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Released November 29, 2004


By Sabrina Bosarge

HATTIESBURG -The Charcoal Room at The University of Southern Mississippi brings a new dimension to the required lab-based classes most college students have come to dread. Anyone who has attended high school or college has suffered through the smell of dissection or the chemical concoctions of science labs. For students majoring in tourism management and nutrition and dietetics at Southern Miss, this academic laboratory is full of wonderful smells, delightful entrees and the opportunity to gain real-life experience, while managing and operating a full-service restaurant.

This opportunity is an invaluable one for students who are preparing for careers in the tourism or food service industries.

Students who run the restaurant are divided into two groups. First-semester students work as "hourly employees," and advanced students work during their second semesters as managers. The students are responsible for almost every aspect of operations, including cooking, cleaning, advertising and waiting tables.

"It's really work. It's not a game," said Amanda Dale-McNabb, a tourism management major from Hattiesburg. "Working at the Charcoal Room is very comparable to real life; the environment is just more controlled."

The two individuals who supervise the students are tourism management instructors Tanya Ruetzler and Jim Taylor. Taylor is responsible for transforming the Charcoal Room into a casual dining restaurant from its original version of cafeteria-style dining. He is in charge of organizing many of the kitchen operations including designing the menu, making sure students follow recipes, maintaining sanitation practices and managing the inventory. Ruetzler is responsible for the activities taking place on the floor of the restaurant. She interacts with customers, provides support to the students on the wait staff and is primarily responsible for quality control.

The true advantage to this type of lab course is the experience of working in a real-life, high-stress atmosphere, said Ruetzler.

"The one thing we want the students to come away with is a sense of urgency and the ability to make a decision," said Ruetzler. "The lab provides a hands-on experience that coincides with the lecture."

Taylor agrees that the lab course offers many benefits. "The most important things we want the students to learn are how to follow directions, how to work as a team, and the importance of meeting time parameters," said Taylor.

The Charcoal Room doesn't accept tips, but the experience is worth a great deal. McNabb has already received a job offer from the Olive Garden Italian restaurant. "This experience allows the professors to see your work ethic firsthand, which provides for great recommendations."

Most of the students have gained valuable insight through working at the Charcoal Room. "I have enjoyed the experience and, after completing this course, I am considering moving out of nutrition and wellness and into other areas of dietetics," said Ronald Woods, a nutrition and dietetics major from Natchez.

"I don't want to go into the restaurant business, but I definitely have a new appreciation after seeing the other side," said Sara Chatham, a hospitality management major from Ocean Springs.

Operating under the direction of the College of Business, the Charcoal Room is open to the public Tuesday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. - 12:45 p.m. The menu changes weekly and always features a pasta, pizza or wrap entrée and salad along with dessert and beverages.


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December 9, 2004 2:52 PM