Observations of the laboratory that is The Green Café: Farm to Table
St. Lawrence has identified career path development as a core component of student growth. I have experienced this component firsthand as a student and teaching assistant for The Green Café: Farm to Table, a faculty-student run weekly café using local food sources and sustainable practices. Essentially, it is a small business masquerading as an academic course and an academic course masquerading as a small business. Either way, it works.
For the past four years, the program has been in a constant state of development. Piloted in spring 2019 by the Sustainability Program led by Sara Ashpole, associate professor of environmental studies and faculty director; Sam Joseph, director and homesteader-in-residence; and the students of the St. Lawrence Sustainability Farm, the café became a full credit course in fall 2019.
For me, it is more than just a course credit for my business in the liberal arts major: it’s a student-centric, hands-on learning experience with windows into sustainability, food service, and entrepreneurship. Throughout the semester, students collaborate with a teaching team, Dining Services, local chefs, and farmers to produce a locally sourced and professionally prepared meal for the St. Lawrence campus.
What started as a small pop-up to garner interest in sustainable food service and eating local has blossomed into a weekly Wednesday night dining event with reservations that fill up in seconds.
Unlike a traditional course, the increasing success of The Green Café is not solely attributed to a professor making changes on a syllabus. This small business laboratory allows students to continually hone marketing strategies, prep speed, and service quality. Students learn their way around a certified professional kitchen—inventory (perishable and nonperishable), professional equipment and tools, scheduling shifts, employee and customer management, environmental health and safety regulations, and so on.
Similar to an internship, there is opportunity for creative collaborations. Students can dream up menu concepts and ideas for marketing strategies, as well as propose campus and regional partnerships.
This past year has been particularly challenging. Within the COVID landscape, The Green Café has required a lot of innovative ideas to maintain the locality and communal nature of the meals, while remaining safe and in line with public safety requirements. Similar to food industry services worldwide, we had to ensure that guests kept masks on and stayed six feet apart. We also had to relocate from the Spartacus Café in Kirk Douglas Hall to a new, safer, dining location at the Timeout Café outside of the Stafford Fitness Center. In fall 2020, the Café adapted with a take-away window and implemented an online reservation app designed by Arman Tavana ’21, a computer science major who was part of our team.
Problem-solving during the COVID crisis has only served to fuel a stronger entrepreneurial spirit. Add the mix of class years to the academically diverse teaching team, and we have had ideas constantly flowing and evolving: presentations on sustainability and food culture to setting up game tables (one game is to guess how many beans are in the jar and win Green Café merch). We used a feedback learning loop to draw in more interest each week and discussed the methods of the previous groups’ marketing, prep, service, and cleanup—and asked ourselves what we can do better.
I can account for how being in a class that is a business and a business that is a class has applied directly to my major. Taking theory and converting it into practice with real-world consequences can result in some tough lessons learned, but come Wednesday night, we somehow manage to make it work.