Vista Room offers hands-on experience in service industry

When students go to class at the Vista Room, they do not bring textbooks and test forms. Instead, they bring aprons and hairnets.

A student serves diners in the Vista Room.

Vista Room server Janelle Stockton pours water for diners

But the Vista Room is not like other classrooms. It is also a restaurant, run almost entirely by students. Located on the fourth floor of Burk Hall, it is open to the campus and the general public.

Janet Sim, chair of the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department, started the Vista Room almost two decades ago as a way to teach the basics of management in the service industry. Sim explains industry standards in classroom lectures, and students in the “lab” portion of the class prepare or serve food for lunchtime diners.

“The Vista Room gives students a real-life experience in food service,” said Jocelyn Postrado, a teaching assistant who oversees the dining room. “It's a great learning activity that allows students to build leadership skills and confidence without worrying about getting fired for making mistakes.”


Groundwork for hospitality and health careers

The Vista Room experience is required for students majoring in hospitality and tourism management as well as consumer and family studies/dietetics. Using the Vista Room as a building block, students in these majors learn management and leadership practices in later courses. Both majors are focused on training managers and leaders in the quickly growing hospitality and health industries.

“This is not a culinary school. We don’t train them to be chefs or servers,” said Sim. “This is a way to give students the standards upon which they will know the best ways to prepare and present food.”

Most students at the Vista Room have little food service experience before taking the class. Many plan to become hotel managers, nutritionists, restaurant owners, or work in other service-related occupations.

For Sim, the opening of the Vista Room in 1993 was the realization of her vision to show students the backbone of the hospitality industry. Sim made plans for the class for nearly three years before she found a space in Burk Hall and attended kitchen appliance trade shows to convince companies to donate more than $500,000 worth of equipment.

The restaurant is located in Burk Hall 401, seats 75 diners, serves modern California cuisine and is open for lunch on weekdays. A three-course meal costs $15, but it is a step into a gourmet dining experience. While that may seem out of place at a college campus, students do their best to project a certain atmosphere -- servers wear crisp shirts and black ties, floor-to-ceiling windows offer sweeping views of campus, and the room is decorated tastefully with vases of flowers and simple framed photos.

“The ambiance is a very important part of the fine dining experience,” said Sim. “There is no other restaurant on campus that is suitable for larger groups. People here have a quiet place to talk.”


“Food is supposed to be fun”

Each day before diners are seated, Chef Dan Honan -- who has worked at the restaurant since 1998 -- helps students prepare their dishes. While Honan is the only full-time employee, four teaching assistants oversee students and grade them on their appearance and participation. Students taking the course as part of their major must work in both the kitchen and the dining room.

Students prepare dishes in the Vista Room kitchen

Students prepare dishes in the Vista Room kitchen.

“The first semester you serve in the restaurant, so you get acquainted with the food and the customers and the kitchen, and then the second semester is just cooking,” said junior Lisa Hamilton as she prepared dishes in the kitchen.

During the first week of service in February, Hamilton and other students were busy with the lunchtime rush, eager to share their thoughts on the course.

“I had always grown up baking, so I’m pretty comfortable with food,” said freshman Jen Wood as she wrapped chicken in prosciutto for a Saltimbocca entree. “But in a big kitchen, it’s busier. There’s always something to do. If there’s nothing else to do, then you do dishes.”

“You get the chance to cook with an amazing chef,” said Hamilton, who also shared her advice for students: “Be confident. If you’re unsure, ask somebody. “

“It’s food, it’s supposed to be fun,” she added.

A recent effort by Vista Room managers to attract more diners has put a new focus on the restaurant for many on campus. A coupon e-mailed to all students dropped the price of a meal to $9 between Feb. 13 and March 2. During that time, 388 students ate there.

“We need more people to eat in the Vista Room so we can continue to provide excellent training for the students,” said Postrado. “They can't practice serving without guests.”

The Vista Room is open from Monday through Friday from 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling the Hospitality and Tourism Management Department at (415) 338-6087 or the Consumer Family Studies/Dietetics Department at (415) 338-1219.

View more information about the Vista Room

-- Philip Riley