A Taste of Café Laura
Café Laura is a fine-dining restaurant located at the north end of Penn State’s main campus. What many people don’t know is that it’s run entirely by students as part of their degree program.
After closing time, senior Natalie Pecorino dropped a vase in the dining room, shattering glass all over the floor.
Senior Garrett Wagner shouted to her, “Hey don’t wash that, okay?” Wagner cracked himself up at his own joke, while Pecorino rolled her eyes and began cleaning up the glass.
That’s the atmosphere at Café Laura.
What Is Café Laura?
The class, HM 430, is a capstone course for students studying to enter the world of hospitality management. It requires about 10 hours one night a week, including food prep, team meetings, clean-up and, of course, running the evening’s themed dinner.
In addition to all of this, student teams spend countless hours outside of class putting together financial statements, purchase orders, employee timelines, detailed recipes, seating schedules, etc.
Each team of students gets to prepare their dinner twice. Students rotate through various positions at each others' dinners, ensuring that they are exposed to as many aspects of the restaurant business as possible.
Wagner spent three years at Penn State’s Behrend campus, before taking a break from school. During his time off, he began working in restaurants, where he discovered his love for cooking and the restaurant business.
Wagner says that the ever-changing atmosphere is what he loves about the job.
“I kind of see it like a puzzle, you know? You have all these moving parts and you try to fit it together the best way you can,” Wagner said. “And at the end of the day it gets jumbled back up, and you’ve got to put it back together again. It keeps me on my toes and that’s something I really like. It’s a new challenge every day.”
Formally titled “Nostalgia Restaurant,” Wagner refers to his group’s dinner fondly as a “Throwback Thursday” theme.
“I like to describe it as a greatest hits record of American cuisine,” Wagner said. “We’ve got all of these great American classics all in one menu. It’s fun to make.”
The meal featured entrees such as cornflake chicken, crab cakes and vegetable pot pie.
“It was tough, it’s the first time I’ve planned something like that from front to back,” said Wagner. “I’m not very good at that. It was good to have other group-mates with me to help guide me through that and learn those skills.”
While students are all business during dining hours, the team lets loose after the doors close behind the last customer. Laughing, joking and eating help the students release some of the stress after a fast-paced evening.
Natalie Pecorino, a Hospitality Management major, said that the most rewarding part is seeing her work come to life. That, and the friendships that she’s made along the way.
“Everyone here really becomes a family," Pecorino said. "Class starts at 1:30, and I don’t get home until probably 11:30 at night, but you spend so much time with these people.”
“It really is a fun atmosphere if you make it that way. The people are my favorite part,” she said.
Life After Café Laura
Since the class is composed entirely of upperclassmen, students have started thinking about their lives after Café Laura.
Eventually, Wagner wants to open his own restaurant someday. The name?
“One that’s been gnawing around is Garrett’s Spot. I don’t know, a little bit lame, I think?” laughed Wagner. “I just want one of those spots that’s a fixture in the community.”