Take a Hands-On Approach to Your Hospitality Degree

Ready to get a hospitality degree? A culinary school professor offers some tips for success.

Jeff Santicola
Dean of Hospitality and Restaurant Management,
Pennsylvania Culinary Institute
Over 27 years in the industry

a hospitality degree holder in a restaurant

From his early roots as a bouncer and bartender, Jeff Santicola followed his passion through many more jobs, all the way to his current prestigious position as the Dean of Hospitality and Restaurant Management at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute (PCI).

With 27 years of experience in management and teaching, Santicola knows the ins and outs of this industry, and he shares his knowledge of what it takes to succeed with students interested in a hospitality degree.

Select Your Degree Program with Care

When selecting a culinary school, prospective students should consider several factors, according to Santicola:

  • You should look for culinary schools that offer at least a 2-year hospitality degree and have a well-established externship program
     
  • In addition to an excellent reputation within the hospitality industry, a good culinary school should offer its students expansive facilities where they can practice their skills
     
  • Your school should provide access to experienced teachers who take a hands-on approach in the classroom
     
  • Your school will have the full range of facilities, including bars, kitchens, demo kitchens and other places where students can practice skills
     
  • Always research a school's success rate with student career placement and to find a "student-focused" hospitality degree program
     
  • Always visit the school in person before making a decision

Santicola urges students to seriously consider reputable 2-year programs, as opposed to 4-year programs. A good 2-year program provides students with the necessary foundation to start working right away. "If the graduate is successful in his or her first job, they'll have a chance to move up the ranks quickly, and they'll always have the opportunity to return to school for more education."

The Importance of People Skills

High grades and great technique aren't the only tools a student needs to succeed in the hospitality industry. People skills are just as important.

"When a guest walks in our door, they've already decided to spend their money with us today, so we want them to feel good about the decision they've already made," Santicola says. "We should welcome them, thank them and make them feel good about being there."

With nearly three decades of managing and teaching under his belt, Santicola has had his share of students who never understood this concept. This is especially true for younger students who haven't experienced particularly good service themselves, according to Santicola.

"Even if the restaurant has the best chicken parmesan, guests won't come back if the service was unfriendly, rude or they weren't treated with courtesy," he says.

It's the students who don't understand the importance of service who ultimately have a difficult time succeeding in the industry. Service is vital to any establishment's success.

Your First Job

Making the right decision about where to work early in your career is one of the biggest challenges a new graduate faces. Santicola encourages his students not to be price shoppers when seeking those first jobs. There are many other factors aside from salary that should be considered. A great salary is no good if the job where you've chosen to spend 55 hours a week doesn't fulfill you.

"As a manager, of course you can go to the highest bidder, but where will you be in a few years without building employer loyalty?" he asks, adding, "It's all about making good decisions early in your career. And being patient—with many employers it takes time to move up, even when there is good opportunity."