In the past year, Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty made 23 80-mile round trips to Elk River, Minn. He brought with him years of culinary experience to share with local high school students as they perfected the meal they would prepare for judges at the 2017 National ProStart Invitational, a culinary and restaurant management skills competition.

Daugherty’s culinary accolades are in no short supply; he’s been named a Food & Wine top 10 chef and has cooked at the James Beard House a dozen times. But still, he considers these mentoring trips to Elk River to be his “coolest” endeavor.

“I am not the future of the industry," Daugherty says. "If I am not doing everything in my power to give toward the next generation of culinarians and people in hospitality, I am not doing enough.”

He adds, “ProStart gives these kids what they need to be successful right out of high school. It is the future.”

A Future for Individuals

Through the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), the ProStart program reaches more than 140,000 high school students across the country, the Territory of Guam and U.S. Department of Defense bases with a curriculum focused on culinary and restaurant management skills training.

After months of local competitions, more than 400 of these high schoolers traveled to Charleston, S.C. at the end of April to vie for a national title and scholarships funded by The Coca-Cola Company and other foodservice industry sponsors.

Culinary competitors had one hour to prepare a three-course meal without access to running water or electricity, while management teams pitched restaurant concepts and responded to questions from panels of judges.

For the culinary competitors from Brooklet, Ga. – a town so small it doesn’t have a stoplight – opportunities to learn about fine dining come few and far between. Representing their school at nationals was a chance to honor their hometown while growing as chefs. “It feels like we’re actually doing something for the community," says Andrew Phillips, 17. "I don’t just want us to be another small town, and we are proving that we are not.”

Students from the California contingent made their way to nationals knowing they had the support of their whole school, which changed the date of prom so it wouldn’t conflict with the competition. And the team from Guam flew nearly 24 hours to attend the invitational.

Each group came with a unique story of their journey to nationals, but shared a common belief that the experience is, in the words of an Ohio culinary champion, “a life-changer.”

Dr. Jerry Chesser, ProStart’s lead judge who has been with the program since its inception, agrees. “I think we’re developing them not just as future chefs and restaurant owners," he says. "But I truly do think we are growing them as individuals.”

A Future for the Industry

Chesser says rigorously training high schoolers through the ProStart curriculum, “raises the bar for everybody,” ultimately refreshing the industry with top talent. He hopes that by investing in young people, the industry will prosper.

In turn, the industry embraces these burgeoning chefs and restaurateurs.

Rob Gifford, executive vice president of the NRAEF, explains, “The restaurant industry is the industry that trains America. More young people go to work in the restaurant industry than any other. It has more paths to advancement and more dynamic career options than almost any other industry.”

One in 10 working Americans are part of the restaurant workforce. ProStart encourages and prepares many young people to also envision a future in restaurants and hospitality.

For Coca-Cola, whose lifeblood is the restaurant industry, supporting that future makes sense.

Coca-Cola has been a proud sponsor of National ProStart from the beginning, having contributed $10.6 million to enable NRAEF programming and to provide more than 550 student scholarships.

Roy Jackson, Coca-Cola’s senior vice president of business development and industry affairs, explains, “ProStart is the incubator of our industry. It’s part of our DNA to give back to an industry that so richly needs young talent. It benefits our restaurant customers. It benefits our consumers. And it benefits these young people who need support to enter our industry.”

Gifford adds, “With our partners, like The Coca-Cola Company, we are feeding dreams and building futures for our young people. We encourage them to dream of a brilliant, exciting career and we help build the pathway for them to get there.”