Editor’s note: We’re chronicling how tech is changing the way we eat and drink as we lead up to this fall’s Food Loves Tech. Our annual deep dive into appropriate food and ag technologies returns to Industry City on November 2–3, 2018 and you can get $20 off the regular admission price while our early bird special lasts.
A few years ago, Rachael Nemeth got a call from Gramercy Tavern chef Mike Anthony. “He said, ‘We’re looking for an ESL teacher that has food experience, and I hear that’s you,’” Nemeth recalls. And from there ESL Works was born.
Officially launched in 2016, ESL Works teaches job-focused English to members of the food industry. The company partners with clients ranging from fine-dining and fast-casual restaurants to warehouse and distribution centers to bring English classes into the workplace. Nemeth, founder and CEO, was trained in language education but spent nearly two decades working in restaurants and bakeries. “I’d spent years trying to get out of the food industry in order to get into the field of ESL. I saw the chance to merge my experience in the two fields, create a quality service and bring it to scale.”
While teaching a new language to adults can be a long, slow process, the unique focus on the food industry provides students with the daily language skills they need on the job. Key to ESL Works’ success in the fast-paced, small-margined world of the food industry is that students and managers see results quickly. “The classes are designed so that the second the student walks out the door and is working with a customer or on the line, they are using what they learned,” says Robin Burger, ESL Works COO.
Teachers, all food industry veterans, are trained in the “communicative method”, says Nemeth, “which is all about engaging in conversation and reducing the fear of just trying.” They use images to inspire people to talk about what they see, and teach real dialogue with slang and idioms. By discussing things that come up in the kitchen—like the phrase “Oh my gosh” or the many words for soda—students are given a space where they feel comfortable asking questions and learning from one another. “What really sticks out is how they take care of each student,” says Melissa Roman, HR manager for Tacombi, which offers three levels of ESL Works classes to its staff. “Rachael has an amazing heart and transmits that energy to the students, which helps them grow.”
Limited English proficiency can be a barrier to professional growth. For Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), which offers ESL Works classes at 10 of its restaurants, English training is a tool to help back-of-house team members pivot into front-of-house and management positions. “We are striving to have a population that mirrors the city that we serve in terms of diversity, and right now we’re not there,” says Erin Moran, chief culture officer at USHG. It’s a lot more intimidating to be front of house or management, and many of those positions are currently held by native English speakers.
To address this need, ESL Works offers front-of-house classes that help students break down pronunciation and learn to answer specific questions from guests. For Tacombi, this professional and personal growth is what makes ESL Works unique. “I’ve seen people grow not only in their level of knowledge of English, but in their confidence and the way they relate to others,” says Melissa Roman.
Another huge component is teaching managers about how to work with employees who are learning English. “It’s not just giving one person a skill, it’s giving people the tools and the space to be able to communicate with each other,” says Robin Burger. “And I think it shifts the barriers and power dynamics that might exist between different staff, managers and non-managers, people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.”
To expand the reach of the program, ESL Works is developing a digital English-for-Work technology that will contain a mixture of videos, quiz-based learning and live online teaching, allowing students to mix and match according to their preference. Tapping into technology will enable the company to scale its impact at an affordable cost. “The food industry is one of the biggest employers in our country,” says Burger, “and I think if we can make changes there, we can make this country a much better place to live and work and eat.”