Learning the food business in the high school cafeteria

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2013 - 2:44 PM

With the help of a mentor from Schwan’s Food Service, Eagan High School senior Eric Hillesheim introduced popular new food items to the school cafeteria’s lunch menu.

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Erik Hillesheim, an Eagan High School senior, showed some of the food items he introduced to the school’s lunch menu as part of a mentorship program. His mentor, Pat McCoy, is an executive at Bloomington-based Schwan’s Food Service, a company that makes many school lunch items served in the district.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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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.

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