Beaufort Today -

Officials: Beaufort County needs culinary school

  • Photos by DeAnn Komanecky/Beaufort Today Area chefs and resort managers, along with Beaufort County and Bluffton elected officials, attended a meeting Thursday at TCL about building a culinary school.
  • DeAnn Komanecky/Beaufort Today Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka speaks during a meeting at TCL on Thursday about the need for a local culinary school.

Beaufort County’s No. 1 industry is in trouble. The problem isn’t a lack of customers; it’s a lack of employees.

Specifically, the missing employees are culinary workers, who are in high demand and hard to find.

But local officials say there is an answer: Beaufort County needs a culinary institute.

The Technical College of the Lowcountry has plans to fill that need by building a culinary school campus. How to fund it was part of the discussion at a meeting held Thursday at TCL’s New River campus.

The meeting was requested by Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka to bring potential stakeholders together.

Town manager Marc Orlando, all members of Town Council, deputy county administrator Josh Gruber and all members of the County Council finance committee also attended. Several chefs, management from area resorts and TCL officials were on hand as well.

“We are at a competitive disadvantage,” said Mary Lee Carns, a vice president of TCL. “We currently have a limited program with no capacity to increase.”

Lee said 500 new jobs in the culinary field will be created annually through 2020 and “170 of those will require a post-secondary certificate or culinary degree.”

TCL has identified property at Buckwalter Place as the best site to reach a projected enrollment capacity of 300 students.

The total estimated cost of construction, facilities and equipment is $11.5 million. The planned facility would be 26,000 square feet.

TCL is looking for $11.5 million in public funds and plans to raise $2 million in private and in-kind contributions.

The $2 million in private funds will be used to fund operations for the first three years the institute is open.

Town Councilman Dan Wood asked why Hilton Head Island council members and Beaufort County schools superintendent Jeff Moss were not at Thursday’s meeting.

“They have the majority of restaurants,” Wood said of Hilton Head. “That they aren’t at the table, this troubles me.”

It was also noted Moss should be a part of the discussions.

Carns said Hilton Head council was not invited to the meeting, but Moss was. She said Hilton Head’s contribution would likely be for operation costs, not capital costs.

“Hilton Head has a lot to benefit,” Town Councilman Harry Lutz said. “I’m concerned they’re not here, when Bluffton is being asked for the lion’s share.”

Wood said he thinks Jasper and Hampton county officials also should be part of discussions and possibly contribute.

Jeff Kruse, vice president for food and beverage at the Sea Pines Resort on Hilton Head, said he’s having to hire international cooks for about 50 positions in the kitchen.

The jobs now filled by workers from other countries could go to area workers if they were properly trained.

Similar numbers were provided by Nick Unangst, corporate executive chef of SERG Restaurant Group, which operates several island restaurants. He said he has about 50 openings now and that number is expected to double.

Culinary graduates are not only needed at resort kitchens. They also are needed in hospitals, care facilities and schools.

In addition to the need for culinary graduates, there is also a strong local interest in culinary careers.

TCL reported that last year 360 high school students enrolled in the school district’s culinary program. That interest exceeded capacity, with many students put on a waiting list.

All of the groups that attended the meeting expressed their support for TCL’s plans.

Wood said is supportive of the school, but there is still a problem.

“We need more resources at the table,” Wood said.

County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who is chair of the finance committee, said he believes the county is willing to help.

Stewart said once the county is told what others will contribute, he believes it will provide the difference.

“The county needs to know what others will do,” Stewart said. “We aren’t going to take the whole hit.”

Bluffton officials agreed to soon provide an answer about what they are willing to contribute.