Monday, October 7, 2013
Students gain real-world skills by running restaurant at Allen High School
Students who work at Blu also earn school credit.
ALLEN One of the more unique aspects of Allen High School is edible and open to the public on a weekly basis. Blu Community Bistro, the student-run restaurant housed at the school, began its third year of business in September.
The restaurant was a prominent part of the $15 million career and technology center the district built in 2011. Before the center opened, students in the culinary program worked in limited space in the school's cafeteria and prepared lunches on a much smaller scale. Now, they run a restaurant almost identical to their commercial counterparts.
"Part of the planning process for the career and tech center was about Blu, was about having a restaurant," said instructor Jordan Swim, who oversees the restaurant. "And not just a small classroom-restaurant, but a restaurant that actually looked and felt like a restaurant and to put it in front of the school."
The restaurant is open Wednesday through Friday and staffed exclusively by seniors. Allen ISD teachers and administrators are frequent customers – students aren't allowed to eat there – and the restaurant is used by the school district and the city of Allen as a showcase of the opportunities available to students at the high school.
“It's a good experience,” said Javier Grimaldo, who works on the production line. “Not many schools get to do this — have their own restaurant, open it up. This could help me in my future, since I want to open my own restaurant. It feels like it's a good skill that I'm learning.”
The program has more than doubled in student participation each year since opening, according to Sheila Hyde, the hospitality teacher who is responsible for front-of-house service. About 32 students, who are split into two shifts on different days, work in the back and about 20 work out front. The restaurant even offers catering and has served at events like last year's football banquet with up to 700 people in attendance.
The class is a mix of restaurant and classroom time. On days the restaurant is open, students work there and have a reflection period once it closes to discuss what they did well or could have done better, Hyde said.
“They learn all the soft skills that you read about what students are missing when they leave high school to go and find a job in the real world: interpersonal skills, communication skills,” she said. “That's what we teach in hospitality. I focus on job readiness.”
The class isn't just for students who want to work in the restaurant business. Abigail Ramsey, who runs the coffee machine and serves as the to-go cashier, wants to pursue a career as a defense attorney but still finds value, and enjoyment, in her work. She credits her experience with helping her land a job at Starbucks.
“This is the highlight of my week,” she said. “I'm a workaholic. I love being productive. This is just my favorite because I get to do more individual work, and I get to work on something that I know and like to do.”
The restaurant's menu is simple at the start of the school year with a focus on sandwiches and salads. As students progress, the menu becomes more complex. A special holiday menu will be offered after Thanksgiving, and by the end of the school year, students will be preparing fish dishes and items like braised short ribs.
“We try to increase the level of the food that the kids are serving throughout the year as their skills get better,” Swim said, adding that by the end of the year, “the level and the flavors that they are putting out are really of a significant caliber.”
That complexity applies to the situations faced by front-of-house employees, who must deal with everything a restaurant worker is expected to, including customer complaints. The only difference is all tips go back to the program.
“These are still real customers and we treat them like real customers, but it's a learning experience for us,” said Stefan Lepard, who is part of the restaurant's wait staff and also works as a server at Stonebridge Ranch County Club.
“This is a lot more fun [than a normal class], that's for sure. You're not just sitting at a desk, taking notes, falling asleep. You're interacting with people the whole time you're here.”
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