For Bryan Jacobs, pizza has become a perfect analogy for life—one that he refers to often as the founder and president of Vets2Success, a nonprofit in Bradenton, Florida. “Everything on a pizza comes from somewhere,” he says. “When you relate that to your own life, you can imagine that there’s a pizza you’ve created in your life, and you may think, ‘I don’t like these ingredients,’ but you have to realize that you have the ability to change those ingredients and make your pizza any way you want to make it. You have control. Every ingredient on a pizza has a process it has to go through before it ends up on a perfect pie, and every veteran has to go through a process before they find out who they are in life.”
Jacobs changed his own mix of ingredients when he chose the path toward a culinary career after returning from deployments to Iraq in 2003 and 2005 as a Navy corpsman in the U.S. Marine Corps. Unfortunately, not all veterans are able to find a path that suits their abilities when they leave the service. Far too many veterans end up homeless, incarcerated, or, like Jacobs’ younger brother, a former Marine who served alongside his brother in 2003, a victim of suicide.
“After losing my brother, I was left in a state of wondering, ‘What do we do? How do we fix this? How do we change lives?’ The only thing I knew how to do was cook,” Jacobs recalls. “I told my mentor, Skip Sack, that I wanted to train veterans [in the culinary arts].”
Military veterans looking for new careers have found unexpected opportunities in the food and beverage business with Vets2Success.
Within the span of six weeks, Jacobs had written a curriculum and started offering the first Vets2Success class. It was a five-day crash course, jam-packed with everything to get the first-time culinary student ready to work in the industry. “We just wanted to make an impact,” Jacobs says. “We didn’t really know what it would turn into. We got different perspectives from every veteran who walked through the door, which really helped to shape the program.”
Now, Vets2Success, which Jacobs first began in 2014 and expanded to include Vet2Chef and Vet2Baker in 2017, is quickly becoming a place where veterans are getting a second chance to learn new skills and become successful in their communities again. The program now counts 35 trained and graduated chefs among its ranks.
International pizza chain California Pizza Kitchen (CPK) recently reached out to Vets2Success when it heard about the program through the media. The company has hired five veterans through the program, and one veteran, Casey Cocozello, was awarded Pizza Chef of the Year after only 90 days at the company.
Jacobs sat down with PMQ to tell us more about how the Vets2Success program works and its growth plans.
PMQ: What is the Vets2Success program?
Jacobs: Vets2Success is a 12-week reintegration program that focuses on teaching veterans about identity, passion and purpose, using food as an outlet. They receive service-credentialed hours through the American Culinary Foundation. The purpose is to help them find a career that can carry them through the rest of their lives. We have the chef program, Vet2Chef; a baking program called Vet2Baker; a catering program; and a program that teaches you how to grow food. Not everyone wants to be a chef, so we have several different programs to choose from. We’ll even have a Vet2Brew program starting soon, hopefully by September. We like to get the vets hired as prep cooks and then, after their first week of work, they come back to me for additional intensive training.
PMQ: How has working with food helped you and others?
Jacobs: The program is taught around how food found me. It became an outlet of creativity and something I could use to better myself outside of the military. I struggled when I left the military but found my calling in food. I have a double master’s degree from the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and have worked for culinary masters like Peter Timmins. I have a love and passion for ingredients and the classical approach to cooking, which is what we teach to veterans.
Some people paint, draw, paddleboard or do yoga. There are all kinds of ways to find harmony in your life, but at the end of the day, we all like to eat and drink. When you break bread with your brothers and sisters, it means something. In the military, everyone wears different colors. The Marines wear green. The Navy wears blue. The Army wears brown. But, as veterans, everyone wears the same color again. We all understand each other. Being in a place where you can feel confident and start to trust people again changes everything.
PMQ: How do you feel veterans are uniquely qualified for working in the food industry?
Jacobs: Our industry needs attention to detail, teamwork, organization and leadership in an environment of functional chaos. These are things that veterans understand. In the military, you see one, do one, and you’re done. There are so many synergistic pieces that exist, yet those in the veteran or active-duty community don’t necessarily recognize the food industry as an opportunity. We work with organizations that work with second-chance veterans who are looking for something to bring them back. The food industry can do that.
PMQ: How many veterans are placed in jobs after completing the program?
Jacobs: We have a 100% placement rate for jobs. We work with great community partners who are very community impact-based. They all want to make a difference in their own way. They’re giving these veterans jobs and changing their lives, which includes paying a living wage.
Vets2Success has placed five pizza makers with the California Pizza Kitchen chain and hopes to partner with other large companies in the future.
PMQ: How many veterans have gone on to work at CPK?
Jacobs: Five veterans from the Vet2Chef program currently work at CPK. CPK reached out to me after seeing the Vets2Success program in the news. We’ve been trying to get more involved with bigger organizations like CPK, because they have opportunities for our veterans to move up a corporate ladder, which is very important to us. It’s all about being successful and having a vision and plan of action.
PMQ: What does the future hold for Vets2Success?
Jacobs: We’re moving to Nashville next, and Atlanta, Dallas, Las Vegas and California are all on our radar. We’ve got a great relationship with CPK; they really believe in what we’re doing. I could see us creating a co-training program with more opportunities for integration of one to two veterans at every CPK. This is still in the conception phase, but we’re hopeful. We’re also working with the USO Pathfinder program, which has the potential to put us in 15 military bases. And I’m working on my own restaurant group, where I’m planning to hire and train veterans for my restaurant and others. I’m hoping it will serve as a hub where the community can find its veterans and the veterans can find their community. It’s super exciting.
PMQ: What is your long-term goal for Vets2Success?
Jacobs: I hope that we create a national model for reintegration so that each veteran and their spouse can find a sense of passion, purpose and identity. I want to create a new opportunity for people to find themselves in a new industry.
Liz Barrett Foster is PMQ’s editor at large and author of Pizza: A Slice of American History.