It was 9:30 p.m., and 20-year-old Lupita Berber had just returned home from her job at Tellico Village Yacht Club.
She was tired, but she knew what she had to do.
Berber, a Pellissippi State Business major pursuing a double concentration in Business Management and Hospitality, knocked out a 500-word essay about herself and a separate essay about what she’s learning in her Hospitality classes, attached a recommendation letter from Associate Professor Holly Knowling and a screenshot of her college transcripts, and turned the whole packet in by 11:59 p.m.
That drive paid off, as Berber was awarded a $5,000 scholarship from the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Education Foundation for the 2019-2020 academic year.
“I was honestly so shocked because I would have never thought I would be the one to win,” Berber said. “I was so excited!”
Berber, 20, accepted the award at the 2019 TnHTA Stars of the Industry Awards Gala on Sept. 5 in Nashville. She chose to take Knowling as her guest.
“If there is anyone that has helped me the most and has been like a mentor to me, it would be Professor Holly Knowling,” Berber said. “She is such an amazing human and is so inspiring. She has helped me so much not only in class, guiding me and other students, but she also has helped me so much personally, because any time I need work advice, she always has the answer.
“Being in her classes makes me feel like I really belong there, but also in the industry, and like I am in the right path,” Berber added. “Having her there with me at the gala was also a very amazing experience because everyone knew her from the industry, and it was so cool to be able to network with other people and have her introduce me.”
Knowling had high praise for Berber as well.
“She exemplifies what we look for in a student and certainly what I look for in a Hospitality student,” Knowling said. “She’s friendly, a hard worker, conscientious and everybody likes her. This past summer she also went to Italy with me through the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies, which offers study abroad programs; so she’s adventurous, which also is a plus in the hospitality industry.”
Amy Caponetti, chair of Business and Hospitality for Pellissippi State, agreed.
“She is a great student and has a ton of potential,” Caponetti said. “I’ve worked with a lot of students, and Lupita is smart, driven, determined and hardworking – and I cannot wait to see what all she can accomplish.”
Berber learned to love the restaurant industry at a young age, she said, by going to work with her father.
“I am so thankful that my parents came here to give my brothers and me a better future,” said Berber, noting her parents are from Michoacán, Mexico, and that she is a proud Mexican-American. “I grew up with my dad in the restaurants, and I remember helping him sit people, asking how many and if they wanted the smoking or nonsmoking area.”
Berber’s drive has since helped propel her up the ladder at AWE Hospitality, which operates the Tellico Village Yacht Club as well as Tanasi Bar & Grill, Toqua Clubhouse and Kahite Clubhouse. Since she was 16 years old, Berber has moved from hosting to now being able to work almost any position where they need her.
“I actually started at Tanasi, hosting all the way up to a bartender, while working Saturday nights at the yacht club for weddings and events,” explained Berber, who has had her on-premise server permit from the Tennessee Alcoholic Beverage Commission since she was 18 years old. “I felt cool because I was cross-trained and the owner knew he could put me in any restaurant and I could do the job.”
Berber has since moved solely to the Tellico Village Yacht Club so that she can get more fine dining experience and work with her other mentor, General Manager Skyler McClurkin, who also attended Pellissippi State.
“On behalf of the Tellico Village Yacht Club management, I would like to extend our appreciation for the amazing work done by Lupita at the yacht club,” McClurkin said. “The endless hours she has spent working at the yacht club and the professionalism she has displayed has impressed the entire team immensely. Her diligence and self-motivation, as well as dedication, have been a source of inspiration for the rest of the team.”
Berber now lacks only one management class, three hospitality courses and an internship to graduate from Pellissippi State, and she has her sights set on walking across the commencement stage in May 2020.
“After I graduate I hope to move up within the company I work at right now,” added Berber, who grew up and still lives in Lenoir City. “Or one of my dreams has been to work at Blackberry Farm and truly learn Southern hospitality, a very elevated version of it.”
But Berber’s dreams aren’t confined to Tennessee. She’s already thinking about the future – and she won’t let people’s incredulous reactions to her ambitions bring her down.
“I would love to work for Gordon Ramsay and manage one of his restaurants,” she said of the multi-Michelin starred chef and international restaurateur. “Every time I say this people laugh at me. They believe it could never happen, but that makes me want it even more.”
Berber’s ultimate goal, however, is to learn as much as she can about management and save her money so that she can open her own restaurant one day.
“My dream job is to have my own fine dining Mexican restaurant,” said Berber. “I would like to locate it in Farragut, and it will be called El Gallo de Oro, which means the golden rooster. I want to focus on small fancy plates with things made from scratch and help the community by using local produce, food and even furniture. I want to have tableside fresh guacamole and give my guests the most amazing experience.
“If I can make a plate or provide you a service to make your day a better day, then I have done it in life,” she added. “I know that after I graduate I can count on many professors that have helped me so much and always believed in me, so my dreams may one day come true.”