The restaurant business is notoriously brutal: Sales are down $65 billion from pre-pandemic levels, and 90,000 companies have closed since 2020. That doesn’t scare aspiring food consultant Jhanna Fields MSEL’22, the graduate student Commencement speaker. She’s used to doing tough things.
Fields worked at Olive Garden as a teenager. Despite a job offer after high school, she earned a degree in hospitality administration at the University of Memphis. There, she graduated as the Student Marshal, a distinction awarded to the student with the highest GPA. After graduation, she returned to the Olive Garden organization on a management and operations track.
Next, she hopes to reform floundering kitchens with a combination of business acumen and tough love. “Similar to what Gordon Ramsay does, only less cussing,” she laughs.
Fields has been cooking since childhood, when she made pancakes with her dad and three older siblings in Columbia, Tennessee.
“On Sundays, we’d always do breakfast together,” she says. “(Cooking) is just one way to show someone that you care; that you’re able to put the time and effort into making a meal for them.”
Restaurants hold a similar place in her heart. She believes that they provide safe havens and community for many employees, offering a connection that transcends work.
“It’s where they feel safe or comfortable,” she says. “A restaurant is home, and food is one thing that they feel can connect them to other people.”
Compassion and Creativity
Speaking of home: Babson was always a dream, and she was even recruited as an undergraduate. But, she was nervous to leave familiar surroundings in the Southeast. By graduate school, she was ready to take the risk, inspired by Babson’s reputation for rigorous entrepreneurship training.
“I really wanted to push myself. I wanted to go to a school that I’d be super proud of myself for applying to. When I was doing my research, Babson came up as number one in entrepreneurial leadership. And, I’m like: ‘OK, I’m going to go for it!’ ” she recalls.
Here, she learned to negotiate with compassion—something that will probably come in handy working with restaurateurs—while a member of Babson’s Hearing Board, evaluating cases involving academic integrity, student conflicts, and more.
“I really wanted to push myself. I wanted to go to a school that I’d be super proud of myself for applying to. When I was doing my research, Babson came up as number one in entrepreneurial leadership.”
Jhanna Fields MSEL’22
“People come on hard times, and it’s better to hear them out and understand the mindset behind the action rather than just punishing them right away,” she says. “I can be a listener.”
She also fondly recalls Assistant Professor Luke Stein’s finance class (“he has so much energy”) and enjoyed discovering the local restaurant scene. Coconut Thai in Wellesley is a favorite. “When I leave Massachusetts, that’s what I’ll miss the most,” she admits, spoken like a true foodie.
She also enjoyed participating in Babson’s annual Buffoonery, another helpful training ground for the culinary world. “I was working on a team and navigating various personalities. The most fun part of it was seeing how creative people got on a limited budget,” she says, laughing.
Passion for Local Restaurants
Promoting creativity on a budget will serve her well in a consulting job. Eventually, she aims to solidify restaurateurs’ business plans, set realistic expectations, and infuse budding entrepreneurs with a bit of elusive hope during those crucial early months.
“For a lot of new restaurant owners, it’s like: This is your first restaurant. It’s a passion project,” she explains. “They make common mistakes that run their budget out quickly, or they imagine things will go differently than they actually do. I’ll work with them one on one to assess where they are currently, what their skill set is, and then develop a plan to actually achieve their goals.”
Ultimately, she wants to enable mom-and-pop restaurants to thrive in a landscape where so many falter, due to lack of funding, staffing challenges, and the abundance of larger chains.
“I’ve just seen the amazing ways that a restaurant can change people’s lives. That’s why I’m so passionate about it and want to make sure that small, locally owned restaurants do have a chance to flourish,” she says.
In the short term, though, she’s cooking up her Commencement speech. The theme?
“You know the song ‘Life Is a Highway’?’ ” she asks. “We’re just driving along the road. You have your expectations of how the road is going to be, but the road you drive is never the one that you expect. Even if you’ve driven the road 1,000 times, there will always be something different.”
And, hopefully, something tasty to eat along the way.
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