Sharon Lykins wants you to join the culinary workforce

Sharon Lykins has a wish. She wants the entire restaurant industry to be more successful in amplifying all aspects of culinary careers that are available to people.

Lykins is the Senior Director of Product Innovation at Denny’s and came to this role in an unconventional way. Growing up in a very small town in Kentucky, there weren’t many expectations for Lykins and his peers. Her very first job, like the first for many, was to fry fries at McDonald’s when she was 16. But she admits there was some love there. “At the end of the day, and you just get bitten, you kind of stick around,” Lykins says of working in the restaurant business.

She had always loved to cook and at school her best subject was science. When she went to the University of Kentucky, she needed to understand what she wanted to do with her life and took a scientific approach. “I went to each college on the UK campus individually to see what majors they were offering, and what could I do with it, and frankly how much money can I make with it? I discovered food science and couldn’t believe it was a specialty! I graduated with just two other people at the University of Kentucky in this field, ”Lykins told Nation’s Restaurant News.

After starting her career in Denver, she worked for Cinnabon and AFC, starting with product development and then moving to the purchasing side. Lykins really wanted to understand how her job affected what everyone else was doing around her.

“If you want to be successful and advance in product innovation, you need the sense of urgency that comes from knowing all aspects of the business,” she said. “My truck didn’t show up today and that’s my main problem, and what am I going to do about it? So I took on the role of purchasing manager and learned a lot about how product development really needs to take into account the system around you and how you’re going to affect the supply chain.

Taking this buying role ultimately led to an international role with churches, which gave her a perspective that she found invaluable, learning how to use the buying arm to open countries globally. When she left her international post, she seriously looked at her resume and asked. “What am I missing?”

“I felt like I was lacking treatment,” Lykins said. “So I went to Gold Kist Chicken to focus on the transformation aspect of the industry and get that perspective. This treatment experience is invaluable. Having the experience of working on a line of processors makes you appreciate what goes on in every part of product development. I feel like over the course of my career what I’ve tried to do is gain experience in all aspects of product development that affect results. It makes me a smarter developer. I might be working on the whole plate now, but I still know where the chicken came from.

Lykins enjoys his job at Denny’s and wants more young people to be aware that there are many types of opportunities in the industry. She feels that the restaurant industry in general has a bad reputation and that many people don’t realize this is a career path.

“There is so much growth to be had,” she said. “I remember there was an ad to train a medical assistant, and I was so angry because the ad started with a waiter in a restaurant watching a boy pour a milkshake on the floor, and she has to. clean that up. And then the implication is that you could be that medical assistant, and wouldn’t that be better or more respectable? OK, maybe, but honestly I always thought that as a medical assistant you always do the housework. It is not necessarily better. And you’ll always be an assistant, it’s not like they can promote you as a doctor. We have accountants and buyers, lawyers and financiers, all kinds of different jobs in the restaurant industry. And it’s one of the only careers you can start in an entry-level position and work your way up to the top. As an industry, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job of telling this story.

Choosing the corporate path was a thoughtful decision for Lykins, who knew that a career as a traditional chef was not going to be a good choice for her.

“It was all about life balance,” she said. “I looked at it and I said, well, if you’re a really good chef and you have a really good restaurant, then you’re supposed to be there at all the high profile times. Every weekend, every holiday. So even at the very beginning of my career, I knew I wanted the culinary aspect, but I didn’t want that aspect, nor that pressure. And so, when I discovered food science, I thought I had just landed like a pig in a mud puddle! I was so excited and this is the path I chose, and I have never regretted it.

Lykins is clear on how all of his background kicks in with his role at Denny’s.

“Our job, of course, is to create something that the customer really wants to eat,” she said. “But then we have to put the processes behind it all so that the chefs or cooks at 1,500 restaurants can do it every time. And we need to make sure that it delivers benefits to franchisees and the business and delivers shareholder value. It’s very rare that all of these four things line up exactly and that’s a tough challenge. “

These scale challenges are the puzzles that Lykins likes to tackle.

“There are so many times that you find an ingredient that you want to use, and it’s the perfect ingredient, and you know that if you could bring that ingredient in, it would complete the dish in the best way and it will really appeal to the consumer, ”she said. “But it’s made by an outside vendor that’s not part of your current system. And maybe you have a provider in your current system that has similar capabilities, but it won’t be as good. You have to follow them because it would completely mess up your distribution system if you went the other way around, and so this is probably the most frustrating and difficult thing. Trying to balance what the consumer needs with what operations can actually achieve.

This admission is far from being a reproach when Lykins speaks about it. “As frustrating as it can be in the process, when you get the product and it is successful, and you overcome those challenges, you know there is nothing like that feeling of having done it.” , she said. “I mean, you really accomplished something.”

Lykins uses his history and passion for the industry to try to inspire others. The importance of opportunities within the larger framework of the kitchen is something that she wishes to be more emphasized in schools. She was lucky enough to stumble upon her small department in the UK, but knows that so many people wouldn’t have been able to explore the options the way she did. She would like to challenge the entire industry to do better to amplify all of the amazing aspects of what can be pursued.

“I would like us to defend our profession more,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I really feel like the restaurant industry has been so good to me. I grew up in this small town in Kentucky and started my career at the French Fries Station. But I’ve been to China and India and Indonesia and the Philippines and Australia and Mexico and Costa Rica, I’ve been everywhere because of this work. It’s such a fantastic path for so many people. Half of Denny’s managers are people of color and the majority of our franchisees are minorities. The restaurant industry is such an amazing opportunity for so many people and one way or another? We are viewed in a negative light, even though we have the most opportunities for people to grow. We’re at 4% of GDP, we should be getting more credit one way or another.


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