Give your life a little kick: Student-run restaurant offers different theme each week

Upon taking the first few steps into the room, you are instantly transported to a fine dining restaurant, complete with white tablecloths, a bar, elaborate decorations and a high-class menu.You may catch a glimpse of students in the kitchen preparing the evening’s gourmet meals with efficiency and practiced skill. Welcome to the Spice Box.

Every Friday and most Wednesdays on the second floor of Bevier Hall, hospitality management students put on a carefully constructed fine dining event for the public to experience. As part of two food science and human nutrition classes, management of fine dining and introduction to hospitality management, seniors and freshmen in ACES effectively run their own restaurant for a night, taking care of every aspect of the business — from finance to food to decor.

According to Jill North Craft, instructor for management of fine dining, or FSHN 443, the class is a senior level capstone class. Craft also teaches FSHN 145, introduction to hospitality management.

While the freshmen in 145 learn about the basics of working in and operating a restaurant, the seniors in 443 get to rotate in managerial positions, including general manager. This Friday’s general manager is Chad Burstein, senior in ACES.

“So that means that I come up with everything — I come up with the theme, the menu, the decor,” he said. “Every senior gets a guest chef and runs the whole operation. And we’re also responsible for doing the behind-the-scenes stuff, so things like budgeting, costing, scheduling, planning (and) forecasting. … So for one night, we really are a general manager of a real restaurant.”

Students choose a theme around which to base their work. In the past, the Spice Box has been transformed into the enchanted world of Harry Potter, the sparkly vibe of Las Vegas and the fast-paced setting of the Kentucky Derby.

This week, Burstein decided on the theme of Bear’s Den, a comfortable, dimly lit bar scene, while paying homage to his late father.

“I named it Bear’s Den because my dad’s nickname was Bear before he passed away in 2006, so that’s kind of my way of paying tribute to him,” he said. “I’m trying to make it feel warm and cozy like a bear — like how you feel in hibernation. I want comfort and family and love to come through.”

Working with these motifs, Burstein and his guest chefs from Roti Mediterranean Grill collaborated to create menu items that fit within the specific price ranges of the Spice Box.

There are two main meal choices at the restaurant — the four-course prix fixe and the two-course special. There is also a featured dessert and drink matching the general theme.

With the list of ingredients for the menu items in order, the student must complete the financial aspect to the restaurant business, taking into account how much of each ingredient must be ordered, how many people are expected to arrive and any unforeseen circumstances.

“Prior to the meal, they will do food costs; they cost out all their recipes, they project what they feel their labor costs are going to be, living costs, menu, market managing, things like that,” Craft explained. “If they’re not meeting the target food cost that we’re looking for … then they have to re-evaluate, and make changes to their menu to go from there.”

They then work with actual numbers to calculate how much of the total revenue is spent on the food, which is the food-cost percentage. Since the Spice Box is still part of a University class, it is graded on certain sections at a time. The students receive full credit in this area if their food-cost percentage is under 33 percent of the total cost. At the end, profit is also added to their grade.

“(The seniors) get graded on meeting … due dates about a month before the meal,” Burstein said. “There’s a series of due dates every week before your meal, so it’s meeting those deadlines and doing the assignment.”

In addition to the student general manager, other managerial positions include the front-of-house manager, financial manager and back-of-house manager. The seniors cycle through these positions throughout the semester.

The remaining positions are filled by freshmen and other seniors each night; these are the servers as part of the front-of-house crew, kitchen-prep cooks in the back of house crew, bartenders and dishwashers.

With more than 30 students working at the Spice Box each night, there is usually more than enough help.

“So far, this is my third time working,” said Mayumi Ishikawa, freshman in ACES. “It’s a lot of work, but … it’s crucial to have this experience because food and beverage is such a big part of hospitality.”

Both Ishikawa and Jenny Gulas, freshman in ACES, worked back-of-house for last Friday’s Brew-Pub inspired meal night.

“I like it so far; it’s a lot of fun,” Gulas said. “It’s cool to get hands-on experience.”

The Spice Box has been around for more than 40 years and has been evolving ever since.

“I like to tell (the students) that it’s not a party with someone else’s money,” said Craft. “This is the real thing.”