As the restaurant industry works to recover from the pandemic, University of South Carolina hospitality management students are primed to deliver best-in-class dining experiences after a year of learning firsthand how to adapt to challenges and keep a restaurant running in a time of crisis.
Hospitality students at South Carolina work and learn in McCutchen House, an on-campus, student-run restaurant managed by South Carolina’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management. Courses taught at McCutchen House prepare students for management careers in the food and beverage industry by giving them real-world experience in restaurant operations in a structured learning environment.
In courses where hands-on experience and human interaction are fundamental, the COVID-19 pandemic presented distinct challenges. Professors quickly responded by adjusting the curriculum to include lectures on health and safety operations, emerging no-contact restaurant forms, and meal-kit offerings to keep course content relevant for students as they embark into a changed world they could not have imagined at the beginning of their college careers.
We knew that we needed to be at the forefront of crisis response and restaurant best practices in order to keep our classroom operational and safe for students and customers. It was an opportunity to help the state create best practices for restaurants working to safely reopen, and it taught students how to innovate in the face of crisis.
— Robin DiPietro, director, School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management
DiPietro was recognized last month as the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association’s Educator of the Year for her work in spearheading the development of knowledge sharing to help the restaurant industry reopen safely. She worked with SCRLA to develop the early protocols for restaurant reopening including six feet between tables, outdoor dining, mask wearing and sanitation standards informed by CDC guidelines. Those same standards were used to build an operating plan and procedures to safely reopen McCutchen House.
Christopher Knezevich, who teaches restaurant and food production management at South Carolina, says faculty members had to make multiple adaptations to create a safe experience for students, staff and patrons, including spacing out student workstations, reducing restaurant capacity and installing health safety infrastructure such as hand sanitizer stations, plexiglass, informational signage and directional arrows to optimize social distancing and safety.
In addition to their proactive efforts, hospitality management faculty remained flexible throughout the pandemic to overcome challenges that have become inherent to teaching and operating a restaurant during a pandemic. Some students were not able to attend class in person due to quarantine and self-isolation procedures, but McCutchen House Chef Instructor Robert Lybrand still found ways to create a valuable learning experience for all students.
“What worked well was having students who were unable to attend class still cooking and recording their recipes from home. This way they still got the hands-on skills and were able to follow health protocols all at the same time,” Lybrand says.
Students echo this sentiment of maintained value from the classes they have taken at McCutchen House amid the pandemic.
“From preparing dishes to being front-of-house manager, we learned to be able to handle any situation that arises within a restaurant,” says recent HRSM alumnus Paul Dove who took Knezevich’s class in fall 2020.
Those skills are especially important in the world’s new normal.
“I have been very impressed with how students have responded to all of this,” Lybrand says. “They understand the importance of being safe and the importance of following the procedures that the university has put in place and they did a great job of sticking to that.”
While physical distancing is required, the class continues to be socially connected, creating an engaging experience for the students. Dove says the class felt like a “small family” and his professor made a substantial effort to ensure the class was still enjoyable and valuable for students.
With the joint effort of faculty, staff, students and the university community, McCutchen House has persevered this past year. The restaurant was awarded the Palmetto Priority distinction from the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. It is an honor that is awarded to South Carolina restaurants that go above and beyond to ensure the threat of COVID-19 exposure is limited within the establishment.
“South Carolina restaurateurs are tangibly demonstrating their strong commitment to providing a safe, healthy and enjoyable dining experience by participating in Palmetto Priority,” says John Durst, president and CEO of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association. “This initiative has proven to be a significant factor in our industry’s resilience during these extremely challenging times. We are proud of UofSC’s McCutchen House for adopting best practices to provide their students with a safe learning environment and real-world experience.”
McCutchen House is currently open to University of South Carolina students, faculty, staff and their accompanied guests from 11:30 a.m.–1 p.m., Tuesday through Friday for dine-in service and grab-and-go meals. Menu and reservation information is available here.