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A class act

It’s hardly unusual for a restaurant chain to offer scholarships for college-age employees to help defray tuition costs—particularly when students have their sights set on long-term careers in food service. But Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill is taking the idea a step further, opening up the company’s new scholarship program to all workers, regardless of age or ambition.

Not only are employees eligible for Rubio’s program, so are any of their family members. There are no criteria for the type of school or classes one can take. The only requirements are that the applicant work 20 hours a week for Rubio’s and be admitted to, or enrolled in, a higher-education course of any type.

“Our focus has always been treating our team members like family members, and this is a way to extend that,” says Angelica Gamble-Wong, vice president of people services at Carlsbad, Calif.-based Rubio’s. “It helps send the message about the type of company we are, and how we’re helping team members take care of themselves and their families.”

The program, which launched in March and awarded its first scholarships in July, was started by CEO Marc Simon, who assumed the role in 2011. In coming up with the program, he looked around at what other restaurant chains and Fortune 500 companies were offering. While some had scholarships for all ages and others extended benefits to family members, Simon says he did not see one like Rubio’s that allows all ages and family members and has no career-specific strings attached.

The generosity of Rubio’s program is one reason the Council of Hotel and Restaurant Trainers honored Simon with its 2013 Commitment to People Award. “The all-ages policy is a big thing, because it demonstrates commitment to lifelong learning,” says Patrick Yearout, CHART’s incoming president. “It shows that you’re never too old to get that degree, go back to school and learn new things.”

To be eligible for the annual $1,000 scholarships, applicants must have a GPA of at least 3.0 during the last year of school they attended. In addition to providing a transcript, they need to write a 500-word essay and submit two letters of recommendation, plus one from their Rubio’s manager.

The response was better than expected. “Applications ran the gamut and came from all over the company,” says Gamble-Wong. “We had veterans, minorities and non-minorities apply. We had everyone from cashiers in our [most-distant] stores to the son of a district manager and the spouse of one of our executives.”

Rubio’s picked eight winners. One of them was Veronica Kitchens, a 19-year-old shift leader in one of Rubio’s Salt Lake City restaurants. Kitchens used her $1,000 for tuition at the University of Utah, where she’s studying health promotion and education. While her Rubio’s job helps her pay bills and learn management skills, Kitchens wants to go on to graduate school and become a physician assistant.

Receiving the scholarship doesn’t guarantee how long Kitchens will work for Rubio’s, but she says what she learns at school definitely helps her on the job. “The skills I’m acquiring in classes will come in handy when I’m training to do something new or communicating with customers,” she says.

But the scholarship goes way beyond providing learning that supports employees on the job. “Nothing says ‘I believe in you’ like a scholarship program dedicated to hard-working employees,” says Jennifer Swan, co-founder of consulting firm Hospitality on Point in Woodbury, Minn.  “Even if employees’ career plans lie elsewhere, a scholarship program that incentivizes them to stick around is definitely a worthwhile investment in the long run.”

That’s Rubio’s intent: giving current employees an incentive to develop their career path, while making them feel connected enough to the company to stick around longer. “We’re going to have employees at all different stages of their lives here, from starting their first job to figuring out their next career move, and supporting their growth is really the goal of this program,” says Gamble-Wong. “We’re a proponent for them to further their education, no matter where it takes them.”

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