UCCI reopens expanded student-run canteen

Dalesha Hurlston, left, and Brandon Cunha serve a customer at the Oasis Lounge on the UCCI campus.

The recently reopened canteen at the University College of the Cayman Islands is not only getting favorable student reviews, but is also giving hospitality students a chance to gain culinary skills.

The Oasis Lounge is the newly remodeled and newly energized cafe for the college’s students and personnel. President Roy Bodden said it has been a goal of his to revamp the facility for some time.

“Since we have a thriving school of hospitality, this is a classic example of putting that education to work,” Mr. Bodden said, noting that the hospitality students will be engaged in running the eatery. “I want to give my students every opportunity to develop confidence in their abilities.”

The enlarged space, with tables and chairs for diners, also gives the campus an important added element as it renews its efforts at gaining international accreditation.

“The accreditors told us we need to have a place for students to gather socially,” Mr. Bodden said.

The Oasis lounge provides that space, he said.

But for Wayne Jackson, the director of the school’s hospitality program, it is an extension of the classroom. In years past, the student canteen was subcontracted out to private businesses. Now, it is run by the hospitality program.

Students are not only learning the basics in the cafe’s kitchen, they also have to learn about managing the business and evaluating its profitability. The goal is for the operation to break even.

Working in the Oasis lounge is now a required part of the hospitality program, Mr. Jackson said.

“This allows us to add an additional element for students to practice,” he said. “This is their first step.”

Anastascio Mena-Hebbert is the kitchen supervisor for the newly reopened student canteen at UCCI. – Photos: Mark Muckenfuss

Students already have a practicum requirement that is typically met by working in a local restaurant. Mr. Jackson said he expects half of the required hours to now be spent in the campus cafe, and he expects the total number of required hours may increase in the coming years, given the accessibility the students will now have. It can sometimes be a struggle, he said, for those in the hospitality program to find an internship with a local business.

Anastascio Mena-Hebbert, 22, graduated from UCCI in 2014 and works at The Ritz-Carlton. He is also the kitchen supervisor for the Oasis lounge. He said he would like to have been able to work in the campus canteen when he was a student.

“It would have given me more practical work, instead of learning on the job,” he said.

He thinks students will benefit by getting initiated in kitchen work in an environment with a little less pressure.

“It’s a perfect opportunity for kids to learn knife skills as well,” he said. “When they go to get a job, they won’t go in blind.”

Between 60 and 75 students visit the cafe on a typical day, Mr. Jackson said. He expects that number to increase as the new business gets its legs.

“We’re in the incubator phase,” he said. “We’re not quite where we want to be yet. We’re still going through figuring out what works, what products are movers.”

Some students are already happy with the change.

Jody Otu, 21, a literary studies student, who was sitting at a table eating lunch, said the canteen is much improved from previous years.

“Before, I would give it a zero,” Ms. Otu said. “Since it restarted, I could give it an eight. It’s good.”

Science student Kacie Ramos, 19, also likes the change.

“When you come in, it kind of feels homey and nice. It’s better than it used to be in how it looks and how it’s run,” she said.

By the first of the year, Mr. Jackson said he would like to start having restaurant “labs” in the evening, where students prepare full dinners for the general public.

“They’re going to create a menu and they’re going to pair that with a couple bottles of wine,” he said.

A recent reallocation of capital funds pumped an additional $40,000 into the canteen.

“That additional funding allowed us to get a convection oven and a lot of pots and pans,” Mr. Jackson said.

He still has a lot on his wish list.

“A year from now,” he said, “we’ll have more furniture in place, nice background music. We’ll have a TV. It will be more student run and we’ll be able to have more students involved.”

Those students, he said, will be better prepared for the careers they are working toward.

“They will grow by the immersion we can provide,” he said. “If we get these skills down, they can go anywhere.”