Banking on a sure bet

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Vinnie Oakes, director of food procurement for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, stands among the long aisles of food

A lifetime as a casino exec proved the best training for this food bank dynamo.

“There was a time in my life when I bought a $27,000 case of wine at the Desert Inn. We gave it away, a bottle at a time, to big hitters,” Vinnie Oakes recalls with a laugh. “That one case cost as much as a 53-foot trailer’s worth of food I buy now.”

That statement reflects the dramatic contrasts that punctuate the life and career of Oakes, director of food procurement for the Food Bank of Northern Nevada in Sparks. He’s the first to admit it’s been an interesting journey, filled with many unconventional twists and more than a few risks. And the 76-year-old admits he wouldn’t have it any other way.

New Jersey native Oakes started his career in an auspicious manner, attaining advanced chef training certification from the renowned Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn. (now located in Hyde Park, N.Y.). Upon graduation, he was offered a two-year culinary apprenticeship at New York’s world-famous Waldorf Astoria, a highly prestigious and rare opportunity. He declined.

Instead he opted to attend the University of Denver in Colorado to study hotel and restaurant management. While it didn’t have quite the glamour and prestige of the Waldorf, Oakes thought the university degree, in combination with his culinary institute training, would offer more career options. Crazy? Maybe. Crazy like a fox, as it turned out.

Not one to waste time, college freshman Oakes approached Restaurant Associates, the nation’s premier on-site dining management company, for summer employment. He was hired as kitchen steward for a hugely busy café in New York’s Central Park for that summer and every summer after that, throughout his college years.

“It was an incredible stroke of luck,” Oakes says. “I was just this young kid who got to work with the geniuses of the restaurant world. It ended up opening incredible doors for me my entire life!”

West is Best

With his CIA training, college degree, and excellent summer RA experience, Oakes had his choice of plum jobs at great restaurants on the East Coast and did that for a while. But he soon realized he missed the West. So, taking his chances, he went back to Colorado. And after a few successful years there and a few more serendipitous turns, he landed a job at Harrah’s Reno. That was the beginning of a whole new adventure in the gaming world.

Within two weeks he was promoted to director of food operations at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, a job he held for 10 years. Subsequent employers read like a list of who’s who in the casino industry, and they include the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, as well as the Peppermill in Reno and John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.

Oakes held executive positions in the food-and-beverage departments at each of these top-rated establishments. His eyes light up as he speaks of managing 1,225 employees, seven bars, 13 food-service outlets, and a budget of $35 million.

Culture Shift

It’s an understatement to say there’s probably not another food bank in the nation that boasts a director of food procurement with a résumé to match Oakes’. So how did someone with this amazing set of skills and experience end up managing the food needs of the hungry instead of the privileged?

He actually started in a most humble way. During a rare period when he wasn’t working, this go-getter wasn’t about to sit around, so he decided to volunteer at the food bank. A little over a year later, Cherie Jamason, FBNN president and CEO at the time, offered him a job.

The salaries of the food bank and those of the casinos weren’t even in the same world, Oakes says. But he was ready to slow down a bit, so he accepted. To his surprise (and delight), the job was anything but dull.

It’s layered with complexity,” Oakes says. “There are many programs, many quasi-legal mandates, many policies and procedures that must be adhered to. It’s a very challenging business.”

And timing is so critical in food banking, he admits, because you’re competing against hundreds of other food banks for this limited supply of food that you must move on quickly — before the food spoils, or before the snow blocks the mountain pass, or before someone else gets it first.

It’s always pretty exciting, he says — even more so now, with the added challenges of the pandemic.

“Thirty years ago, when I had my 15 minutes of fame, I would sometimes be interviewed,” Oakes says. “People would ask me, ‘If you weren’t doing this, what would you like to have done?’ And my answer was air traffic control. You know, it’s that kind of insanity. I love that kind of pressure.”

Oakes has been at FBNN for 14 years, the longest he has worked at any job. He says it’s the most exciting and rewarding job he’s ever had.

Apparently, adrenaline junkies never retire. This one just brought his magnificent skills to the Food Bank of Northern Nevada, and thank goodness he did.

Reno writer Barbara Twitchell found Vinnie Oakes’ energy and enthusiasm to be as delightful as the many vignettes he shared about his interesting adventures.

Reno writer Barbara Twitchell employs reusable bags every time she shops. After researching this story and reading Harris’ book, she has discovered many more plastic-free practices she is excited to adopt!

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