Traverse City News and Events

How NMC's Great Lakes Culinary Institute Came Back From The Brink Of Oblivion

By Craig Manning | Feb. 18, 2024

Two years ago, the Great Lakes Culinary Institute (GLCI) was a massive money-losing operation for Northwestern Michigan College (NMC)—to the point where the college was questioning whether the beloved-but-expensive program should be eliminated entirely. Instead, NMC doubled down on GLCI, reimagining the program for a more modern context, looking for opportunities to cut costs, and chasing down heretofore-untapped revenue streams. Fast-forward to 2024, and the program that was once running at a deficit of $375,000 is now on the verge of breaking even.

Speaking to The Ticker at the start of the 2022-23 academic year, NMC President Nick Nissley was candid about GLCI’s hard times.

“We were looking at program assessments across the college, which we do periodically to ask how we’re doing,” Nissley explained. “And as we looked at the culinary program, a couple of things struck us. Number one, we’ve seen a decline in enrollment over the last decade. Back in 2014, we were at over 200 students; in 2022, that was down to about 80. And linked to that, our revenue [from GLCI] was halved in that time. In 2014, we were up to almost $600,000 in revenue; in 2022, we were down to about $300,000. For me, those were warning bells saying that we needed to take action.”

Subsequent consulting sessions with the Culinary Institute of America—a New York-based institution that Nissley described as “the gold standard of culinary education”—highlighted just how dire the situation was.

“A really positive thing they told us was that any culinary program in the country will typically run at a deficit,” Nissley said. “In a college setting, a culinary program is almost always being funded by other programs, because culinary programs are so capital and labor intensive.” Even with that caveat, the consultants flagged GLCI’s sizable and quickly-growing deficit—$360,000 in 2022, compared to $60,000 in 2014—as a downright existential problem.

“[The Culinary Institute] ultimately came back with some really harsh news for us,” Nissley said. “They told us that all indicators suggested that the program should be closed.”

While retiring GLCI might have been logical from a dollars and cents perspective, NMC leadership ultimately decided the program—even as a money loser—was important to the college’s identity and to the Traverse City community as a whole. And so, the question internally at NMC became: How can the culinary program evolve so that, even if it’s still losing money, it’s losing less money?

So says Jason Slade, NMC’s vice president for strategic initiatives. Per Slade, when NMC was running baseline numbers for GLCI ahead of the reimagining process, the program was “$375,000 in the hole.”

“Our goal for them was just to lose less than $150,000,” Slade says.

In pursuit of that goal, NMC and GLCI made a few key changes. One step was slimming down the program’s staff, which was still calibrated to peak enrollment and revenue numbers from 2014. Another was subverting NMC’s standard 15-week semester structure; instead, GLCI classes now break down into shorter eight-week terms, making them more approachable and accessible for students who need to juggle work, family, and other obligations along with their school commitments.

GLCI has also added new programming to its slate. The core GLCI curriculum now boasts several fresh course subjects—from plated desserts, to farm-to-table dining, to beverage management. GLCI has also created a variety of shorter-form culinary certificates, including one specializing in baking and pastry skills and another designed to train students to be chefs on maritime vessels. In the fall, NMC will add another culinary certificate, this one focusing on sports performance nutrition.

According to GLCI Director Les Eckert, the new courses and certificates all stem from emerging industry demands. GLCI’s new sports performance nutrition certificate is one example.

“This certificate would help a chef work with, say, a dietician or nutritionist to create menus and recipes, not only for sports teams but also for individual athletes, maybe even as a private chef,” Eckert says. “A lot of sports teams, both professional and collegiate, already have dieticians and nutritionists to help with pre-game and post-game training, or with bulking or cutting, or with whatever the athletes are trying to do. But they want their own chefs, too. This certificate will help address that industry demand.”

So far, the changes at GLCI seem to be working. Enrollment is up 18 percent, and revenue is up, too. In fact, Slade says the program is significantly outperforming the college’s original goals.

“As of June 2023, they only had a net loss of $27,000,” he notes. “The program is still losing money, but recall that our goal for them was just to lose less than $150,000. So, really, they absolutely killed it last year. I just ran the numbers [for 2023-24], and I actually have GLCI on track to break even this academic year.”

For her part, Eckert is pleased to see the success, but isn’t ready yet to take her foot off the gas pedal.

“Even though we see the deficit shrinking and going away, we can’t get too excited,” she says. “We can’t just say, ‘Oh, we did it, we saved the program,’ and then forget about this work that we did… I’m a little nervous to say, yes, we can back down a little bit.”

One potential lever NMC could still pull to take GLCI revenues to an even higher level? An evolution of Lobdell’s, the program’s Hagerty Center-based teaching restaurant.

Last year, NMC hired a revenue enhancement consultant to take a closer look at GLCI—and specifically at Lobdell’s—and to identify potential opportunities to maximize the restaurant’s impact on the college’s bottom line.

“[The consultant] did have a recommendation for more of a full-fledged restaurant in the Lobdell’s space,” Slade says. “We’re not dismissing that idea, but we need to figure out our Lobdell’s usage, because we’d need to be doing two things in tandem. One, we’re ramping up these academic classes, which means Lobdell’s is being used more often by GLCI. If we’re running a full-fledged restaurant there, we have to make sure that we don’t displace our students from that experience. So, we’re currently getting a feel for what Lobdell’s looks like with the new numbers [for GLCI enrollment], and then we’ll go from there.”

This article is an abridged version of a story that appears in this week's issue of Ticker sister publication Northern Express. Pick up your copy on newsstands now!

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