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It Pays to Ask the Right Questions

Aspiring young people benefit greatly from ambitious curiosity.

It Pays to Ask the Right Questions

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rodney Stoner, vice president of food and beverage at the Greenbrier Resort. Stoner is a past Silver Plate winner and has been at the Greenbrier for so long that most people can not remember him working anywhere else.

I was curious about that, and at one point asked how he’d started there. His story has stuck in my mind ever since.

Stoner said his first job at the Greenbrier was almost an accident of chance. "It was because I asked the right question at the right time," he said. In my mind, it is an example of how successful individuals often make their own luck.

First, a bit of background. Stoner grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., the area many people call "Pennsylvania Dutch" country. His grandfather, Eli Hostetter, was Mennonite and had built a business catering events for that community. As a boy, Stoner helped out in back-of-the-house preparations at Hostetter’s Banquet Hall.

"It was wholesome community. It did not believe in vices like drinking or smoking, and you learned about values. I also learned to ask questions, to find out why some people did some things and other people did not," he recalls

When Stoner’s grandfather passed away, young Rodney had the most experience in the business and he was encouraged to enter it after graduating high school. With his family’s support, he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and earned his degree there.

When it came time for an internship, Stoner, like many grads, aspired to work in a fine resort. He had heard a lot about the quality of the Greenbrier’s foodservice from the sous chefs and instructors at the CIA, so he applied there. But without any connections, his application was turned down.

Instead, he began working in the kitchen of the Boars Head Inn in Charlottesville, Va. Soon, he’d risen to sous chef and, when the chef resigned, he became head chef, "probably too quickly."

On Thanksgiving in 1965, Stoner found himself catering what he’d been told was an important private party, a family staying at the Inn to be close to a relative admitted to nearby University of Virginia hospital. Later in the evening, the primary guest came back to the kitchen to indicate that his family had been pleased with the meal.

"He said he’d never been away from home on Thanksgiving, and that he was grateful for the service we’d provided," Stoner recalled.

The guest knew something about foodservice—he asked several questions about the operation before turning to go back to his family.

"I suddenly thought to ask, ‘What is your name, and what business are you in?" Stoner recalls. "It turned out he was Truman Wright, president of the Greenbrier. I immediately told him I had long wanted to work there as an apprentice, that I was still hopeful it would happen at some point."

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A few weeks later, Stoner received a letter indicating there would be a position for him at the Greenbrier in the spring.

"It was all because I asked the right question in the kitchen that day," he says.

Seeking to ask the right question at the right time often is also the key to so-called "out of the box" thinking, when the solution to a problem is not an obvious one.

In August, the industry lost such a questioner when Howard Bauman passed away. His is not a widely recognized name. Yet the questions he asked and the answers he came up with have affected just about every operation in our industry.

Bauman was a microbiologist who spent 36 years working for the Pillsbury Company. In the 1950s and ’60s, he was looking for ways to keep bacteria out of the convenience dough products the industry was intent on developing then.

Meanwhile, NASA was looking at many of the same issues as it sought to develop safe food supplies for the astronauts, and it was looking to companies like Pillsbury for advice in reaching its goals.

Numerous approaches were considered, but Bauman’s contribution—a system that combined common sense contamination checks, statistical measurement and documentation to manage the process of producing food—was the one NASA adopted. It has since become known as HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points). The rest is history.

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Finally, we are saddened to report that foodservice lost one of its own longtime champions last month with the passing of Beryl Yuhas. For years, Yuhas was a virtual institution in the our community, combining her practical expertise as a consultant with a dry, British wit and her inimitable personality.

Among countless other contributions, she was an indispensable resource to us when she served on FM’s advisory board for the 25th anniversary issue that traced the history of noncommercial foodservice.

We, and many, many others in the industry, will miss her deeply.

TAGS: Management
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