Stephanie Decker finds joy in sharing her recipe for hope with others.
Born and raised in Scranton, Decker serves as associate vice president of social and economic impact at Lackawanna College, 501 Vine St., Scranton, where she uses education to not only better people’s lives but also help the community.
When she started at the college, however, her job as an academic program director was to help start a culinary program, which eventually became the Kiesendahl School of Hospitality. Today, the program offers three associate degrees in the culinary arts, baking and pastry, and hospitality management plus a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and food service management. This lets students pursue a career in the hospitality or restaurant industries without having to travel to a larger city.
With more than two decades in the restaurant industry under her belt, Decker was prepared to take on this position and create something in her hometown. Decker holds an associate degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of America as well as a bachelor’s degree in finance and a master’s degree in business administration from Johnson and Wales University. She worked for several restaurants in Scranton and owned and operated the Euro Cafe with her family for 10 years. It wasn’t until she crossed paths with some faculty at Lackawanna College, though, that she realized she could share her love of the culinary arts in a new way.
“I had to go away for an incredible culinary education, but I always thought, ‘Why can’t we do it here? Why can’t I take what I’ve learned and build something here in Scranton?’” Decker said.
The college’s mission, which aligned perfectly with her own values, captivated Decker. Since then, she has put that mission into action, helping set up students for success in school and after graduation. Their education gives them not only the theories that form the basis of the restaurant and hospitality industries but also the hands-on experience they will need to enter the workforce.
To help with that, Decker and her colleagues opened a student-run restaurant, 409 on Adams, at 409 Adams Ave., Scranton. The space provides real-world experience for students and also helped distinguish the School of Hospitality as a top choice for those wanting careers in the industry. Each semester, students design their own menus and cook and serve the food to the public.
“I love that moment when I’m working with a student and I see that lightbulb go off, and then later they share this huge success they’ve had,” Decker said. “When they tell me about those successes, those to me are a million times better than any personal success that I could ever achieve.”
She also encouraged students to share their success with the community. The proceeds from 409 on Adams typically fund scholarships; however, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many local restaurants suffered from dining restrictions, Decker and her team realized their restaurant could help.
They cooked up the idea for Rally for Restaurants, and with a lot of organizing and team collaboration, Decker was able to invite eight chefs from local restaurants into 409 on Adams to work with students as mentors and hold special dining events open to the public. All of the revenue from those events — nearly $31,000 — went to those restaurants. The gratuity collected, meanwhile, amounted to more than $8,000 to fund student scholarships.
“That impact was really important to me because I heard the stories of employees that restaurants were able to keep on the payroll (and) rents they were able to pay,” Decker said. “Our students learned from these incredible chefs, and our students also got to see the value of pitching together, being part of a community and neighbor helping neighbor. It was just an incredible experience for all of us.”
Decker values and tries to instill in all of her students that idea of lending a helping hand and working as a team. She believes practicing this in her daily life has helped her discover what it truly means to be a leader, a realization she now gets to share with the young leaders she teaches.
“I really felt a lot of pressure that my ideas had to be great ideas and that I had to be the one to fix things, and I really learned that true leadership is when everybody else wins, not when I win,” she said. “When I’m serving others or serving my team or giving them the resources they need to come up with great ideas that help students or our community, that’s when I’m really being a leader. The win for a leader isn’t when they win, it’s when the people around them win.”
For the spring edition of Rally for Restaurants, which began this month, the college partnered with organizations such as the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and Scranton Tomorrow as well as local restaurants and businesses. Decker also is working to help those facing student debt. She and her colleagues at the college are figuring out innovative solutions in order to relieve the debt burden the majority of students face while still providing a quality education.
“I think for me, I just want to model and motivate hope,” Decker said. “I want to keep motivating others to hope, hope for a better life for themselves, for their children, for our city and for our region.”
Throughout her career, Decker remained focused on creating change for the better. For others looking to do the same, she noted they shouldn’t worry about making big moves all at once.
“Sometimes we get too wrapped up in the huge impact we want to make that it kind of cripples us from taking that first step,” she said. “Don’t get bogged down in thinking that impact has to be big. Just start with one person and watch what happens from there.”
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