How a campus dining facility can boost local restaurants

Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania is opening the doors to its student-run restaurant to various restaurants, providing revenue during a tough time while offering hospitality program students needed experience.

It’s no secret that restaurant businesses have struggled mightily due to the COVID-19 crisis. Through participation in the national Rally for Restaurants initiative, Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has partnered with the city and the nonprofit Scranton Tomorrow to support these businesses while filling a student academic need.

“This began with looking at two main problems and brainstorming a synergistic solution,” says Stephanie Decker, executive director of social and economic impact at Lackawanna. “Our culinary students need hands-on training as part of their degree, but restaurants are struggling amid seating restrictions. Both needed something, and the idea for Rally for Restaurants was born.”

The college’s student-run restaurant, 409 on Adams, is opening up to participating restaurants free of charge, with proceeds from meals purchased going directly to that night’s restaurant. “All seatings will be outdoors in heated tents,” says Decker, adding that the seating capacity is 100 and that reservations are open to anyone. Additional funds being collected through direct donations and sales from Rally for Restaurants t-shirts, will be divided among participating restaurants once the costs of the tents, linens, tables, chairs and heaters are divided.

“We want to continue providing whatever resources we have to the restaurant industry for as long as they need them,” Decker says.

The events begin September 29, with a maximum of 16 nights planned and only one slot unclaimed as of September 18. The restaurants have access to the dining facility’s kitchens and its student chefs and wait staff. All guests are required to conduct a self-screening through CampusClear before arriving, and then to follow guidelines on masks and social distancing.

Learning from area chefs

The events are tied to coursework for students in the Kiesendahl School of Hospitality. School officials matched restaurants with courses that align with its theme or category. “For example, our course “Cuisines of the World” runs on Tuesday evenings,” says Decker. “We had a local Mexican restaurant reach out. We use their menu along with ingredients and tools indigenous to Mexico with this course, where students learn about the cuisines of South America.”

Chefs share their menus with the campus culinary manager, Chef Mark Seibert, who can then teach students the recipes. During the day of the event, the guest chef will spend time with students and execute preparation of the menu and how to present each dish (and yes, they get a taste).

Currently, Decker says, 115 students are enrolled in the hospitality school, which offers associate-level degrees in hospitality management, culinary arts, and baking and pastry arts, plus a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and food service management.

Tips for planning a similar event

Collaboration and promotion have been key to the success of the initiative, Decker says. Other colleges and universities looking to model the idea should:

  • Establish strong local partnerships. “The magic of execution came in the collaboration with so many parties,” she says. Besides the city, Scranton Tomorrow was approached because of its deep relationship with small business owners. Internal conversations with staff and students ensured everyone understood the mission and their roles in the events. And Lackawanna’s public safety department reached out to the Scranton Police Department for assistance in patrolling the area to keep it safe and welcoming for all.
  • Plan strategic outreach. Besides promoting the events via social media and e-blasts, campus administrators contacted “key people in the community to tell the story of the struggle restaurants are facing and the collaborative innovative solution we are providing,” Decker says. “The buy-in keeps growing, which is why the project is seeing such success.” Lackawanna manager of corporate, foundation and government relations, Cathy Wechsler, communicated directly with local legislators for their support.
  • Get campus fundraisers involved. “Our office of advancement has begun to reach out to donors and sponsors to help fund the initiative,” Decker says. The effort’s landing page sells promotional t-shirts.
  • Seek non-money gifts, too. A local garden center donated mums and pumpkins to decorate the dining space, for example. In addition, Decker says, “we are asking the public to share any and all resources to help our restaurant—including ways to make our project more successful.” Small business owners requested window signs to help in promotion. Decker adds that, overall, “the interest is growing organically and rapidly.”

For that reason, she says, “Rally for Restaurants does not have to stay in Scranton. This model can be duplicated in cities across the country. Anytime a college or university can create meaningful real-world work experience for its students, embedded in curriculum and with the support of business and industry, all parties win.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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