She awakens at 4:30 a.m. An hour later, she’s at school turning on ovens and computers.
“I like everything set before the cooks come in,” said Bonnie Johnson, the new kitchen manager at Spring Lake Park High School.
Johnson officially started her job at the high school the first part of November. She takes the place of Chad Plotnik, who resigned to take a position in the private sector.
But Johnson is no newbie to Spring Lake Park District 16. She’s been with the district since 1997. She started as a cook at the high school, where she remained for 10 years.
She later worked as cook manager at the former Kenneth Hall Elementary School followed by four years as cook manager at Northpoint Elementary.
And now she’s back at the high school serving between 1,000 to 1,050 lunches a day, per Nov. 5 figures.
“I love it. It’s going very well,” Johnson said, admitting that she misses the little kids at Northpoint.
Still, she’s amazed at the politeness of the high school students. Recently, she received a handwritten card from a ninth-grade boy. It read:
“Dear Lunch Ladies. Thank you very much for providing me and the whole school with food and something to eat.
“Also, with all the healthy choices we can choose from. And the words ‘hi’ or ‘thank you, have a nice day’ just makes my day a whole lot better.”
No major changes
Johnson has no major changes planned for the cafeteria. The school will continue serving more fruits and vegetables, with salads to go and fresh salads, such as the popular chicken caesar.
And she will continue to serve the students’ favorites – spicy chicken patties, chicken wraps and french fries on the grill.
As head cook at the high school, Johnson oversees 11 workers, including cooks, prep cooks and cashiers. Among her other responsibilities are ordering and preparing food.
Ask what she likes best about her job and her response is immediate: “the kids.”
“These kids are so darn nice,” she said. “They really are.”
As for challenges on the job, Johnson cites ensuring enough food is available and serving the correct amount of food to students with a breakfast and lunch count that changes daily. Also, staying within the budget is another concern.
“She has a knack for culinary creation,” said Amy Kimmel, food service coordinator at District 16. “She can take a look at a recipe and, pretty much, improve upon it.”
“She’s definitely a leader. She’s a people person. She’s able to inspire and encourage people and get the most out of people.”
Johnson got her first taste of cooking at the age of seven when she made pancakes at her home in Brainerd.
Soon, she began experimenting, adding apples and blueberries to the batter. Sometimes placing the fruit on top of the pancakes and adding whipped cream.
“I just really liked it,” she said about cooking. “It was always what can I do to make this stuff taste better?”
Plus she came from a family, her grandmother in particular, who was always cooking and canning.
Her family later moved to Coon Rapids, where Johnson graduated from Coon Rapids High School.
Johnson continues to reside in the city with her husband, Wayne, of 41 years. They have two adult daughters and five grandchildren.
She was a cafe owner
Her first job in the early 1980s was at Club Cafe in Coon Rapids as a cook.
“That’s when I realized I loved food service,” she said.
In the mid 1990s, she bought and operated two restaurants, Bonnie’s Diner in Lino Lakes and Bonnie’s Cafe in Blaine. But the hours were grueling. She worked 15 to 17 hours a day.
“You don’t even have a life,” she said. “I just didn’t want to do it any more.”
So she closed up shop. Before long, boredom set in. She was no longer feeling productive. At the same time, a friend told her about an opening as a cook in District 16. Johnson jumped at the chance.
Fifteen years later Johnson has come full-circle back to the high school.
Johnson learned much of her people skills as a restaurant owner.
She tells her prep cooks and cashiers, sometimes the kids are having a bad day and a kind word helps.
“You have to like people to work in food service,” she says.
Elyse Kaner is at firstname.lastname@example.org