The steady stream of customers who walked into Pannie-George’s Kitchen in Montgomery for a late lunch were all greeted with a friendly smile and an immediate offer to help. Noticeable was the youthfulness of those working. There’s a 17-year-old prepping food, a 16-year-old washing tables and sweeping, another 16-year-old frying chicken, and a college sophomore and high school junior running the front register. Adults are watching nearby and providing encouragement with only minor corrections.
COVID-19’s effect on businesses, especially restaurants, are well-known. Many restaurants have responded in unique and supportive ways to continue business, but also help the community.
Pannie-George’s Kitchen, located in Auburn and Montgomery, experienced similar struggles, but invited local students to help with their growing curbside and takeout business. The students became more of the mainstream inside the restaurants, gained experience and confidence, and learned valuable lessons in leadership and customer service. The Pannie-George’s Leadership Academy was born at the crossroads of need meeting opportunity.
“Once the pandemic started, we began to look for ways to help,” said Jerelene Askew, managing partner of Pannie-George’s. “We wanted to help families and kids through the crisis. What started as a way to help became a program to mentor and guide and prepare these students so they can give back to their community.”
Since the pandemic began, Pannie-George’s has hired 13 students and built a leadership program based on 11 tenets: integrity, character development, spiritual development, academic success, financial understanding, civic and community outreach, management and leadership planning, strategic and critical thinking, project management, public speaking and benefit to the company.
Not hard to miss is the drive and motivation of each of the participants in the Leadership Academy. “They come to us for the opportunity,” said Askew, “but they quickly learn what it takes to be successful here, but away from here as well.”
Most of their students are without previous work experience, but each has embraced the lessons of the leadership program and accepted instructions as the path to be a better student and achieve future goals.
Keyndon Floyd, a 16-year-old high school junior and aspiring astronaut, hopes to attend Tuskegee University. “I’ve learned things like hard work and dedication,” Floyd said. “You have to work really hard for anything you want in life. I do everything with effort.”
Those sentiments were echoed by 16-year-old Donald Dees, whose sights are set on college to pursue a criminal justice degree. “What I’ve learned here will help me because I know how important it is to be on time … being in classes on time, being on time to do anything: great expectations and high standards to be able to succeed and go to college and be successful.”
Every student who is part of the Leadership Academy discussed the values of excellent customer service and clear communication as a measure for success.
“I have learned very good customer service,” said Jasmine Hill-Cleare, an 11th grader with a goal of attending Howard University to study to be an intensive care nurse. “How to treat the hot-line appropriately and secure food appropriately and how to treat everyone with great care.”
Staff of Pannie-George’s Kitchens have taken ownership of the program and are offering guidance and encouragement. Sidney Williams, a high school senior, is the lone student who talked of being a future chef. “I follow chef Sidney and take what he tells me and learn those skills.”
Askew said Pannie-George’s Leadership Academy will continue to grow.
When asked what she is most proud of in this first year, she said, “I’m passing a lot of these skills I’ve learned over the years to these young people to make them more powerful. They can further themselves along and then they’re going to reach back and help somebody else.”