By Mark Ward, SR., PHD 2015-10-05 21:43:17
Discover how the K-12 foodservice niche became a career passion for two industry representatives. Meet Tracey Tinder When Tracey Tinder needs some motivation, she looks in the mirror. As Western Region sales manager and K-12 school specialist for Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foodservice, she helps scores of school districts serve nutritious items to students—and was named 2015 SNA Industry Member of the Year. “To remind me that what I do is all about the kids,” she explains, “I only have to think about my own childhood.” Mirror: Looking In A native New Yorker, Tinder moved with her family to southern California while she was in elementary school. “Things were tight for us,” she recounts, “and in fifth and sixth grade I was permitted to work as a cafeteria cashier, so that I could get a school lunch every day. Those kitchen ladies became my very best friends.” In middle school, Tinder broadened her foodservice experience by working at a local taco stand. In high school she landed a job at a grocery store that would carry her until 24, when she faced a career turning point that led her back to her roots. “A food broker came to the grocery one day and suggested I apply for a job as representative for a local pizza manufacturer,” Tinder relates. She got the position, which involved providing customer service to local school districts. Eventually, Tinder went to work for a foodservice brokerage, selling a broad range of K-12 products. “School nutrition professionals are the nicest people,” Tinder states. “Over time, I decided I’d like to make the K-12 market my full-time focus.” In 1996, she realized her ambition by taking a job with Gold Star Foods—and subsequently joining SNA. Tinder’s next stop on her career path was a beef and pork processor, where again she serviced school districts as a protein specialist. Then, she tried her hand again at a food brokerage, “But after so many years of representing one organization, it was hard for me to represent several manufacturers,” she recounts. “Food brokers do a great work in school nutrition, but I liked the idea of focusing my energies on one product line.” ConAgra Foodservice, an SNA Patron, came calling in 2007. Initially, Tinder declined the offer due to the travel that would be required. “But they offered me some flexibility. So three months later, I said ‘yes.’ Now I love my job because of the travel. Every day is different, with different people to meet and get to know. The school nutrition profession is a close-knit community, and I love being part of it.” Window: Looking Out Some 30 years later, Tinder has seen her professional career come full circle. “I started out as a rep for a pizza manufacturer that served local school districts,” she says, “and now the product I represent to schools across the Western region is ConAgra’s pizza brand.” Based out of her home in Huntington Beach, Calif., Tinder also has found a personal niche in helping members of the California School Nutrition Association (CSNA) attend SNA’s annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC) in Washington, D.C., soliciting prize donations for fundraising raffles. “Since 1997, we’ve raised enough funds to send 140 CSNA members to LAC,” reports Tinder. Legislative action is a priority for Tinder, because it addresses what she sees as the biggest issue facing school nutrition today: declining rates of student participation. “The decline is often due to regulations that force districts to serve food items the kids don’t want to eat,” she declares. While acknowledging that advocacy is a critical strategy, Tinder also believes that school nutrition directors have some power to reverse declines at the local level. “I know that directors are under constant pressure to contain their food costs,” she notes. “But if you make procurement decisions based only on price, rather than quality, you might save a penny but you’ll lose participation. Build relationships with your suppliers so that you can find solutions together.” Still, Tinder intends to continue her efforts to build grassroots involvement in legislative advocacy. “Retiring directors often tell me that school nutrition isn’t fun anymore, because the regulations mandate what they must do,” she recounts. “So we need to address the situation—if only so that we can attract a new generation of directors into school nutrition.” Current Title: Western Region Sales Manager and K-12 School Specialist Company: ConAgra Foodservice Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: TV and movie extra Book at Your Bedside: Mother Teresa: Her Essential Wisdom Someone You Admire: Warren Buffet Top of Your Bucket List: Be on a TV game show—which I’ve already done!” Dream Dinner Guest: Walt Disney Meet Mike Burke Two years ago, Mike Burke, SNS, asked his employer, Baltimore-based Vulcan Food Equipment Group, to change his job title to “K-12 Ambassador.” The company approved the somewhat unconventional request, which, for Burke, made perfect sense. “It reflects the way I’ve always approached my service to the K-12 market,” he explains. “The new title emphasizes advocacy for school nutrition. In working with directors, I don’t do ‘sales presentations’ but educational presentations. And I educate our sales reps about the needs of schools. Also, a big part of my job is exhibiting at SNA national and state events and adding my voice in advocating for school nutrition.” Burke decided to show his commitment by earning his School Nutrition Specialist (SNS) credentials back in 2010. In fact, this tradition of support goes way back at Vulcan and its former incarnations, which have championed SNA for more than 60 years. Burke sees the relationship between Vulcan and SNA as a win-win connection for both parties. “While I try to educate school nutrition operators on how to use food equipment to their best advantage,” he explains, “me being involved in SNA is a chance for operators to educate me about their needs and the changing needs of the profession.” From Scratch Vulcan sells convection ovens, combi ovens, holding ovens and steamers to the K-12 market. “School nutrition operators are migrating toward more scratch-cooking,” Burke notes. “Serving more freshly prepared foods is a way for schools to increase student participation. “But, Scratch-cooking in a high-volume cafeteria kitchen is different than the scratch-cooking people do at home.” The answer, Burke says, is ovens with the components that boost cooking flexibility, but are user-friendly and “actually make it easier for your staff to learn how to cook,” he explains. “Think about your TV remote. It’s so complicated, most functions are unusable. But we’ve listened to operators and simplified the controls [on our equipment]. So rather than a touch pad for time and temperature, we’ve gone back to dials.” As today’s profession grows more complex, learning to manage an operation has assumed equal importance with learning to cook. Burke and his company have stepped forward by helping to underwrite SNA’s Executive Management Seminar, an invitation-only event held annually in conjunction with the Association’s Legislative Action Conference and taught by faculty from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. Bright Beginnings Burke was introduced to the foodservice ropes in high school, when he worked as a dishwasher and line cook for a Kansas City, Mo., restaurant. At age 20, he decided to enlist in the Navy. His four-year stint included service on the U.S.S. Independence when the aircraft carrier cruised the eastern Mediterranean during the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. After his discharge, Burke returned home to Kansas City—and the foodservice business. He earned an associate degree in hospitality management and managed a downtown steakhouse. Yet the long and demanding hours sent him seeking an alternative and, in 1981, he went to work representing a foodservice equipment company. Hired two years later by a manufacturers’ representative firm, Burke sold multiple equipment lines and focused on the K-12 market. After joining Vulcan in 1991, he moved up to regional manager, then business development manager for the company’s steam cooking line, and then product line manager—the title he held until becoming K-12 Ambassador in 2013. He works from a home base in Kansas City. “Compared to 30 years ago, so much has changed,” Burke relates. “Kids are exposed to eating out. They’re exposed to freshly prepared foods rather than just fast food. Elementary students in Montana might want Korean food on their menu. Food preferences are evolving. Operators and industry must work together in order to keep up.” Current Title: K-12 Ambassador Company: Vulcan Food Equipment Group Favorite School Lunch as a Kid: “Spaghetti Mac” (baked noodles and chili) Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: U.S. Navy or aircraft Engineering Book at Your Bedside: The Men Who United the States, by Simon Winchester Dream Dinner Guest: Theodore Roosevelt Hobbies: Biking, reading, hunting, fishing
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