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Arlene Coco Buscombe of Duluth makes a point while teaching a food safety class this month at Upper Lakes Foods in Cloquet. Buscombe made a career change to teaching the state-required certification classes to food service managers after retiring from catering in April. [CLINT AUSTIN / NEWS TRIBUNE]Arlene teaching a food safety training class.
Former caterer finds new niche
Candace Renalls
Duluth News Tribune - 07/28/2008
After cooking professionally for more than 25 years, Arlene Coco Buscombe was tired. She needed a change.

“It was just time for me to do something new,” she said. “I wanted to get out of day-to-day operations. I wanted to look at a career move I can do for the next 10 years.”

She had made a name for herself in Duluth as a chef and with her restaurant, Coco’s to Geaux, and Coco’s Catering Co., both of which she sold in 2005. She continued to run the catering operation for the new owners until last April.

“I wanted to use that experience,” Buscombe said. “I didn’t want to lose everything I had worked for.”

For six months, she worked with a professional life coach, exploring what she was going to do next.

“It was beneficial,” she said. “It gave me clarity and focus. They were able to help me look at my options and get me focused.”

As her 50th birthday neared,she compared what she wanted to do with the needs in the marketplace. The two didn’t always match. She couldn’t make a living doing some things she loved, such as freelance food writing and teaching cooking classes.

“I needed to find something that people needed, not wanted,” she said.

She found that niche by teaching food-safety classes mandated by the state for managers of food operations, from restaurants to hospitals to convenience stores. In the Northland, the classes are taught through colleges or by instructors from the Twin Cities and elsewhere in Minnesota.

“In catering, business fluctuates; it’s something people can do themselves,” Buscombe said. “This is something people need. They can’t do it themselves. It’s a necessity industry that will always have customers.”

She gathered the needed credentials and started operating as Prairie Kitchen Food Safety Training. As an independent instructor using the ServSafe program, she teaches food managers the required eight-hour class as well as the four-hour refresher course they must take every three years. She holds the classes at various sites in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin.

“After a lot of research and soul-searching, this came up as a good fit for me long term,” she said.

Of the 81 certified instructors in Minnesota, Buscombe is one of only four in Duluth, said Tom Wilfahrt, who coordinates the food manager certification program for the Minnesota Health Department.

Since the classes — that cover personal hygiene to food handling and storage — became mandatory in 1999, food service workers are more aware of food safety and food-borne illnesses, Wilfahrt said. Food managers who go through the training are responsible for educating their workers on food safety and sanitary practices.

“It’s made a difference,” he said. “Two key things for us are ill employees and hand washing. They’re doing a much better job than they used to. From an inspectors’ standpoint, we see better quality controls. It’s a self-policing thing. It has helped to clean up the system.”

Some sign up for Buscombe’s class because they know her background.

That was the case with Sean Lewis, owner of the Nokomis Restaurant and Bar in Duluth who took his required refresher course from her this month.

“With her experience in the kitchen, she’s well prepared,” Lewis said. “She has been doing it so many years, and she’s personable. Her format is different. I like it better.”

Buscombe still is writing food articles, teaching cooking classes and appearing in regular cooking segments for “Good Morning Northland” on WDIO-TV Channel 10. But so far, she doesn’t miss catering.

“I will miss the industry, the people, the excitement of the parties, but I won’t miss the 16-hour days,” she said.

CANDACE RENALLS is at (218) 723-5329 or e-mail: