On paper, the difference between Mahon Fritts’ former and current job titles is a single letter.
In reality, the gap is quite a bit longer. A former chef, Fritts has been chief executive officer at ALPS Adult Day Services for the last five years.
“I’m a chef by trade,” Fritts said. “I actually at a very young age went to work full-time at a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood I grew up in (Toledo, Ohio). A gentleman had a Chinese restaurant that allowed kids to come in and work. I started working as a dishwasher on weekends like a lot of young folks do.”
Fritts quickly realized that in order to become a chef, he was going to have to learn a lot.
“I worked and got paid one day, then I went the six other days to learn to cook,” he said. “By the age of 14, I was the lead cook in a restaurant in my hometown and I absolutely loved it.”
Fritts graduated from high school early and started two full-time jobs.
“I was doing Chinese-Cantonese-American during the day and French gourmet at night,” he said.
He had another brainstorm that he couldn’t get anywhere unless he went to school. He joined the U.S. Army.
“I joined on the G.I. Bill and served for about six years, got to travel around a little bit,” Fritts said. “When I got out of the Army, I went to chef’s school in Portland, Oregon.”
In 1992, Tommy Angelos, Morristown restauranteur, brought Fritts to the Lakeway Area as the chef of Angelo’s for many years. Fritts moved around some after that until he joined Regency Retirement Village in 2005 as a corporate chef.
“To be a chef, it’s not just about cooking, it’s designing menus and costing everything out, hiring staff,” he said. “When I would interview for positions, employers would tell me as long as the job gets done, numbers and food costs are right, you work the schedule you need to work. The reality was when the restaurant is slow, the executive chef had to be there to cut labor. When it was so busy that you could afford to staff, you had to be there to make sure everything went right. In other words, you were there daylight to dawn.
“Regency approached me about becoming a corporate chef,” Fritts said. “I went there and did the food service for their property in Morristown, then I traveled throughout their other properties and helped put the food service in there. It was a different pace. It was breakfast, lunch and dinner. Somewhere along those lines I found a calling for working with the families and helping them find the services and needs that they needed. They had different needs, different diagnoses, and different services. I fell in love with helping out.
“When Regency asked after a couple of months how working for them was different from the restaurant business, I told them that I was a ‘failure every day,’” Fritts said. “When they asked me what I meant, I said that everybody makes mistakes and prepares a dish one doesn’t like. In the restaurant business, you go out and talk to the customer and because you took that step to talk to the customer, you either made it right for them and had a customer for life, or you couldn’t, then you never saw them again.”
Fritts served from around 150 to 190 people per meal in five different dining rooms at Regency.
“You couldn’t make every single one of them happy every single day,” he said.
Fritts went to different residents to help design the menu to please them.
“They got to see things firsthand,” Fritts said. “They were more understanding and able to take ownership of it.”
Around 2006, Fritts was approached by the executive director of ALPS Adult Day Services to come on to the board of directors. Fritts served several years on the board when in 2014, he was asked to become chief executive officer.
“As a board member, I knew what a special place ALPS is,” he said. “But until I was here full-time, you don’t really feel the full breadth of it. It is truly an amazing organization.”
When he first became CEO, he sat down with each staff member individually. “I told them that this was not a job interview, it’s getting to know you. I asked them if they had one wish for ALPS, what would that be? Every one of them said that we needed to expand this building. This was the one thing that everyone agreed on to want to happen here.”
Fritts told the staff that it would take a lot of work for that to happen.
“Even though we have an amazing program, we’re the best kept secret in town,” he said. “We have to work hard to educate this community and let them know that we are here to serve.”
A plan was put into place to start growing the program. ALPS spent $500,000 to expand the facility. Through the process, they looked back to the founders. Thirty years ago, a list of goals was made by the original board of directors. The last goal was to plant other ALPS into the area. On Oct. 25, 2018, ALPS closed on the building for their new Greeneville facility. The next day, Bernice ‘Bunny’ Gerson, the last living founder of ALPS, passed away.
“When people come here because they’re serving the mission, those are the people you want to reward to let them grow and to expand,” Fritts said. “When we had this opportunity, Elizabeth Hart has been with us for about five years in Morristown as a nurse. She will be the program director in Greeneville. None of this could possibly happen without this amazing staff (of 20-plus).”