Cafe Laura students, diners anticipate learning enhancements at dinner

November 08, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- By day, students in Penn State's School of Hospitality Management are studying mostly business courses for careers overseeing the operation of hotels, restaurants and other establishments in the hospitality industry. By night, they roll up their sleeves and serve members of the community for eight weeks every semester at Café Laura, their in-house laboratory inside Mateer Building ... all for a grade.

The senior-level class "Advanced Quantity Foodservice Management Simulation" (HRIM 430) is a required course in the curriculum that prepares students for real-world situations, covering all aspects of hospitality management from marketing to planning menus, from regulating expenses to overseeing food production to serving high-quality meals to fine-dining patrons. Now the school is seeking another collaborative student experience where two senior-level classes can share their knowledge in that "live" environment and also offer a more sophisticated dinner to their patrons.

As part of the potential changeover, the University is exploring the possibility of allowing Cafe Laura to serve wine under a secondary site license agreement with the Nittany Lion Inn. Penn State has applied to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) for an extension to its liquor license at the Inn. Under such an arrangement, students could learn about marketing, selecting, selling, and serving wine, as well as the procurement of wine. The same controls that are in place at the Inn for the restaurants, banquets and other events would be in place at Cafe Laura, if a secondary location were granted, and the Cafe would serve only wine.

"We are always seeking ways to enhance both the educational experience for our students and the dining experience for our patrons," said Hubert B. Van Hoof, professor and director of the School of Hospitality Management. "We hope the latest enhancement will be the ability for students to select, suggest and serve wine to patrons during each theme dinner. Not only will students be able to serve wine by the glass, but they can work with students in the HRIM 430 class to find vintages to complement the theme meals being served."

Currently, the senior-level elective course titled "Wine Appreciation" teaches students about the winemaking process and history, as well as wine's cultural and culinary significance. These students would work with students in the foodservice simulation course to pair appropriate wines according to each dinner's theme, and also have the chance to try being a sommelier for the evening.

Currently, patrons of Café Laura theme dinners bring their own bottles of wine from home.

"When I attend Café Laura dinners, almost every table has wine, and the student has the opportunity to open it and decant it and learn how to properly serve wine," said Ned Book, former president of the Travel Industry Association of America and a regular patron of Café Laura dinners. Book likes the idea of having students learn the responsibility of assisting diners with wine pairings.

While the "bring-your-own-bottle" model has worked, it is not a good fit for a class in which students are training to work in a first-class restaurant. Moving away from the "bring-your-own-bottle" model will provide a level of control for the University and allow it to manage the entire dining experience and process. The serving of alcohol will now be overseen by faculty, professional staff and management from the Nittany Lion Inn, and all students will be trained and certified just as those at the Inn are currently.
"Students would be able to select and suggest wines that might accompany each one of the entrees on the menu, which happens in many gourmet restaurants, and many that are not gourmet," said Book. "It's a wonderful opportunity for the students to use all their creative talent to come up with menus because every dinner is themed. It's also the kind of hands-on experience that many of them need, even though many of them will be in management, because they will become better managers."

HRIM 430 students are currently certified by the National Restaurant Association's Servsafe alcohol policy. As part of the PLCB's criteria for pursuing a secondary site license, these students also would be certified by the PLCB Responsible Alcohol Management Program (RAMP).

Students serving food and wine at Café Laura might not be the only ones learning that evening.
"As the responsible consumption of wine has been shown to provide certain health benefits, and as the popularity of wine increases, consumers in general are interested in more education," said Peter Yersin, senior instructor in food and beverage management teaches both the foodservice and wine appreciation courses. "As part of a hospitality program, it is logical to educate future managers about wines and wine and food pairings so they can provide better customer service.

"Keeping in mind that the alcohol consumption policy already in place for the theme dinners -- no more than one 750 ml bottle per two persons -- is more stringent than required," he added, "we feel that the monitoring of responsible consumption of our customers by our student servers and managers is of paramount importance."

As more customers order wine in restaurants, Yersin explained, students who pursue careers in restaurant management that have even a fundamental knowledge of wines will be of value to employers. "Our goal as educators in the School of Hospitality Management is to provide students with the knowledge to make them successful."

Van Hoof agrees. "We want to prepare our students for more than what the industry expects of them," he said. "Most management training programs include classes about the responsible sale and distribution of alcohol to patrons. "Adding this component to our students' education will help them stand out among their peers because they will already have the expectation to uphold an extra level of awareness -- and responsibility -- to the University, to their patrons at Café Laura and to those they serve in their future careers."

  • Jess Kohlman slides these beautiful fruit tarts made up of blueberries, strawberries, kiwi and raspberries into the cooler. For additional photos of last year's Cafe Laura Theme Dinner preparations, go to online.

    IMAGE: Greg Grieco

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Last Updated November 18, 2010