It doesn’t get much more hands-on than egg rolls and scrunchable fruit smoothies.
For Eagan High School senior Erik Hillesheim, participating in a mentorship class this fall provided valuable time with a professional at Bloomington-based Schwan’s Food Service while giving him hands-on marketing experience.
Last month, as part of a project for the class, Hillesheim directed his attention to the school cafeteria. He worked with his mentor and cafeteria staff to introduce several new menu items, including egg rolls and General Tso’s chicken stir-fry.
The school also began serving some fruit smoothies he pitched, which kids can “smush up” with their hands, he said.
The foods have quickly become popular among students, he said.
On the first day, “We actually sold out of egg rolls,” he said.
Students have told him, “These are the best egg rolls we’ve ever had,” or “This actually tastes like a real school lunch, something that will fill me up,” he said.
His mentor, Pat McCoy, vice president of sales at Schwan’s, visited the cafeteria the day the items were introduced. He watched Hillesheim interact with students and staff and was “very impressed,” he said.
“The most exciting part to see was that he had a successful day, and the grin on his face,” McCoy said.
Hillesheim met McCoy through the Mentor Program, a two-part class that focuses on college and career readiness. All five district high schools have the program, which students must apply for, said Maureen Love, program coordinator.
By spending 60 hours with a mentor in a field of interest, students get to try out a career before they choose a college major, Love said.
Hillesheim met McCoy last year while shadowing him for a day at Schwan’s. After that, Hillesheim asked McCoy if he’d be his mentor for the second part of the class, he said.
McCoy was happy to help out. “I love working with students … and anyone who wants to learn,” McCoy said.
Every week during the fall trimester, Hillesheim went to see McCoy for several hours. He was put to work, attending training sessions, learning the sales process and sitting through staff meetings and phone calls. Schwan’s even sent him to food shows.
“What we allowed him to do was go behind the scenes,” McCoy said.
Hillesheim said he realizes his experience was unusual because it was so hands-on. “Unlike observing heart surgery or something like that, I actually got to go out and sell and market the product firsthand,” he said. “When I went there, everyone treated me like a professional.”
And McCoy “had such confidence in me,” he added.
When it came time for Hillesheim to pick his final project, choosing to pitch several Schwan’s food items to his school cafeteria was a natural fit, McCoy said.
He was interested in marketing and had inside knowledge of what students like to eat. Plus, Schwan’s already provides some food items to 70 percent of the nation’s lunchrooms, McCoy said.
Hillesheim began by surveying students on their food preferences, and then he researched school lunch nutrition guidelines and price points. “I saw that kids didn’t have an interest in the Asian products that we served,” Hillesheim said.
Finally, he chose several products and pitched them to the district’s food service director, who was supportive, he said.
But he had to win over the students, too. He used Facebook to promote the foods and gave out free samples. He added a menu board, banners and dangling signs to the cafeteria.
Though the cafeteria introduces new foods occasionally, this was different “just because of the amount of pizazz we put into it,” Hillesheim said.
Throughout the fall, McCoy gained “a real respect” for the program — and was equally impressed with Hillesheim, he said. “What I see in Eric is someone who says ‘Give me the ball,’ and you just want to see what he’s going to do with it,” said McCoy.
The class taught Hillesheim many things, he said, including time management and how to act like a professional. “There’s a certain way to hold yourself up and talk to people, and that’s something you can’t learn anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, because of the program — and McCoy — Hillesheim’s interest in business has been “solidified,” he said. He’ll study marketing and finance next year at the University of Minnesota.
Love said she encourages students to appreciate the relationships they have with their mentors.
“I tell them what a gift it is to get to work with professionals, and to keep in contact with these mentors throughout college,” she said. “I mean, they really do connect.”