A new culinary apprenticeship program in Milwaukee’s central city aims to grow the talent pipeline for local service and hospitality employers, while creating career opportunities for young people of color. Starting this summer, Brigade MKE will offer experience-based training to youth ages 14 to 22. That’s thanks to a collaboration between Prism Economic Development Corp. and its food incubator UpStart Kitchen in Sherman Park and the Atlanta-based Shular Institute, where Brigade founder Sean Rush serves as vice president. The Milwaukee native and Riverside High School grad has returned to his roots to help bridge the city’s workforce gap. In a recent interview with BizTimes associate editor Maredithe Meyer, Rush discussed his vision.
What inspired the idea behind Brigade?
“I was introduced to UpStart Kitchen a few years ago when it was just a rendering. At the time, the Shuler Institute was looking for a place in Milwaukee to call home. Over the years, I always wanted to have some type of give-back opportunity that I could bring back to the city … and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“One of the things explained to me was, with this robust group of entrepreneurs and people coming through the UpStart Kitchen, many lacked the technical training and business acumen to go to the next level. That’s where the Shular Institute came in as an educational programming partner with Prism EDC.”
On working with youth
“We wanted to ensure we hit the critical touch point of people 14 to 18 because we can all think back to when we were 14: That was a critical time for us as young teenagers trying to decide what we wanted to do next in life. … Even if these kids don’t go on to be culinarians, with the positive ecosystem that we have, … we can equip them on the right pathway at an early age.
“Our mission is bridging income inequality by providing these kids with necessary skills, and what better place than Milwaukee to change the conversation? Being part of a story that is positive coming out of that city is really important for us.”
“Even with the 10 to 15 different culinary initiatives that are happening in Milwaukee, we’re still not going to be able to fill the gap. And that just tells you how robust this industry is, from hotels, festivals and restaurants to catering, hospitals and food service.
“I don’t see the hospitality industry regaining its strength to where it was before (the COVID-19 pandemic), so what we’re now dealing with is a quality over quantity issue. Where a food service provider might have had 10 people in their kitchen, they now will have to work with seven. But we’re also dealing with wage inflation, so the last thing employers need is to have 10 mediocre cooks in the kitchen when they could do better with seven awesome cooks. Where we play a role is reaching (future employees) at a young age so, by the time they turn 24, which is a 10-year track, they are trained up and have more business and professional acumen. … As wages go up, the quality of the training needs to go up.”