Fellowship Program Turns Culinary Passion into a Career for Bre'onn Hepburn

From a young age, Bre’onn Hepburn grew up cooking with her family, and hoped that one day her passion would turn into a career. Following a three-month culinary arts program at the Rochester Educational Opportunity Center (REOC), she landed a job at the French Quarter Café, a Cajun restaurant in the City of Rochester. While she loved what she was doing, Hepburn quickly learned she needed more financial stability and left the restaurant business to accept a full-time office position.

Three years later, feeling dissatisfied, Bre’onn began looking into other options. She learned about Foodlink’s Career Fellowship Program, a yearlong apprenticeship that recruits individuals who have experienced barriers to achieving sustainable employment. The program’s fellows play an integral role, along with Foodlink’s staff, preparing thousands of healthy meals daily for the Rochester community, all while developing the skills needed to pursue a future career in the culinary industry.

Hepburn had a decision to make. “Do I stay in my current job that is helping me pay my bills and give up on my passion, or do I quit my job and commit to a year of learning, where nothing is guaranteed at the end,” Hepburn reflected.

Hepburn chose the latter; what she now claims to be the best decision she’s ever made. 2018 marked a fresh start for Bre’onn. She quit her office job and became part of Foodlink’s inaugural class for the Career Fellowship Program.

“The first three months of this fellowship are unpaid, and fellows are taught the fundamentals of cooking, food safety, and job responsibility,” said Jes Scannell, Director of Career Empowerment Initiatives. “After that, fellows become NYS Cook Apprentices and continue their education while getting paid. For the last three months, our team partners with several businesses in the community, including Wegmans, to offer internship opportunities to each student. This gives them exposure to what it’s like working in a restaurant-style kitchen.”

Throughout the year, and post-graduation, Foodlink provides many resources to help fellows obtain a work-life balance. Hepburn, along with the other fellows were offered transportation options, financial advisors, counseling services, and more to keep them on track for success. Hepburn spent time with each of these groups, and after completing her first nine months of the program, accepted an internship with Wegmans.

“I was very excited when I found out I got the position,” said Hepburn. “Wegmans was my first choice, and I knew if I did well, I could potentially get offered a full-time job.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Hepburn interned at Wegmans for 12 weeks, learning all about culinary operations from the store’s executive chef, and in June 2019, was offered a full-time line-cook position.

“Working at Wegmans is like working with family, and for someone who grew up working and cooking with family, it is the perfect match,” said Hepburn. “I’m thankful to Foodlink for giving me this opportunity and providing me with enough resources to succeed in life beyond the culinary experience taught throughout the fellowship program. To this day, as a mother of two, I still connect with my Foodlink family on a regular basis and take advantage of the services they provide.”

Foodlink Community Kitchen

While Hepburn was part of the inaugural class, the idea for the Career Fellowship Program had been in the works for years. Foodlink is well known for providing food assistance to those in need, but they also strive to create programs aimed at building healthier neighborhoods, which includes giving people the tools they need to hold a sustainable job. In order to transition this idea into a functional program, a bigger space was needed.

In 2016, a $500,000 grant from the Wegmans Family Foundation helped mobilize community support for Foodlink’s new Community Kitchen – a 28,000-square-foot space transformed into a one-of-a-kind, community-focused commercial kitchen. This facility has not only tripled the number of healthy meals its prepared for those in need, but it also gave the Foodlink staff enough space to launch fellowship program. John Emerson, Wegmans senior vice president of restaurant foods, along with his team of Wegmans employees, lent their expertise to help with kitchen design, equipment, workflow, food safety, training capacity, and curriculum for the program.

Today, Hepburn is a cooking coach at the Mt. Read Wegmans. In her role, she educates customers and employees by providing personalized meal solutions and teaching different cooking techniques. Her goal is to continue growing with the company. Since the Career Fellowship Program began, Hepburn is one of 13 fellows to graduate and accept a job in a related field. Foodlink is now taking nominations for their fourth class that will begin in June. Jes and her team are looking forward to meeting a new group of people to mentor and help find a career they love.