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June 2008
Gourmet Graduates
By Ellison Clary

     Fresh from graduating its first four-year class, the Charlotte Campus of Johnson & Wales University has taken its place as a major influence in the Queen City and the 16-county region.

     Many people agree with President Art Gallagher that the area would be much different today without the school that offers instruction in business and hospitality curricula as well as its marquee discipline of culinary arts.

     Johnson & Wales University opened its Charlotte doors in September 2004 and has built enrollment through 2007 to 2,556. As its first four-year students graduated on May 17, the school conferred an honorary doctorate in business administration on Harvey Gantt, civic leader, businessman and former Charlotte mayor.

     “Johnson & Wales has been an outstanding citizen of Charlotte and has far exceeded our expectations,” says Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. “It’s one thing to add people, to add culture, or to add faculty and staff, but when you bring all that together, you’ve truly changed the culture of Charlotte.”

     Known as a white collar financial center, Smith says, Charlotte—with the help of Johnson & Wales—has added texture to its urban core. “It’s a texture that can only be created by students that are hungry for knowledge,” he says.

     Of the 600 graduates, about half were in culinary arts, with hospitality and business splitting the remaining 50 percent.

     The track record of Johnson & Wales (JWU) at all its campuses—they include Providence, R.I., Miami, Fla., and Denver, Colo.—is that 98 percent of its students find jobs within six months of graduation.

     A recent graduate of the hospitality college at JWU who is keeping a job she already had is Donna Ivey. Bruce Schlernitzauer, co-owner of Porcupine Provisions, calls Ivey “very responsible” and says she represents his business well.

     In its 12-year existence, Schlernitzauer says Porcupine has earned a reputation as one of the area’s top caterers and he attributes part of that success to Johnson & Wales. “We can get much more qualified servers and general staff because of what the school does,” he says.

     Ivey, a Taylorsville, N.C. native, built a seven-year career in criminal justice before enrolling in Johnson & Wales. “It was a very gutsy move for someone my age,” she says of her decision to pursue a hospitality degree.

     Being a non-traditional student was tough, says the 34-year-old mother of two, but she adds, “I wouldn’t trade this college experience for the world.”

     She plans to stay in the Charlotte area long-term and hopes to someday join up with a large company to help plan corporate events.

     At the Charlotte JWU campus, students represent 40 states and 20 countries, but Gallagher expects 65 percent of this year’s graduates to stay in the region.


Quality Fare

     “For a business considering Charlotte,” Gallagher says, “one of the things executives are looking at is quality of life for employees and family members. Charlotte is a more enjoyable experience because there are so many dining opportunities and the hospitality and tourism industry is growing.

     “We’re able to support that,” Gallagher says of his campus that includes an academic building, two residence halls and an apartment complex for juniors and seniors at Fifth and Graham Streets. Additionally, some students take their experimental education program at a DoubleTree Hotel adjacent to campus.

     Johnson & Wales invested $112 million in its Charlotte Campus, says Gallagher. He points to a North Carolina State University study that pegged the JWU economic impact on the Charlotte area at $111 million a year. JWU’s 215 full-time employees hold down what Gallagher calls “good paying jobs.”

     “You can’t underestimate the value of bringing their talented faculty to our community,” says Smith of Center City Partners. “Many of these professors, often new to the area, soon plug in to become involved citizens.”

     Meanwhile, Gallagher lists a wide variety of entities that seek JWU students and graduates, including on the hospitality front the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Ballantyne Resort.

     Hospitality majors also work in area hotels with names such as Marriott, Omni and Hilton. Their roles include managing the front office, guest registration and check in, managing housekeeping, night audit and development.

     At locations such as the Westin Hotel, they run into fellow students and grads from the business school.

     Majors within the JWU business school in Charlotte include business administration,  marketing, management accounting and fashion retail merchandising. Gallagher is particularly happy about adding the latter two.

     “Our accounting program is tailored to the Institute of Management Accounting certificate,” he says. “Our curriculum is aimed at students who want a job as a manager, running the accounting department or doing something in finance, but not necessarily going into public accounting. Eighty percent of jobs in accounting these days are in management accounting. Students can become eligible to take the CMA certification exam at JWU.”

     The fashion merchandising degree also fits a niche. “We have students who want to go into managing department stores,” Gallagher says. “We have a number of externships at Belk, Target and Enterprise Rent-A-Car.”

     JWU was founded in Providence as a business school and Gallagher takes pride in his Charlotte business program. The business school here will never be as big as culinary arts, he says, but it offers “very good, ready-to-work graduates.”

     He cites their classroom experience augmented by 11-week externships with employers such as Northwestern Mutual Financial Network and Bank of America.


