Cafe Laura returns with new look, new tastes and new opportunities
Story by Marjorie S. Miller
From food preparation to healthier eating choices, the newly renovated Cafe Laura offers the gamut. The cafe re-opened today (Aug. 25) and will hold its grand reopening Sept. 9 after months of extensive renovations. The student-run restaurant housed in the Mateer Building features new fare stations, a revised design, and a variety of novel equipment and technology. More importantly, the $1.2 million renovation boosts the educational experience for students and enhances dining experiences for customers.
The training restaurant for hospitality management (HM) students closed for updates in April. Since then, students, faculty, staff and industry professionals have been working around the clock to ensure the eatery is open in time for the fall semester.
A partnership between Penn State Housing and Food Services (HFS) and the School of Hospitality Management (SHM), Cafe Laura is open 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and offers both grab-and-go services and in-house dining.
The renovation project, which has been made possible by a number of donations, has been planned for a while, said John O'Neill, director of SHM.
And while work has been done on Cafe Laura in the last couple of years, this project is "the biggest renovation we've had in the building since it opened 20 years ago," O'Neill said.
Scott King, general manager of Cafe Laura, said the refurbished cafe is a significant educational piece for students and puts the School of Hospitality Management in a good place nationally.
The more students are exposed to modern equipment and technology, as well as trends in the hospitality industry, the more valuable they will be when they enter the workforce, King said.
"It's a showplace," O'Neill said, and the renovation project has "been a fascinating process" as he and a renovation committee solicited input from students, faculty, staff, alumni and others about design features desired in a renovated Cafe Laura.
George Ruth, senior instructor of hospitality management; and Dave Gingher, director of retail campus dining and catering at HUB Dining at Penn State, were members of the renovation committee. Mesher Shing McNutt, an innovative architecture and interior design firm based in Seattle, was the principal designer.
The cafe's coffee shop has been updated and will continue to feature Starbucks drinks; Penn State bakery pastries and an Irving's bagel line will also be available. Additionally, the Kings Espresso Bar, part of the coffee station, was made possible by a donation from Elizabeth King, a Penn State alum, O'Neill said.
A homemade soup and bread bar, offering gluten-free items, has been added, which features Penn State bakery breads. Another new terminal is a pizza-by-the-slice station, in which restaurant-goers can choose a pizza combination with a side salad, as well as strombolis and wedges, King said.
A home style station has also been added, which provides a different home cooked meal selection daily, and features a variety of comfort foods, King said, which are especially popular among the fall and winter months.
Additionally, a char-grill cafe deli, where customers can create their own specialty sandwich, has joined the cafe stations. Options include cheesesteaks and hamburgers and a variety of toppings. All deli features come with a side of chips or pretzels.
Patrons can also try street food inspired items, where dishes are created, plated and served in front of customers. One example is skewered chicken, King said.
"(It's) visual to the customer base which will be really popular because it's an in-trend thing," he said about the demonstration component.
The Pepsi area, which contains a beverage fountain system with 12 soda selections and four types of Lipton teas, also offers flavored water, such as cucumber and strawberry, King said. Eventually, PepsiCo.'s Pepsi Spire will be available as part of the system. Pepsi Spire is a countertop self-service unit that allows customers to create up to 40 beverage combinations using a 10-inch touchscreen.
There is also a chopped salad area, which King refers to as "the jewel" of Cafe Laura, since there are no other venues quite like it on campus.
The chopped salad bar features exotic and bold "spa" dressings, he said, as well as gluten-free dressings. Customers can choose spinach, mixed greens, chopped romaine lettuce and a hot protein, King said.
And for those on the run, there are grab-and-go options, where customers can select from portable items, include as vanilla and chocolate puddings, freshly made main courses and side salads, Starbucks drinks and fresh Penn State bakery desserts.
Each station at Cafe Laura has been designed to meet the SHM's educational objectives, King said, and address a wide range of cooking and preparation techniques, such as braising and roasting.
Technology, design and atmosphere
New chairs, carpets, artwork and window treatments have been updated in Cafe Laura, and renovations have been made to the ceilings, walls and floors.
"We've completely opened up the space," O'Neill said.
"I think it will be more visual," King added.
Students were the No. 1 priority in the redesign of the space, Gingher said, with the goal of making their experience better by having a "first class facility."
"It looks great," he said. "I think we accomplished that."
The vision was to make the facility, which was relatively dated, more current and modern, Gingher said.
"Everything's about the clean look," he said. "The space didn't grow, but it looks and feels totally different."
The cafe's new technology includes MICROS Point of Sale, or POS equipment, King said. MICROS is enterprise information system software and hardware for the hospitality industry.
Students will use computer tablets to mange the floor and assign tables during the evening theme dinners.
"It's the latest and greatest in hospitality technology," O'Neill said. All of the equipment was donated by MICROS.
While lunchtime at Cafe Laura is often bustling as customers filter in and out, the evening offers a whole new feel. An action station will be open at dinnertime, O'Neill said, so patrons can see students preparing food from where they're sitting.
"(It) will be a very dynamic environment in the evening," he said.
Cafe Laura's themed dinners, one aspect the eatery is most known for, begin in September. Dinners will be offered Tuesday through Thursday during the fall and spring semesters.
Additionally, the cafe will house a variety of events and meetings, including for the Penn State Alumni Association.
"It's really a showpiece for the University," King said. (It's) really a whole host of different ventures. I look for catering to increase."