Cafe Laura student and staff member behind counter.

Theme dinners give students restaurant management experience at Cafe Laura

Story by Jennifer Miller

This is not a training exercise; it is the real world. Real customers, real food and real experiences.

Hospitality management students enrolled in Advanced Food Production and Management, HM 430, are running a restaurant -- creating a fine dining experience through carefully orchestrated theme dinners open to the public throughout each semester. The course is a senior-level capstone class for hospitality management majors.

Students present four-course menus at Cafe Laura, a student-run, on-campus restaurant in Mateer Building, and in doing so learn how to manage a restaurant.

"The theme dinners at Cafe Laura help prepare you for the environment of basic restaurant service," said Andre Holmes, who completed the course before graduating in 2014. Today he is kitchen manager at Mike's American, a restaurant in Springfield, Virginia.

"You get to go through all of the roles of a restaurant including serving, preparation, sanitation and even management," Holmes said. "It also applies enough pressure so you actually feel the stress that can go along with the mistakes and struggles of every day restaurant life where you never know what could happen, yet keeps you safe in a learning environment. Participating in theme dinners at Cafe Laura was the closest experience to what I actually do on a daily basis now."

The menus are centered around student-selected themes, from "Mardi Gras: A Rendezvous on Bourbon Street" to "Under the Tuscan Sun." The meals feature fine cuisine, from seafood etouffee to pear and gorgonzola striped ravioli.

Through planning and presenting the theme dinners, students learn the various steps of successful restaurant management.

Caroline Repko, who is currently enrolled in HM 430, is also a former employee of Cafe Laura.

"I have learned the ins and outs of running a restaurant," Repko said. "Working with a team of other students is helpful in molding our careers as future managers. I have learned that detail is extremely important in this class because it's not about the grade; it's about offering an enjoyable evening to customers. It's also about preparing employees, who are also our class peers, to be able offer these enjoyable evenings."

Peter Yersin, George Ruth and J.P. Ranjera instruct the course. Scott King manages Cafe Laura.

"There is a strong kitchen component, but it is not a culinary class. It is a management class. Customer service is the primary goal," said Yersin, senior instructor. "A student management team creates a restaurant from the ground up, other than the physical plant. The team develops a business plan that covers everything from menus, recipes, pricing, job descriptions, accounting and marketing. In essence, it involves the nuts and bolts of a restaurant operation."

For the course, students are divided into small groups, each made up of employees for Cafe Laura. On the first day of class, students choose management teams in a draft-style format. During the semester, students rotate as acting restaurant manager.

"The idea is to bring the class together as a whole as quickly as possible," said Yersin, who has taught the course since 1996. "Without unity, the management teams can't be as successful as necessary. Management by your peers is a challenge. You may sit next to a fellow student in class and then work for that student as your manager at night. It is a good exercise for our students. When they go out into the workplace, they will interact with all types of employees and managers. Learning to manage their fellow students gives them valuable training."

Repko believes such experiences have prepared her for a career in hospitality management.

"We won't have someone holding our hand when we are out in the real world," Repko said. "This experience has prepared me in the area of customer service and how to react properly in certain situations. It has prepared me in properly overseeing employees without overstepping. Most importantly, I have learned mutual respect for co-workers and peers."

For Repko, the best part of the experience is hearing feedback from customers.

"There is nothing better than hearing positive comments about the dinner that we spent weeks and weeks preparing for," Repko said. "It shows that hard work really pays off and respecting each other can aid in achieving a goal."

Taimi Ando, also currently enrolled in HM 430, knows he is learning skills he will apply in his hospitality management career.

"From operations, I have learned that everything in a restaurant is very precise, not only the recipe, but also the time that the food has to come out to be served," Ando said. "This class is preparing me how to plan ahead. In this class, students get to learn what type of management and leadership styles work to people of the same ages."

Aside from managing a restaurant, Ando said he appreciates the unique opportunity to work with other students as a unit.

"The team feeling I gained in the class was the best feeling," Ando said. "After every class I felt that we as classmates we all got closer. We may have had disputes, but after the dinner we all accept our mistakes and we try to improve from the mistakes we made."

Jose Preza, customer dining manager for Aramark at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, also completed HM 430 before graduating in 2014.

"Taking HM 430 helped me gain leadership skills, which will follow me in any position I decide to take in the future," Preza said. "It gave me a better oversight of safety and sanitation as well as customer service. This class prepared me for the real world because the demands were real. In order to succeed, I needed to be willing to work in a team, manage my time correctly and adjust. Not every decision you make will be the right one, but as long as you are willing to adjust correctly, you will be on the right path to success."

While the students benefit from experiencing the hectic pace of a restaurant operation, the real beneficiaries are faculty, staff, students and community members who take advantage of the well-prepared, quality theme dinners, according to Yersin.

Original story appeared April 3, 2015 on Penn State News