The Business of Culinary Creativity

Students at FVCC prepare to open pop-up restaurants in courses combining entrepreneurship with culinary flair

By Molly Priddy
Culinary students plate a dessert. Beacon File Photo

When you picture a restaurant owner, what comes to mind? Is it the backslapping happy-go-lucky presence wandering the floor making sure everything is running smoothly and inquiring about the quality of diners’ meals?

Or perhaps it’s the vision of the last person in the place, the office lit up late into the night, kept company by the sound of calculator buttons and spreadsheets.

For the students in Flathead Valley Community College’s Culinary Arts Program, both of those ideas of a restaurant owner are true, both are important, and both are part of the curriculum when the students embark on the program’s capstone project of opening a real, pop-up restaurant on campus for three weeks.

This year’s restaurants are called Eclipse and Six One. Eclipse will open at FVCC first, on Oct. 12-14, 19-21 and 26-28 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Six One opens after, running from Nov. 2-4, 9-11 and 16-18 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Eclipse, inspired by this year’s solar eclipse, promises to marry two different but remarkable food genres — Caribbean and Italian — and fuse them into something incredible. Six One will offer small plates showcasing cuisines from around the world, bringing new concepts and flavors to the Flathead Valley.

Under the watchful eye and tutelage of Chef Howard Karp, the students in this project learn how to prepare and serve delectable meals born of pure creativity. In conjunction with the capstone project, the students also take a class in small business entrepreneurship, taught the last two years by business faculty from the college.

Connie Hitchcock, a full-time faculty member in the business division, said she worked with Karp to “cross-pollinate” the two classes in order to get the students the information they needed when they needed it.

“The business division and the culinary division collaborated to figure out how to make the two courses support each other,” Hitchcock said.

The result, after having tested it out last year, is a front-loaded business program, during which the culinary arts students are in class for five hours a day, three days a week, learning about the economics of owning a small business.

Essentially, most restaurants fall under this category, she said; not everyone will own a national chain restaurant. By the end of this capstone project and course, the students will have built a business plan for an actual restaurant, which they run for three weeks during the semester.

The students split into two teams, each responsible for its own restaurant concept. Then, when the first restaurant opens, one team works as management, and the other works as staff. They swap those assignments when the second restaurant opens.

By taking on both roles — management and staff — the students learn aspects about the restaurant business they may not by working as a server or cook.

“Those are just really practical things that you have to know (to own and run a business),” Hitchcock said.

Adjunct business professor Don Nerdig works with the students in the planning and execution phases of their capstone projects, teaching them about details they may not have considered before the class.

These include food pricing, which the students track closely all semester, as well as sourcing, finding a target market, marketing to that group, the costs involved, building a brand, building a menu, learning how to use a point-of-sale system, how much they can and should charge for their menu items, and staffing and management.

It’s all coalesced into one business presentation, complete with the restaurant’s business plan.

“When they step away from this, they should be able to grab that (business presentation) and take their idea and walk into a bank or venture capitalist and get money,” Nerdig said.

After they run the restaurants, the students gather for a final presentation on the experience, discussing what worked and what didn’t. Faculty, staff and those in the culinary community attended the presentations last year.

“I had students tell me last year, ‘I didn’t know it was this much work!’” Nerdig said.

Hitchcock said she enjoyed the presentations because the students were passionate yet objective about their performances. They also learned about teamwork and other aspects of the culinary business that can’t be taught in the classroom but rather have to be experienced in the field.

“The learning that they took away from it was more than just about the project,” she said.

For more information on FVCC’s Culinary Institute, visit www.fvcc.edu/programs/arts/culinary-arts/culinary-institute-of-montana.