Recipes for Success

     Tiffany Adams of Wake Forest, N.C., already was working full-time in the main office branch of Bank of America before graduation and she has kept her position as a teller operations specialist.

     Business marketing major, Adams, 22, concentrated in advertising and communications.

     “Ultimately,” she says, “I want to do something a little more focused on marketing and advertising.” She might do that at Bank of America, she adds, if the situation is right. Bank officials confirm that opportunities are available in those areas.

As banking center manager at the main office branch of Bank of America, Kristin Wallace is Adams’ supervisor. Wallace praises Adams.

     “She’s a great leader and coach and she’s very organized,” Wallace says. “Not only does she recognize problems, she’s a problem solver.”

     Adams is good with people, too. “She has great customer interaction,” adds Wallace, who says she has two other JWU business school students working in the main office branch.

     Gallagher is excited by the summer 2008 expansion of the business school that will be ready for students in the fall. That includes the addition of 10,000 square feet of space on the fourth floor of the Gateway Center building adjacent to the Johnson & Wales Academic Center.

     Geared to retail fashion merchandising, the expansion includes seven state-of-the-art classrooms, including one storefront instruction facility.

     When he turns his attention to the culinary arts students, Gallagher smiles and shakes his head. His Charlotte Campus gets far more requests for culinary students and graduates than it can supply. He clicks off the names of restaurants and country clubs throughout the region seeking the culinary students for both the kitchen and the front of the house.

    May culinary graduate Sam Stachon works for Noble’s Restaurant in SouthPark, where he’s been in the kitchen for almost two years. Now a line chef, he’s stayed with the restaurant because he enjoys learning.

     From Sheboygan, Mich., Stachon, 22, grew up in his family’s Italian-American restaurant and learned much from his father, who loved to cook. A chef alumnus of JWU told him about the school.

     “I see myself as having my own bed and breakfast or a little inn,” says Stachon, adding that such a place might be in Northern Michigan or possibly in the North Carolina mountains.

     Noble’s owner Jim Noble compliments  Stachon for a variety of traits. “He’s passionate about what he does,” Noble says. “He’s energetic and always thinking.”

Noble adds, “He’s developing into a great chef.”

     “Before Johnson & Wales came to Charlotte, it was hard to find good people,” says Noble, who also owns Rooster’s in the same area.


Spicing Things Up

     JWU has made available to us people who have a passion to create a great cuisine,” he adds. “It’s good for us because we’re in the restaurant business. But it’s good for Charlotte and North Carolina, too. It’s really changed the face of what’s happening in Charlotte.”

     Indeed, there is a growing fraternity of area chefs and restaurateurs who are JWU alumni. They include Nick LaVecchia, who owns LaVecchia’s Seafood Grille in Center City, and chefs Tom Condon and Trey Wilson of the Harper’s Group and The Custom Shop, respectively.

     Many argue that Johnson & Wales contributed mightily to the quality of life in Charlotte when it committed to consolidating its Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C., campuses into Gateway Village. The school boosted vitality in the mixed-use complex built to house information technology functions for Bank of America.

     To the tract on the western fringe of center city, Johnson & Wales added a five-floor Academic Center with 170,000 square feet and 17 kitchens, four dining rooms, the James H. Hance Jr. Auditorium, a culinary demonstration area and 29 classrooms.

     The school also built two nearby residence halls, which combine to offer 752 beds, a 300-seat student dining center and the offices of Student Affairs and Safety & Security.

     Certainly, that represents a significant contribution. But Gallagher cites other ways students and graduates enhance the quality of life in CharlotteUSA.

     The Charlotte Campus draws celebrity visitors; Virginia Philip, for example, master sommelier at The Breakers Palm Beach hotel.

     “She came and hosted an event for me,”  Gallagher says. She got acquainted with the area. “Now she knows Charlotte is an important market for her hotel.”

     Another example is Horst Schultze, the former chief executive of Ritz Carlton who owns the upscale West Paces Hotel Group based in Atlanta. Schultze spent nearly two days at the Charlotte Campus to learn how it functions.

     “He came away thoroughly impressed with our students, our faculty and our facilities here,” Gallagher says. “He was also extremely impressed with the city of Charlotte.”

     Then there’s Emeril Lagasse, a 1978 JWU graduate known for his 10 restaurants in New Orleans and for Food Network television shows “Emeril Live” and “Essence of Emeril.” He paid the Charlotte Campus a two-day visit recently which Gallagher says was good for the city as well as his students.

     “We’re still trying to convince him to open a restaurant in Charlotte,” Gallagher smiles.

     Such visitors invariably form strong positive opinions of the greater Charlotte area, then return to their home base to promote the region to people they influence, Gallagher says.

     “So we’re making the city and the area a place that definitely is becoming more attractive to people who view us from afar,” he adds.



Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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