Those searching for a different lunch option in downtown Columbia once again have a distinctive choice open to them for the first time in more than a year.
The McCutchen House on the University of South Carolina’s Horseshoe opened to the public Thursday for dine-in lunch service for the first time since March 2019. Participants in the university’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management program that serves three-course meals underneath chandeliers and brocade curtains were limited to greeting fellow students, staff, faculty and guests last year.
“We’re utilizing all of our tables for the first time in a while,” said Chris Knezevich, instructor of the HRTM 370 course, as he straightened a linen napkin.
While the pared-down 2020 and spring 2021 semesters allowed more detailed focus on the students, both Knezevich and his charges were pleased and relieved to be serving the larger community again.
Charity Walters, a junior hospitality management major from Hartsville, manned the front of the house, greeting visitors and checking the reservation book. Inspired to go into event planning after a childhood spent traveling with her father on business trips, Walters admitted to a little concern as the COVID-19 pandemic canceled conferences and meetings galore.
She started to wonder, “Am I going to be able to get a job in conference and meeting planning like I want to do in the future?” she said. “But just looking at all the positives in the industry and the current trends that are looking like we will start having more (events) — at least there’s something, whether that’s virtual or traditional in-person events.”
Ashlyn Ooi, a graduate student from Gilbert, has worked in various McCutchen House positions since the spring of 2019. While she also watched with concern as restaurants closed their doors and transitioned to a business model heavily focused on to-go orders, she’s also confident in the industry’s ability to recover — and in her job prospects as it does.
"People love to travel. People love to go out and eat. It might take some time, but it will build back up,” Ooi said. "Now, if you just walk down the street, you can see pretty much everyone is hiring. I think it’ll be a little bit easier for not just myself but anyone who’s graduating in the industry to be able to find a job with a little bit more ease than maybe in the past.”
And those jobs may include an increased emphasis on employee safety and well-being than in the past, judging by what Knezevich has heard from recent graduates, including some he’s helped negotiate starting salaries.
“We tell our students right now that there’s actually never been a better time to go into the industry,” he said. “We took that little hit for a while, (but now) there’s that labor shortage. It’s really an interesting time for them because they can go out into the industry and ask for higher salaries than they probably were able to before (or) negotiate extra time off. A lot of these places are willing to say yes because they really need our students.”
While those bigger concerns loom on the horizon, the students on Thursday focused on the details at hand, taking orders, filling glasses of sweet tea and hunting the ketchup pump not seen since last semester. The menu on opening day featured a choice of soup or salad, entrees including Mediterranean chicken and a shrimp po boy, and a choice of chocolate walnut pie or vanilla ice cream for dessert for $11.95 plus tax.
McCutchen House is open from 11:30 a.m. until 1:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday. Reservations are recommended and face coverings required entering and exiting the building.
A typical day begins with class from 8 a.m. until 9:15 a.m. Along with the basics of restaurant operation, Knezevich and his students discuss industry trends, including those fueled by the pandemic.
“We talk a lot about strategic leadership in our class,” he said. “We talk a lot about why there’s a labor shortage now and what may have led to that labor shortage, kind of a boiling point that they (the industry) finally hit. How do we handle that going into the industry? We talk about ways to make employees happy, different ways to motivate them and retain them.
“I’m a big advocate for making work fun and being a manager that doesn’t rule with an iron fist, being somebody that’s approachable, and I try to teach that to them.”
Students serve rotating roles week to week, from cook to server to the back-of-house manager charged with such duties as conducting DHEC walk-throughs. Once the final guest leaves, they sit down to dine. Especially busy days can result in doughnuts or an ice cream sundae bar to reward their efforts.
“I love making people happy and giving them an experience that they will remember and enjoy,” Walters said before excusing herself to answer the phone ringing in her hand. “It’s just a great way to use my creativity to impact their lives positively.”