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  • Writer's pictureMark C. Anderson

Inside the Innovative Apprentice Program That Makes Orcas Go

Updated: Feb 7, 2021

Hunt a local wild boar and make prosciutto out of it.

Listen to "The Sporkful" podcast.

Learn about payroll, overtime and schedule “flex.”

Find five edible plants on Orcas Island and create a course from them for the restaurant’s discovery menu.

Figure out a way to make plates out of mycelium (aka underground mushroom networks).

Study the cookbook Offal Good: Cooking from the Heart, with Guts.

As to-do lists go, it’s a doozie. And this presents only a segment of personal development to-do’s Orcas Hotel apprentices can undertake as part of their 18-month work-study stint on the island.

Orcas put out a call for applications around this time last year, one that included affordable staff housing; full-time work on a beautiful remote island with a close-knit team; and a full-on crash course in inn-keeping.

The inaugural group of five apprentices—top to bottom, Jess Naldo, Aileen Shea, Tara Kim, Teddy Redfield and Marsella Macias—appears above.

Orcas received more than 500 responses. Ultimately those five were selected, with some traveling from across the country not long after coronavirus changed hotel and restaurant realities forever. (Macias, Kim and staffer Emily Silks are pictured above with Chef Quinn Thompson after long Taco Tuesday, reenacting "Thriller.")

The personal development “grids” are 100-percent optional, set up in response to surveys staff can complete to help Orcas Hotel leadership customize their education.

(To test out the program I filled out a survey myself. My grid, like all of them, drew from the talents of the team. A short sampling included, “Find the oldest apple tree on Orcas. Learn the perfect omelet from Chef Quinn. Have Emily teach you ‘All You Need Is Love’ on the piano. Incorporate artificial intelligence into your social media. Jump off a bridge into Cascade Lake. Encounter an orca in the wild.”)

Even as the grids can get complicated, the inspiration behind them—and the apprenticeship—is pretty simple.

1. It’s not easy to find full-time labor on Orcas Island. Like one local told me, “If you’re on Orcas you either have three houses or three jobs.” It benefits Orcas Hotel big-time to cultivate their own stable source of staff.

2. As co-owner and chef John Cox has spent a career in restaurants, most of it at Passport Resorts including Hotel Hana-Maui and Post Ranch Inn, he kept encountering colleagues who shared the same dreams of owning their own bed-and-breakfast—but didn’t share access to management training. So he and his wife Julia Felder set about designing a program that could provide it.

3. Building a small staff to be able to tackle any aspect of the business would allow fewer team members to do more, increasing flexibility and lowering costs. Everybody gets to do everything, and everybody has to do everything, whether that's tearing up carpet, delivering meals or cleaning hotel bathrooms.

4. A degree in hotel management and/or culinary school can be time-consuming and costly.

5. By inviting apprentices to make the program their own—whether that’s through the specials they want to feature in the kitchen or the goals they want to prioritize for their time on the island—they’re further invested in the hotel's mission. And as they train future classes of aspiring hospitality pros they’re helping build the brand that will be attached to their name, so it’s no mistake that each member of the 2020 class is helping interview the next round of applicants.

By the way, that application process is now open, for 18-month and 3-month programs alike. More information on compensation and directions on how to apply are available on the Orcas Hotel website.

The 2020 group comes from as far afield as Chicago, New York City and even Spain.

Shea (above, helping paint the dining room) discovered the Orcas program the first day the job posted, just as she was wrapping up a degree in entrepreneurship at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minnesota.

“I just loved the whole ethos, the whole vision and how much they cared about each aspect," she says. "I care about how I live and what I eat and what I wear and their ideas were very intentional. And I wanted to go on an adventure.”

Shea now occupies a domed yurt at the former Golden Tree Hostel that has become the Orcas Hotel staff housing. She loves both being in at the beginning of the project and completing tasks that range from kitchen repairs to running the register to baking gourmet desserts to flipping hotel rooms. Or at least most of them.

“The program has totally met my expectations," she says. "I tried to come in open-minded. I like cleaning rooms—wait, I don’t, but I always want to be the person that does all those things it takes to run a business. That helps me become the person I want to be, which is why I need to work on my grid. If I do all that before I leave here, I’ll be one happy woman.”

Kim observes dramatic improvements in herself, her colleagues and the team as a whole.

“We’re all becoming more confident in our individual skills sets and as a team,” she says. “We’re all way more solid with our communication, our innovation, picking up for one another. John talks about building culture, and we’re doing that, and everyone is also having more space to be creative.”

Chef Thompson is similarly stoked on the program. He cites Redfield's (above) recent blossoming into an invaluable cook—as she applies principles from art school in novel ways—as one of many examples of cross-training working well.

“Every member is involved in every facet," Thompson says. "It puts everyone in position to feel what it’s like to be a manager. Everyone has done a special. Everyone has worked front of house and back.

"You’re putting trust in all of your team members to own everything about this hotel-restaurant.”

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