Having grown up in family kitchens, Stephanie Bruce has been prepping to be at the forefront of foodservice her whole life. Strong ambition and a tinge of stubbornness have made her a powerful force, but learning how to overcome overwhelming obstacles, while lifting others up—and learning to let go—has made her an incomparable leader.
A Lifelong Passion
My grandmother was a wonderful cook, and my mother still is—and both made sure I was comfortable in the kitchen. I was raised on traditional Mexican cooking and spent my childhood in my grandmother’s kitchen making machaca, tamales, beans, rice and flour tortillas from scratch. In high school, I took a recipe from Seventeen magazine and cooked it for my parents. It was so good, they encouraged me to cook dinner anytime I wanted!
That helped me get my first job at the camp I had attended every summer as a child. Too old to be a camper and too young to be a counselor, I asked to work in the kitchen. The cook taught me how to prep meals for large numbers. I became the prep cook, then the second cook and eventually the head cook, responsible for preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for up to 500 people a day. It was my first experience with USDA meal programs—and I loved it.
I eventually went to culinary school in Palm Springs where I also worked in restaurants and hotel banquets before attending California State Polytechnic University-Pomona for a Bachelor of Science in Hotel and Restaurant Management. From there I got a job at Universal Studios, Hollywood, in their food and beverage division. It was a great learning experience, but after three years, I wanted more time for friends and family.
My mom worked at Yucaipa-Calimesa (Calif.) Joint Unified School District and encouraged me to apply when the foodservice director position opened. I thought, “Why not? I know food…how hard could it be?” Well, I got the job and learned real fast how hard it could be! But like most in this business, I also learned to love it. I moved on to three other districts and a national food manufacturer before landing in Palm Springs (Calif.) Unified School District, right back to where I started my culinary journey.
Leaders Who Last
I am confident, which I get from my mother, and that pushes me to lead the way, forge ahead and take risks. I also have a profound stubbornness, a gift from my father, that has kept me from listening when told “no,” or “you can’t.” Those words challenge me to respond, “Oh yes I can, watch me.”
In my professional life, it is important that I be a leader who provides people with the tools to do their job, along with the guidance and access they need to continue their growth. I have learned that I’m happiest when helping others. I encourage mistakes, so that my team keeps trying new things, understanding how mistakes help us grow.
My approach as a volunteer leader is very similar. SNA has given me so much in my job, career and professional relationships. Serving is natural and necessary; it’s my way of thanking those who have supported my journey. I can share the lessons I’ve learned and together we become stronger, more effective leaders.
I have had several mentors but one who’s been there from the beginning of my leadership journey is Dr. Lynnelle Grumbles, RD, SNS, former CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley (Calif.) Food Services Agency and a past California School Nutrition Association (CSNA) president. Grumbles became a friend and a mentor the day she asked if I would run for CSNA vice president. I was in awe of her knowledge of school meal programs, her kindness and her ability to make others feel comfortable. She has provided guidance when I needed it most, talking me off a few ledges and telling me when I’m wrong. She encouraged and supported my educational goals, and it is her mentorship that I credit for much of my success.
“Leadership is hard. Some make it look easy, but it’s a challenging role to manage well.”
Seize the Day
My biggest challenge is wanting to do it all! I have a difficult time saying no.
Recently, I had four audits in one year, plus balancing many work, volunteer and family commitments. I love being involved, but you simply cannot be your best when you stretch yourself that thin. It was absolutely exhausting—and I wasn’t the best boss during that stressful time, which also coincided with some tense operational and personnel issues.
But without this lowest of lows, I wouldn’t have experienced my highest of highs as a leader. Thanks to my amazing staff, we completed all four audits with zero findings, and we worked through our departmental issues, becoming stronger and more cohesive as a result. We found our laughter again, which is so integral to who I am.
Going for Goals
I am a big-picture person and can see the beginning, middle and end, thinking through the strategy and the logistics. My next professional goal is to become an assistant superintendent of business services. To that end, I have spent the last five years obtaining my MBA and Chief Business Official certification.
As for my next life goal, I’d like to continue to explore this amazing planet. One of my sisters taught me to appreciate travel, be grateful, keep an open mind and an open heart, take advantage of every opportunity and be present in each new experience. Sadly, she passed away unexpectedly last year, so I want to honor her by continuing to travel.
Leadership is hard. Some make it look easy, but it’s a challenging role to manage well. Some days I get it right and some days I do not. One never perfects being a leader. My leadership journey will never be over.
As told to Shannon Goff, a freelance writer based in Denver, N.C.
- Hometown. Redlands, California
- Top Education. Master of Business Administration, Finance, University of Redlands–California
- Title. Director of Nutrition Services, Palm Springs Unified School District
- Program at a Glance. 22,000 students; 35 sites; district-wide catering; central kitchen and warehouse; 145 employees; $15 million budget; 100% CEP district-wide
- SNA Leadership Highlights. Leadership Development Committee (2018-20); SNA Procurement Ethics Task Force (2017); California SNA President (2008-09)
- Family. Mother Naomi; sisters Sandee, Becky, Cheryl and Rhonda; and my perfect puppy companion Buddy