Mississippi native, Rusty Cooper, is a busy man on football game days. He is the catering manager for Centerplate, one of North America’s largest providers of food and beverage catering for many sports venues.
The Newton native is in charge of making sure all boxes, suites, and clubs in the football stadium are provided with food the right way. With thousands of people to feed, and a staff of nearly 100 to manage, Cooper has no time to take a break.
“I enjoyed all classes, but I was a history buff,” Cooper said, recalling his school years. In high school, he was voted most courteous by his peers, and being courteous was a skill Cooper would later build on as he started working.
The summer after high school graduation, Cooper moved to Oxford and began taking summer classes at the University of Mississippi. That summer, he also found a job working at the Yerby Conference Center. “I started as a gopher – go fetch this go fetch that,” he said.
The biggest events Cooper was part of at that time were cheerleading camps. Thousands of cheerleaders came to camps to improve their skills. “I was setting up sound, water stations, helping at dorms, and picking up mail,” he said.
As work at Yerby evolved, Cooper progressed to larger seminars and eventually became the director. He began working for Centerplate as a catering manager in 2013. His list of responsibilities includes catering coordination, logistics, presentation, design, primary lay-out/set-up, recruiting, training, and staff scheduling.
He is also responsible for maintaining quality standards for the South Endzone Club (seating 2,000), the Rebel Club (seating 1,000), and the 60+ skybox suites (each seating 25-40 guests) in the football stadium. All together, more than 5,000 people may need to be catered to on a given football game.
One of the hardest challenges Cooper faces at Centerplate is communication. With so many people who need to be served, even one mistake can be costly. “At times, the lack of communication from the front of the house to the back of the house can cause stress,” he said.
Stress is multiplied when employees don’t show up or something is forgotten. To avoid this, every small detail must be checked and double checked prior to Saturday, such as checking the heat lamps to make sure the bulbs are working. Attention to detail is something Cooper takes pride in, and he considers himself detail oriented to a flaw.
Cooper’s main assistant, Greg Driver, is learning what it takes to manage the operation. “I haven’t had a day off in three weeks,” he said.
Cooper has a strong work ethic because he was raised by two working parents. “I love being the go-to guy,” he said.
Whether this involves putting out fires or putting in preparation time, Cooper is willing to do anything to keep his customers happy.
“I am also an Ole Miss guy for as long as I can remember and truly love doing all I can to cast the university in the very best light, not only for our UM community, but for visitors as well,” he said.
Under Cooper’s management, Centerplate has done well. The staff has grown from 60-70 from last year to 80-90 this year. Also, the opening of the Pavilion has added another 200-600 club seats that Centerplate will be catering.
As Centerplate grows, so does Cooper. “I am working on being more patient with people, not being too nice, and not being a jerk,” he said.
When asked what his biggest life lesson was, Cooper said: “Life is short. Take advantage of what comes your way. Hold on to your family and friends and enjoy the most you can.”