UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Oluwatoyin Alabi, president and CEO of a catering company in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria, said one of the most valuable things he learned while studying with instructors in Penn State’s School of Hospitality Management (SHM) is how to maximize small spaces without compromising food safety.
Now Alabi is determined to share what he’s learned with his team back home at The Promise, a company that started in 2002 and now is a key catering service provider for offshore catering operations and remote sites of major oil and gas companies operating in the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria.
Alabi was part of the Cochran Fellowship Program. As part of the program, Alabi and five other food service industry executives from Nigeria spent two weeks in July at the University Park campus with the SHM faculty touring area restaurants, grocery stores and other facilities to learn about operations when it comes to food safety and how equipment, technology, procedures and training are utilized.
Made possible through a grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the purpose of the Cochran Program for Food Safety & Catering for the African & Middle East Region was to provide the participants with concepts, principles and best practices in catering and food safety.
The fellows are professionals in the areas of restaurants, catering services and hotels. Many are general managers or presidents of the company, while others are food hygiene officers or creative directors.
Ruth Ann Jackson, instructor of hospitality management and director of the Hospitality Leadership Institute (HLI), said this is the first time the institute has received this kind of grant. The College of Agricultural Sciences, which has hosted Cochran fellows in the past, helped significantly with the proposal.
“It gives the school some international exposure,” Jackson said. “(And an) opportunity to build on our relationship with the USDA.”
The program’s faculty team was made up of individuals who are passionate about food safety and have expertise in the field, Jackson said.
“It was an opportunity to showcase those faculty,” she said.
From July 16 through 25, the fellows visited such places as Happy Valley Winery, Wegman’s, Penn's Cave, Hogs Galore, Pollock Dining Commons, Penn State Housing and Food Services, The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel, Penn State Catering and the Berkey Creamery.
Each day, the program was split between classroom sessions with Penn State faculty and tours of University food production, catering and research facilities. The tours included management presentations and opportunities to observe services live.
The learning content of first phase of the classroom session was the result of another USDA funded research project. Amit Sharma, associate professor at the School of Hospitality Management, and one of the faculty participants in this PSU Cochran Fellowship Program, had received funding from the USDA’s National Integrated Food Safety Initiative (NIFSI). The purpose of this project was to investigate costs and benefits of implementing HACCP processes in foodservice establishments. Sharma developed the course content for the Cochran fellows based on the results of this completed research project.
“This is a great example of an outreach outcome of a research project funded by the Federal Government that we never anticipated," Sharma said. "But it helps to demonstrate the impact of research funded by the USDA, and also the types of synergies we can build across teaching, research, outreach, and extension activities at Penn State University.”
One of the concerns the participants had with their companies back home was electricity use, so the group was taken to a farmers’ market and a State College Spikes baseball game to learn about and observe firsthand places that use generators, Jackson said.
Every area visited was related to the learning objectives in the proposal, she added.
At the end of the two weeks, participants had to propose three changes they wanted to apply to their workplaces back home, and identify the resources, potential barriers and team needed to implement those changes, Jackson said.
“(It’s) most important they go back to their places of work and make some important changes,” she said. “I want to ensure they leave with a plan. It’s important to have fun while they’re here, but it’s also important they have a plan of action when they get back to make some meaningful changes.”
“It’s been a pleasure to work with them,” Jackson continued. “It’s been a pleasure to work with the USDA.”
Alabi said one of his biggest takeaways from the program was learning all the practices and procedures that can be done when it comes to food safety.
“Coming to Penn State, in all sincerity, is an eye opener,” he said.
Visiting Chik-Fil-A was significant for him, he explained, in learning how to use small spaces in the best possible way while still practicing food safety and cleanliness.
“It gave us a new thinking on how to design our floor plan,” Alabi said.
Another participant, Oluwakemi Imam, executive general manager at Genesis Group, said one of her favorite spots was the Elk Creek Café because it brought back memories of previous work. She said she was lucky because she has worked in similar places to many of those the participants visited.
Imam said one of the biggest obstacles she foresees, when taking newfound knowledge back home, is coaching her staff in helping them understand and appreciate food safety.
“Training the mindset of the people back home (will be a challenge),” she said.
Jackson said hopefully the program will open the SHM to future opportunities.
“It’s been a blast to work on this,” she said. “Everybody shouldered a significant piece of the load. Hopefully we can get other groups like this in summers to come.”
SHM faculty involved with program included Amit Sharma, associate professor of hospitality management/finance; George Ruth, senior instructor of hospitality management; Peter Bordi, associate professor of hospitality management and director of the Center for Food Innovation; Beth Egan, instructor of hospitality management; Jackson; Jackie Golas, special events coordinator at the school of hospitality management; and Denzil Kentebe, undergraduate honor student intern. For more information about SHM, visit www.hhd.psu.edu/shm.
The USDA Cochran Fellowship Program provides short-term training opportunities to agricultural professionals from middle-income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies. Cochran fellows come to the United States, generally for two to three weeks, to work with U.S. universities, government agencies and private companies. They receive hands-on training to enhance their technical knowledge and skills in areas related to agricultural trade, agribusiness development, management, policy and marketing. For more information, visit www.fas.usda.gov/programs/cochran-fellowship-program.