Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic
Image Credit: Saskatchewan Polytechnic

Cooking up memorable experiences

Whether it’s catering a locally sourced meal for royalty or creating a memorable game day for Rider fans, Rob Harrison knows how to deliver a quality guest experience.

In 2021, Rob Harrison was named volunteer and guest experience manager for the Saskatchewan Roughriders™ Football Club. Creating memorable guest experiences is a major focus of his job—and a lesson Rob learned in previous careers in the retail and food industries.

Rob spent the first 20 years of his working life in retail management. Then, at age 40, he decided it was time for a change. He retired from retail and enrolled in a baking course offered through Continuing Education at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

“I was always interested in a culinary career, but when I was in high school it wasn’t really an option,” Rob says. “It was only after I retired from retail that I took another look at the culinary world. The baking course whetted my appetite and I enrolled in the Professional Cooking program in Moose Jaw.”

Rob has great memories of his year at Sask Polytech. “I was the student representative for the cooking program. I participated in all kinds of student competitions and came out of the program with awards and scholarships, as well as relationships that I maintain to this day. It was such a positive experience all the way around,” he says.

While at Sask Polytech, Rob got to know people in the industry, which led to a job at Rushton’s Catering. Rushton’s played to Rob’s strengths. He earned Red Seal Chef certification while developing culinary and kitchen leadership skills. He jumped at an opportunity to buy into the company and eventually took over as owner/operator. Over the next decade, Rushton’s became the caterer of choice for a client list that included WestJet Airlines (as the exclusive Regina caterer for medium-haul flights), the Saskatchewan Science Centre and the Globe Theatre.

As the primary caterer for Saskatchewan’s Government House, Rob recalls catering for royal visits as well as for several governor generals, lieutenant governors, premiers and ministers. “The best part of catering is knowing people’s preferences and being able to surprise them with their favourite things,” Rob says. “For example, I knew the royal family was into locally sourced food, so I tried to feature that on our menus. I remember going to the farmers’ market early one morning so I could have a locally sourced luncheon ready for Prince Edward at noon.”

After 13 years, Rob switched careers once again. “I retired from the food world in 2016,” he says. “The WestJet account was great, but it was 24/7 and I was ready for a change. I started my own culinary consulting business, and then an opportunity came up with the Riders to help move season ticket holders into the new Mosaic Stadium. That led to my becoming volunteer coordinator and then volunteer and guest experience manager this year.”

Rob sees himself as a jack of all trades in his new role. His primary focus is overseeing the volunteer program, which includes about 200–250 volunteers. He also supports the Riders’ community and stadium operations teams and keeps a hand in the food service area.

COVID has had a big impact on Rob’s world. The 2020 CFL season was cancelled, restaurants were closed or operating at reduced capacity and Rob found himself with unexpected time off. It wasn’t until the spring that he heard the 2021 CFL season was a go. “We usually start preparing for the season in January, but this year we had to pack about six months of work into six weeks,” Rob says.

Despite the devastating impact of COVID, Rob sees a bright future for the food and live events industries. “I think there will always be a demand for live events—it’s ingrained in us. People love to go out, and food service plays a huge role in that. Food service has been around forever. I think it’s a necessity of our social life,” Rob says.

“Cooking is still a viable career. If you love to cook, it’s a great opportunity to explore your passion and be creative,” Rob says, adding, “I’ll always give back to the industry—always. I’ve been a member of the Saskatchewan Apprenticeship and Trade Certification Commission Cook Trade Board for years. Even though I’m not active in the kitchen, I still try to mentor the younger generation,” Rob says.

Published October 2021