Last month, more than 45 New Hampshire businesses, nonprofits and vendors were invited to Washington, D.C., as part of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's seventh annual Experience New Hampshire event.
The event's aim is to introduce Capitol Hill to the Granite State, but it has also created a space for Granite Staters to build and reinforce their relationships with each other.
"We have made some nice connections with other restaurants, and it helps us reconnect with some of the restaurants or other food businesses we might do business with, that we might partner with on a fundraising event," said Helen Costello, program manager at the NH Food Bank.
For instance, the Hanover Street Chophouse was in attendance, "and they participated in our Steel Chef and our Grow Local event, and it helps us connect with other food businesses in the state because we're committed to local New Hampshire food production and businesses as well. So if we're doing an event, we like to use local product when we can, and it helps us find new sources of interesting food and other New Hampshire products too."
"It was a great networking event. We made some good connections," said NH Food Bank Executive Director Mel Gosselin. "One in particular was a software company that might help us bridge our different software packages in-house."
This is the second year the Food Bank has participated in Experience New Hampshire, sending down a chef, production cook and a graduate from its culinary job training program.
"Some people are surprised because they have a perception about food from a food bank or human service agency. One of my chefs has cooked in the White House and one of my chefs has worked at the Bedford Village Inn, and he was executive chef up at the Mount Sunapee Resort, so we have people with world-class experience teaching," said Costello. "So people are often surprised at our catering capacity and the food produced. I know last year, when I was there, people really enjoyed the food we brought, and our chefs were really happy."
Tamer Koheil, director of the newly formed Manchester-based NH Job Corps Center, said the event allowed his culinary students to impress the crowd with their presentation and selling skills.
"I got to talk to the vice president of operations for Lindt Chocolate and he opened up to me, on the spot, that he wants to hire these four students," said Koheil. "He felt they had the soft skills that make a good employee. We are reaching out to him to create a work-based learning site."
Southern NH University's Culinary Arts Program sent down six students, along with General Manager Chris Decloux. Decloux also was happy to make a connection with the Hanover Street Chophouse, talking with a chef who is seeking interns, as well as reconnecting with the Common Man Family of Restaurants, which already accepts SNHU interns and hires graduates.
"It was nice to see the Chophouse there because Chef Stewart – that was the first time I met him, and it probably wouldn't have happened if we weren't in the same room," said Decloux.
"It was really neat for the students, because you have coffee with the senator, and most college students haven't met with a senator," said Decloux. "This is our third year in a row going. And we just make it all about the kids. We have two students cooking item A, and two students cooking item B, and we take a step back and let them handle the horde."
"I think it's good for us because everyone knows SNHU as a great business school, or this online presence across the country, but stuck in the corner is that culinary program. So it's nice for people to see the culinary program so we can talk about the restaurant; we can talk about the program," said Decloux.
For instance, he said, many people may not realize that Bill Kovel, the chef who founded the popular restaurant Catalyst in Cambridge, Mass. (and a James Beard Award winner), studied at SNHU. "You get to tell that story, and I think it resonates because not many people know it and it becomes a neat thing."
"I'm definitely connecting with people in New Hampshire," said Michele Holbrook, owner of Michele's Sweet Shoppe in Londonderry.
Before the event, Senator Shaheen held a luncheon with speakers, including Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army. "Not only are you getting to hear different people speak, you're also sitting at a table with other top businesspeople I personally wouldn't be exposed to in my realm," said Holbrook.
Through the event, a couple of years ago, Holbrook met Erica Murphy, director communications and community relations for the Common Man.
"We never would have crossed paths," said Holbrook. "This year, I got to meet up with her again at the evening event, and she's stopped in the store, but I never would have met her otherwise, if that had not been."
Holbrook also connected with Phil Bryce, director of the NH Division of Parks and Recreation, who discussed including more local products in the gift shops and reconnected with Mike Duprey, tour coordinator at White Mountains Attractions.
"It's all about networking and connections," said Holbrook. "You don't know where it's going to lead at some point."
Holbrook also gets a few internet orders from the D.C. area around Christmas time – an extra perk for attending – in addition to a tour of the White House.
Michele Holbrook (right), owner of Michele's Sweet Shoppe in Londonderry with her daughter, Madison, and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.