.