Classrooms and science laboratories aren’t the only areas for learning at the University of Houston. Thanks to several innovative UH programs and initiatives, students receive some of their best lessons in on-campus work environments.
While many UH community members and campus visitors grab coffee at the UH Hilton’s Cougar Grounds or have lunch next door at Barron’s Restaurant, they don’t realize that both establishments provide invaluable learning experiences for students at the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management (HRM). Both offer different kinds of educational opportunities but still effectively prepare students for careers.
Cougar Grounds is one of UH’s most popular hangouts for faculty, staff and students. On any given day, its tables are filled with Coogs either studying or socializing. That’s exactly how the shop’s manager Sean Lawless likes it. It’s not too quiet, yet definitely not a raucous atmosphere—perfect for a campus coffeehouse.
Lawless is a 19-year veteran of the coffee industry. He opened Cougar Grounds with longtime java partner Dirk Smith in 2008. Both are HRM alums who spread their love of good coffee throughout the Houston area with different shops. Now, Lawless oversees Cougar Grounds’ daily operations while guiding student employees, all of whom are HRM students. Not only do students learn from a certified barista, they gain skills they can apply in any industry.
“This shop brings in a lot of people,” he said. “Each week, the Hilton College is hosting industry leaders. CEOs from major companies will stop here at Cougar Grounds. I tell students to provide great service and take advantage of their role here to make great connections. Their professors also come in here, as well as the dean. I tell students that they can either just serve them a cup of coffee or provide them with a memorable experience.”
HRM junior Thuy Pham agrees. When she began working at Cougar Grounds, she was unsure of which direction to take her career. Lawless began commenting on Pham’s ability to communicate with customers and upselling them on additional items. She soon realized that a career in sales and marketing was calling.
“I may not have discovered what I was really good at if it wasn’t for Sean and if I didn’t work here,” she said. “I’ve learned other things here too, like being clean and organized. We have to keep this place clean and organized—just like our lives.”
Cougar Grounds also serves as an actual academic laboratory for HRM’s entrepreneurship class. During fall and spring semesters, Lawless guides students as they develop projects aimed at creating marketing programs for Cougar Grounds. Recently, students developed a digital loyalty program for the shop that included Snapchat filters and a loyalty card that can be accessed and used on smart phones.
Next door to Cougar Grounds is a similar learning environment at Barron’s Restaurant. The restaurant is tied to two classes at HRM, Foods 2 and a capstone course. Students in the Foods 2 course serve as the restaurant’s staff (servers, cooks, dishwashers, hosts/hostesses). Capstone students manage the restaurant with support from instructors, including lecturer and restaurant industry veteran Reba Haskell.
Working at Barron’s offers students restaurant industry experience, but it also teaches them about being quality employees.
“They learn how to interact with customers and work as a team,” Haskell said. “This is the place where they will make their earliest mistakes and learn from them. Most importantly, they are able to measure their improvement in certain positions at Barron’s. So, they can actually evaluate their own progress as workers.”
Students also are able to identify the areas of the industry that are appealing to them. While some students may prefer to work at the front of the house, others opt for behind the scenes.
“Not everyone wants to do the same thing,” said junior restaurant management student Anne Wix. “Being in this class helped me realize what I wanted to do, which is work in the back of the house. Now, I can focus my career on that while still having a clear perspective of all of the other aspects of a restaurant.”
While students discover their specific talents within a restaurant, they also learn how to help others who may be challenged by different tasks. Some students might feel less comfortable as servers. Others might not be as experienced working in the kitchen. Major learning moments come when everyone helps each other.
“Whether you’re in a hotel or a restaurant, you have to communicate with each other and know how to ask for help,” Haskell said. “And managers need to recognize when their staff members are facing challenges and how to motivate them.”
Haskell is well aware of the inner workings of restaurants. She spent 20 years working for Pappas Restaurants. While students prepare and serve food and oversee the restaurant’s operation, she lends advice when necessary while closely observing their skills.
“Professor Haskell teaches more than just how to run a restaurant,” said graduate hotel management student Renata Bernardes. “She shows us how to be innovative. When she arrived, she immediately changed the menu and changed the training process for new students. And she’s always there when you need her. She’s in the back of the house and at the front to help everyone.”
On the other side of campus, students also are cooking up great food as part of their academic experience at UH. Shasta’s Culinary Workshop, located in the Isabel Cameron Building, serves lunch to the UH community on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Meals are prepared by undergraduate nutrition majors in the Health and Human Performance department (part of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences). Their participation in the workshop is part of the Commercial Food Production course. As future nutritionists and dietitians, they learn menu planning, recipe development, large quantity food production, marketing, food presentation, safety and sanitation skills.
“The purpose of the workshop is to give a real world quantity food production experience to nutrition students planning on becoming dietitians,” said lecturer Ann Svendsen-Sanchez. “It helps prepare them for careers in food production in hospitals, nursing homes, school districts or other large-quantity food production facilities.”
All meals are made from scratch. This even includes bread and condiments such as ketchup and salad dressing. Also, herbs are grown in a garden located behind the Cameron Building. Other ingredients are purchased from local grocery stores. All recipes are tested before being served to the community.
“The culinary workshop is a great opportunity for students to apply their knowledge in a practical setting,” Svendsen-Sanchez said. “UH community members have been active supporters of the program, and we have built working relationships with other departments through this opportunity.”
So, the learning never stops at UH—even during lunchtime. The experience of learning while serving the UH community and visitors is indeed an important part of students’ academic journeys. They not only receive insights from professors and industry professionals, they also gain the experience of providing people with unforgettable food and beverage experiences.
“We’re receiving the skills we need to succeed, in addition to a college education,” Wix said. “It’s a mix of both book smarts and street smarts that are necessary to do well in the industry.”