Traverse City News and Events

Amid Restaurant Industry Upheaval, NMC Looks To Reimagine Culinary Institute, Lobdell’s

By Beth Milligan | July 2, 2021

Seismic shifts in the restaurant and hospitality industry in the wake of the pandemic are also impacting other fields, notably culinary schools. Northwestern Michigan College – which is facing the same challenges of declining enrollment and a growing deficit that recently forced Washtenaw Community College to end its culinary program – is plotting out a new future for the Great Lakes Culinary Institute (GLCI) and teaching restaurant Lobdell’s that could portend major curriculum and operational changes on the horizon.

Enrollment in GLCI’s culinary arts associate’s program has steadily declined over the last seven years, from 131 students in fall 2014 to 56 students in fall 2020, according to NMC Vice President for Student Services and Technologies Todd Neibauer. Enrollment in the culinary arts certificate program has dropped from 27 to 11 students in the same timeframe. Meanwhile, the program’s deficit has ballooned from $59,166 in 2014 to $303,480 in 2020.

“The standard at NMC is that occupational programs not exceed an annual subsidy from the general fund of more than $150,000,” says Neibauer. “While GLCI has always received a subsidy from the general fund, unfortunately GLCI has exceeded the standard limit since 2016. With the pandemic’s impact on the entire college budget, it became clear that we must make more significant changes to GLCI.”

Earlier this year, NMC President Nick Nissley asked GLCI Director Leslie Eckert to undergo a three-month process called “Reimagining GLCI” that collected input from various stakeholder groups – including local employers, students, alumni, and faculty – and used a “data-driven approach” to analyze the entire department. The process generated a multi-year plan to address three main goals: increase enrollment, increase revenue, and decrease costs – particularly labor costs in the department.

“It’s a two-fold approach phased in over the next three years,” Nissley says. “The first thing is programmatic updates. How do we make sure the curriculum and courses are what students are looking for? And then there are changes to the Lobdell’s operations.” The 90-seat teaching restaurant overlooking Grand Traverse Bay has long been popular with both students and locals, but is an “underutilized asset,” Nissley says. “Out of 365 days, we’re operating in the space only a third of the time. How can we optimize that space, with maybe a (year-round) restaurant operation or catering operation or event space, so that it’s something that will generate additional revenue?”

The Reimagining GLCI committee has been tasked with delivering a new plan for Lobdell’s by next March. Also on the to-do list: cutting the department's deficit by half to $150,000 in the next three years and finding a way to reduce labor costs. “Is this going to impact employment at GLCI? No,” says Nissley. “There will not be any employee layoffs, and the plan does not prescribe any. But we do need to be mindful and more tightly manage our labor costs.”

For Eckert, the Reimagining GLCI process is another twist in a volatile two-year journey as head of the department, with only a handful of months under her belt in 2019 before the pandemic hit in early 2020. “It’s a lot, because I didn’t get a chance to see the program running at its full capacity,” she says. “But I’ll look at that and take an advantage, which is that I didn’t have a chance to lay down a pattern of how it should be. Starting out new, maybe it will help me embrace change more. It’s a stressful situation, but closing is just not an option. We have this phenomenal space, and it just needs to be reorganized and revamped. We had a great model before, but it’s no longer sustainable.”

Nissley and Eckert anticipate changes are in store not only for the programming content at GLCI, but the model by which instruction is delivered. “People are more interested in sustainability, in health and nutrition, in plant-based menus, in hands-on learning,” says Nissley. “How do we build that in? It could be more internships, more externships, more creative ways to market and sell the school.” Eckert says higher education data across the board reflects a change in perspective students, many of whom aren’t “interested in a long-term degree” but rather short-term intensive curriculum blocks, specialty certificates, and one-off training programs.

“Instead of the only way you can come (to GLCI) is for a year or two, maybe some people will want to come for a month or two to a learning hub to enrich their skills and go into the workplace,” Eckert says. Given the proliferation of home chefs and foodies, particularly in the Traverse City region, GLCI could also offer “master classes” with professional chefs or shorter-term learning programs for enthusiasts who want something more in-depth than a two-hour extended education class but less intensive than a full-time degree program. “Not everyone wants to be a chef, but a lot of people want to be involved in food in some way,” Eckert says.

Everyone The Ticker spoke with at NMC firmly stressed the importance of GLCI to the college and community. Graduates have gone on to launch S2S Sugar 2 Salt, The Towne Plaza, Smoke & Porter, Rose and Fern, and Nittolo’s Pizza, to name just a few examples. “One of the takeaways of going through this process was experiencing the amount of support that not only NMC but GLCI specifically has in the community,” Eckert says. “When I say community, it’s encompassing of those working in the workforce, on the (GLCI) advisory board, within the food service industry, the farmers, local agriculture. All those businesses that interconnect in some way.” Neibauer points out that while the culinary school is “expensive to operate,” it offers numerous other benefits to NMC, including increased enrollment in general education classes, increased on-campus housing, and increased participation in student activities.

With so many local hospitality businesses struggling to hire employees, Nissley says GLCI remains an important pipeline of workers to the community. “Local employers rely upon us…and those restaurants help support the local economy and our vitality as a community,” he says. He notes that NMC’s maritime and aviation programs also struggled in the past but were able to successfully reinvent themselves. Nissley is confident GLCI can do the same. “Failure is not an option,” he says. Eckert agrees, saying turning the program around “is not such a major challenge that we can’t surmount it.”

“Food will always be there, and we will always want food,” she says. “It’s up to us to keep the momentum going. We need to change with the times.”

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