How NOLS Made Me a Better Restaurant Manager: The Northstar Cafe Story

By Jen Pontrelli

Dec 8, 2015


Learning Decision-making Skills
Practicing decision-making. Photo by Darren Malhame.


The restaurant business is known to be a notoriously tough gig. Long hours, fluctuating market value for goods, high employee turnover and food fads all play into a stressful work environment for even the most seasoned restaurateur. So when a team of restaurant professionals does find a working formula, how do they take their thriving business to the next level?

For Columbus, Ohio’s Northstar Cafe, it’s by investing in the professional development of their management team through a number of opportunities, including a custom NOLS course.

Headed by brothers Darren and Kevin Malhame, the thriving business currently boasts three restaurants with a few more concepts in the works. In an effort to reward employees for their hard work as well as provide unique, professional growth opportunities, the team has continually turned to NOLS Custom Education to provide unparalleled outdoor experiences. In September, eight Northstar employees headed into the Wind River Range of Wyoming for a 9-day backpacking leadership expedition orchestrated by NOLS Pro.

Here’s how the Northstar Cafe staff plan to use their NOLS experiences to succeed in one of today’s most challenging industries.

Disconnect in order to reconnect

Of the many unique experiences that NOLS courses offer, perhaps the most profound in this day and age is the opportunity to disconnect from life in the frontcountry, which is dominated by technology. Without the distractions of phone and email, many members of the Northstar expedition were able to fully engage, some for the very first time, with the wilderness as well as with their coworkers.

According to Northstar co-owner and expedition member Darren Malhame, this created a more open environment of understanding in the company culture that has resonated among individuals and groups even months removed from the backcountry.

“The team is energized and inspired following their NOLS expedition experience and we continue to see it months later,” said Malhame. “It was definitely a confidence booster for our newer management team members because it helped them find their voices as leaders.”

Sustainable food builds sustainable hearts and minds

Mastering Backcountry Cooking
Cooking in style in the backcountry. Photo by Darrren Malhame.


The backcountry provided this group of restaurant professionals with a better understanding of where their food really comes from. According to one individual, simply “seeing cows that aren’t in a fence” proved to be a transformative moment, while other Leave No Trace principles had a profound impact that will influence the types of vendors the company may work with and the evolution of their own environmental footprint.  

“Several of the [expedition members] came away with a new perspective of Leave No Trace. It helped them understand more clearly our vision to ‘serve and celebrate a healthy world’ through reducing our impact,” said Malhame.

“It helped make connections to why we use purveyors loyal to organic practices and farming and buy beef that doesn’t get finished on commercial feedlots. It also opened the conversation to how we can be reducing our impact even more through finding viable composting alternatives and other recycling alternatives.”

The greatest lessons, and the best memories, come from the hardest days

Plucking people out of their everyday lives in Columbus, Ohio to navigate the Wyoming wilderness with a handful of coworkers is no cakewalk. Sure, there are many beautiful days on the trail, but rarely in a debrief do those days come out as the most memorable.

For the Northstar group, those valuable lessons came early. On day two, the students found themselves gaining 1,600 feet of elevation in three miles. Of course, what goes up must come down, and after cresting a beautiful mountain trail, the group started a short but brutally steep descent. The demanding terrain slowed everyone down and the group soon realized that they would have to abandon the original plan for that day. With a new common goal, each member garnered support from the next and, with a collective focus, the group pushed on, redefining and forging a dynamic that has strengthened the team long after their time in the Winds.

Food is the ultimate bridge-builder

With a culinary background, it was no surprise that backcountry meals were elevated during the Northstar expedition. The group kicked things up a notch with dishes such as couscous cooked in wild sage-steeped milk and backcountry chili. In the end, after a week of long days and unforgettable experiences, the most animated debates among the group were over which meal was the most delicious, proving that, once and for all, food is the ultimate force that brings people together.

Good thing the Northstar Cafe deals in delicious food.  

Learning Leadership in the Wind River Range Ready to tackle the next adventure. Photo by Darrren Malhame.

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Editor's note: Post updated 3/15/18

Written By

Jen Pontrelli

Jen Pontrelli is the sales manager for NOLS Custom Education.

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