LEWISTON, Maine — The kitchen inside the building at 140 East Avenue in Lewiston is bustling the morning of Friday, September 3. It's the first day of class for culinary arts juniors at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, and excitement is in the air, as students whisked cracked eggs and pour them onto steaming skillets.
Chef Danny Caron tours the room, shouting tips to students over the hum of the kitchen. He has been working here for 25 years, teaching students in classes and then helping them practice and polish their skills through the student-run restaurant The Green Ladle. He said before the pandemic, the dining room would typically be packed with guests, but this year, he decided to give students a different opportunity to help the community.
"We have a few restaurants that already closed in Lewiston (and) Auburn," Caron told NEWS CENTER Maine, relaying the impact of the pandemic and shortage of workers. "We have some restaurants that are saying 'If we don't get help, we already closed one day a week -- we're probably going to have to close two or three days a week.'"
Through a new co-op internship program, senior students at The Green Ladle (who are already ServSafe certified and ready to work) will be working at different restaurants in need around the community -- getting hands-on experience and helping to fill a growing gap in staffing, as seasonal workers like college students head back to school.
Caron said The Green Ladle has about 800 alumni since he has been at the school. Some of those former students now own restaurants in the area. It makes his mission to help a personal one.
"I think we can make a difference," Caron said optimistically. "Some restaurants may not close because of what we're doing."
Kristen Little is one student who will be participating by taking on a role at DaVinci's Italian Eatery. She said she already has a job outside of school as a cook, but that isn't deterring her.
"At one institution, you only learn so much," Little explained. "Going to different places helps you in the end."
One of the restaurant's managers, Katie Farr, says having more hands will definitely help, noting the restaurant sometimes has to go on a two-hour wait at the door because not enough people are working.
"It's very helpful -- especially now when times are tough," Farr said. "It's hard to get employees."
She says the impact could potentially be long-lasting.
"The hope is that most of (the students) will stay and work out and become an essential part of the team," Farr expressed, noting DaVinci's already employs some Green Ladle alumni.
This program won't just help struggling restaurants. Caron says other places like health care facilities and schools are also struggling to find food service workers and they can't as easily cut back on hours or change menu items. Student Dakota Nelson said he's planning to work at one of the area schools. For him, culinary arts is a long-term goal.
"I'm maybe thinking about opening up my own bakery or something in the future," Nelson said excitedly.
The Green Ladle will place about 25 students this semester and 25 the next. Director of the Lewiston Regional Technical Center Rob Callahan says this program presents an opportunity for students to find meaning in their work.
"Students can not only apply their technical skills but also really understand how they can commit to this community and the things they are able to give back," Callahan expressed.
Students who participate will get paid and will also receive class credit. Their work will be graded, and they'll be following a rubric to make sure they're learning new skills. Caron will also be visiting locations to monitor progress.