September 5, 2012 11:53:55 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Visitors who haven't been to Heritage Academy's Student Activities Building for a while are in for quite a surprise. What used to be a gray, utilitarian corner of the auditorium and gym space at the Columbus school has been transformed into a contemporary café. Where once a microwave oven sat, bright red tiles cover walls topped by an attractive awning. A salad and deli bar in Patriot blue beckons, and the aroma of chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven is almost irresistible.
The new Patriot Café is open for business. And one of Columbus' most capable food service professionals is at the helm as manager. While students were taking their summer vacations, former Kountry Kitchen Restaurant owner Dot Reichle was busy hiring staff, planning menus, ordering food and establishing procedures for the school's first in-house food service facility. Now three weeks into the launch, staff and students are getting into the routine, even as several innovations are still being put in place.
"I love it," said Reichle with enthusiasm Friday afternoon, enjoying the calm after feeding the Heritage football team before their evening game. "We put a lot of effort into the food we serve. This is my passion. I love being active and interacting with the students."
Need and response
The café came about in response to a school-conducted survey, in which parents requested hotter, fresher, healthy lunch options for their children. Previously, students placed orders each morning for food delivered in, or brought their lunch from home.
After researching several programs, the school selected MMI Dining Systems. The company based in Jackson has more than 50 years' experience in the food service industry, noted Beth Lucas, Heritage Academy's director of admissions and public relations. Heritage alumna Susan Sparkman Smith in Jackson serves as MMI's director of development.
The school board's Building and Grounds Committee coordinated construction and renovation. That included extending the Student Activities Building (SAB) to add food storage, a walk-in freezer and office space for Reichle. A modest existing food prep area was enlarged and now boasts a gleaming commercial kitchen.
"We are so excited about the opening of our new café," said Jeff Farnham, president of the school's board of directors. "Our student body and staff will enjoy healthy great-tasting food prepared fresh every day. We offer a variety of choices daily, from traditional Southern recipes to hamburgers and a fresh salad bar. And we're so fortunate to have Dot Reichle as our on-site manager and look forward to providing healthy smart choices for our students."
On the menu
In addition to hot plate lunches with a meat and two sides, café choices include a salad bar, hot sandwiches, deli sandwiches, fruits, beverages and some sweets.
"Fridays are pizza day," said Reichle, who is usually on duty by 6 a.m. "And we're planning a catfish day and tailgate day," she added, listing a few specialty menus on tap. A conscious effort to provide healthy options goes into menu-planning; frying is kept to a minimum.
Seniors Taylor Fields and Matt Sykes like the wide variety. As athletes, they especially like being able to fine-tune their fuel.
"There's turkey and ham and grilled food, salads, and all these hot options," said Sykes, a member of the soccer team. "And it's a lot easier than having to make a lunch in the morning."
Fields, a football player, appreciates the work that went into making the food service area appealing.
"It looks so much nicer than how it was, and it's running really well now; you can get in and out faster. And if you didn't get breakfast in the morning, you can get cinnamon rolls, grits or biscuits at break," he remarked.
With any new system, there are always kinks to work out, Reichle acknowledged, but feedback on food quality has been very positive. Early results show the plate lunch with a side salad is a popular choice.
"But our biggest sellers are freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies," she said, smiling.
Café traffic is steadily climbing, as students and parents become more familiar with the new option. On Friday, the facility fed about 150 in the high school and delivered food for about 160 in the elementary school, which is located a short distance from the SAB.
Dr. Greg Carlyle, Heritage Academy headmaster, is pleased that, even at this early stage, the number of students using the café exceeds the preliminary goal. Reichle estimates usage currently stands between 70 and 80 percent of the student population.
"Of course, we would love to get 100 percent," she emphasized.
Still to come
Final café touches are coming together. A fountain drink system is being installed this week. And a new payment system coming very soon will allow parents to electronically transfer funds into a secure lunch account they create for their child. The software will also let parents log in to check account balances, and even see what their child has been eating.
The school's Student Government Association plans to host a contest to let students submit names for what has been unofficially and widely christened The Patriot Café. Plans call for the final name to be added to the café's awning.
"Dot and her great crew have done a wonderful job and the café looks amazing," praised Lucas. "We are meeting our goal of providing hotter, fresher and healthier lunch options. And the best part is, our options are delicious, too!"
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.