Eglin Air Force Base’s Award-Winning Food Service Keeps Military Well Fed
It’s no secret that the Emerald Coast has staked its claim as one of the top culinary wonders of the world, with numerous renowned chefs now living and working in the area.
But in the heart of the Panhandle, there is a different sort of food service program that soars far above average expectations.
The motto of the dining facilities team at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach is “Excellence … Our Standard, Not Our Goal.” It’s the passion behind this motto that recently won them the coveted Hennessy Award, recognizing the team’s commitment to provide quality service and food to customers.
The prestigious honor is the oldest military food service award, established in 1957 to recognize the best of the best within the Air Force. According to the award criteria, “an operation must exhibit sustained excellence in food service management, force readiness support, food quality, employee and customer relations, resource conservation, training and safety” in order to merit the honor. The award is named after the late John L. Hennessy, a hotel and restaurant executive who served on presidential advisory boards to aid in the improvement of military food service.
Dave Mickler is the dining facility director who led the award-winning team, most of whom are now deployed overseas. Although his humility would never allow him to admit it, Mickler is known by his colleagues as the “godfather of United States Air Force food service.” After all, this is his seventh time to lead a team to the Hennessy — five times while working at Hurlburt Field Air Force Base in Okaloosa County and now twice at Eglin.
The accolades are impressive, but Mickler is adamant about one thing: “The Hennessy is never won by one person … it’s always won by a team effort.”
Enduring two intense days of judging was no easy feat. A four-person team composed of military personnel and civilian travelers arrived in February, and from 5:30 a.m. to midnight both days, a checklist of 150 items was evaluated, including the 17-plus specialty themed meal programs served throughout the year at Eglin. In April, Mickler received the long-awaited news.
“I was super-happy when I found out we won the award,” he says. “It just proved that all our hard work paid off, and it’s recognition that our team has really done an outstanding job.”
In addition to being recognized as the top food service program in the Air Force, one airman in particular stood out to the judges for his culinary expertise and enthusiasm. Staff Sgt. Wendell Bowles II won the John L. Hennessy Travelers Award for being “the most outstanding food service person of the year.”
Because of his deployment to Iraq, Bowles was not able to travel with Mickler and some of the staff in May to receive the two awards at the National Restaurant Association Food Service Convention in Chicago. However, he did receive a $1,000 scholarship to be used toward furthering his education in the food service industry. Bowles also was awarded a week-long course of study at The Culinary Institute of America in Greystone, Calif.
After serving 26 years in the Air Force, Mickler retired as a chief master sergeant but continued utilizing his food-service training background as the restaurant manager of the Eglin Officers’ Club for three years, followed by a stint as dining facility director at Hurlburt Field for nine years. In 2005, he made another move to Eglin. And within a year, the base received the Hennessy for the sixth time.
Part of Mickler’s passion is to dispel the idea that military food service positions aren’t as rewarding as service as a bomb loader or jet mechanic — his career field isn’t one that most high school graduates voluntarily sign up for at the recruiting office. However, many people are surprised to learn that the Air Force does not have “chow halls” but rather embraces a modern, restaurant-like style, which may include an Internet café or a wall of flat-screen TVs.
“It’s not just about the food … it’s a full dining experience,” Mickler says. “A lot of these young folks are here for the first time away from home, and we try to make this like their home, where they can sit down and enjoy a relaxing meal. You’re only as good as the last meal you served! We have a lot of them that come back, and we get compliments from all branches of the military. That makes you feel like what you’re doing is rewarding.”
After serving 500,000 meals a year — about 2,000 per day — and with a 98 percent customer satisfaction rate, members of Mickler’s team grow to truly love what they do and, in return, learn that they are just as appreciated and needed as the next airman.
“What we try to do is keep the job interesting,” Mickler says. “It’s not like the old days when I came in the ’60s and we were thrown in the dish room and told not to come out, and we didn’t see the kitchen for a year. Now, these young folks are coming in and given an opportunity to be managers right off the bat … When they find out they are coming into food services, they don’t always like it, but I would say within a short period after they get here, they see the benefits.”
To continue efforts to boost morale in the military food industry, both local bases have taken advantage of the “Chef to Chef” program created by Kim Wintner, the chairman of the Destin Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee. The program introduces airmen to some of Destin’s finest chefs for mentoring opportunities that encourage them to pursue a career in the food industry after their military duties are fulfilled.
“Each of our towns that surround the two bases, and Destin, is known for its top-notch chefs and restaurants, and we saw an opportunity to do something a little different,” Wintner says. “A lot of times, the chambers deal with the officer corps of the military, and in this case, we decided to focus on the lower-ranking airmen. We went to this group of folks who don’t often get great recognition for the job they do — they are not the people you see in the paper getting a Purple Heart.
“Our connection was we have this great asset, and it matched up to the folks that work on the two bases in very tough jobs,” Wintner says. “We thought the chance to meet great chefs would be beneficial to all concerned, and it was very much a win-win situation.”
Twelve chefs have participated in the year-old program, but Chef Tim Creehan, owner of the Beach Walk fine-dining restaurant in Destin, played a pivotal role in interacting with the young military chefs. His passion for the culinary arts and natural teaching talents were a perfect match for Mickler and his staff. Creehan also was named an honorary commander of the 96th Air Base Wing in March because of his integral role in the program, as well as to provide him with an opportunity to learn more about the Air Force and its day-to-day operations, particularly in the food service area.
On three occasions, airmen traveled with Creehan and his staff to various functions and worked side by side for 12- to 15-hour days. In return, Creehan visited Eglin to meet with Mickler’s staff for more mentoring and helped with an opening reception for the Hennessy judges.
“It was a very rewarding experience for me and my staff, and we absolutely took something away from the program,” Creehan says. “Their level of respect, their level of discipline and their level of education is at such a high standard, and it just reminds us of how it’s so easy to get lax and not do certain things.
“Their uniforms are pristine and their equipment and tools are in perfect condition, and everything they do is by the book — and that’s the way they have to do it,” Creehan says. “I think what we took away is that sometimes we are able to cut corners and take a shortcut, but they can’t. The standard is very, very high, and I think it’s important to always remember that and see that.”
Creehan acknowledges that every airman he worked with would have an “instant career” in food service because of the thorough training that puts him or her ahead of just about anyone entering the industry. Creehan also wouldn’t hesitate to participate in future programs.
“They have a foundation and background that they could go anywhere,” he says. “I think they all have a future if they want one. I loved giving back to the community, and I was honored to be asked and will never say no to any request they would have for me. Any way I can ever help, I’ll be there, because the payback is tenfold.”