SRU class partners with local coffee shop owners to create new laboratory experience

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Students learn how to make espresso

From left, Madison Vargo, a Slippery Rock University senior resort, recreation and hospitality major from Norton, Ohio; Brian McCafferty, co-owner of Rooster’s Coffee Bar in Slippery Rock; and, in the background, David Lewandowski, a senior resort, recreation and hospitality major from Pittsburgh; operate an espresso machine at Rooster’s Coffee Bar, which has become a laboratory of sorts for students in SRU’s Food and Beverage Operations class.

April 15, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — When you think of a laboratory, do beakers full of bubbling liquids, white coats and goggles come to mind? Well, a new class at Slippery Rock University is changing that stereotype. In fact, its lab features cups of espresso, whipped cream and a brick-walled cafe on Main Street. Rather than going to a coffee shop to sip lattes and use the free Wi-Fi, students in the Food and Beverage Operations class at SRU are learning the restaurant industry and developing a partnership with owners of the soon-to-be-opened Rooster's Coffee Bar in Slippery Rock.

"I saw how this place wasn't opened yet when I came here and I thought, 'This would be a perfect laboratory,'" said Mary Jo Ross, SRU associate professor of hospitality, event management and tourism, who joined SRU last summer. "It's hard to not have some sort of experiential learning when studying hospitality, and some schools have a cafe or restaurant on campus that's built into the class, but I don't know too many (schools) that are partnering with an entrepreneur and an actual business. We don't have a controlled space on campus, but we have Main Street in Slippery Rock; that's our lab."

The space at 150 S. Main Street has been vacant for more than a decade following its purchase in 2009 by Bob McCafferty, the owner of the nearby North Country Brewing Company. Two years later, McCafferty's brother, Brian, joined the partnership to own create what they would eventually dub Rooster's Coffee Bar. However, for various reasons, the venture wouldn't gain steam for a few more years, and then an idea began percolating between the McCafferty brothers and Ross, who was developing her course.

Espresso is pressed into the carrier

   SRU students put ground coffee beans into
   an espresso filter holder.

"I told my brother, 'Hey, we have this space available to them; why don't we get together on this and get this place up and running?'" Brian McCafferty said. "That's how it all started."

For the first half of the spring 2020 semester, two sections of the Food and Beverage Operations class, consisting of a combined 31 students, met at 150 S. Main Street, with Ross and Bob McCafferty serving as co-instructors. The class is a survey of the food service industry that includes history and global economic impact; menu engineering; food sourcing with sustainable emphasis; food safety; food handling; beverage management; and exploration of commercial applications. The students didn't have to look too far to see commercial applications.

Unfortunately, after the entire University switched to online classes for the remainder of semester during the coronavirus, the class could no longer meet at Rooster's; however, future sections of the class will meet at Rooster's once on-campus classes resume.

"(Having the class at Rooster's) just brings the students so much more reverence and respect for the industry," Ross said. "They can see why we're here. It's not just to sit at the tables, but they have a kitchen that's never been used and a whole new retail setup to consider, so it's actually giving them opportunity to be immersed in the environment and see the business coming together. Getting this business open is a model for them and we talk about what's going on here."

By being exposed to the physical space, the students can learn how to operate an espresso machine or measure cost per unit with food ingredients to determine a retail price, practices that inform their theoretical learning. For a group project, the students develop their own concept restaurant, which is informed by their partnership with Rooster's.

"No employer is going to ask, 'What was your favorite chapter you read in class?'" said Madison Vargo, a senior resort, recreation and hospitality major from Norton, Ohio. "They're going to ask you about your experiences, your customer service, those soft skills, especially in a people-first industry such as this. This class has really taught us that hospitality is way bigger than what you learn in a classroom."

Espresso pours out

   The espresso machine at Rooster’s Coffee Bar.

Once Rooster's Coffee Bar is open, students in future Food and Beverage Operations classes will have the opportunity to work in the cafe and hone their customer service skills. The McCafferty brothers emphasized to the students that their employees must possess exceptional customer service skills for their business to succeed. Students this semester had already demonstrated these skills when using the space at Rooster's to host special events, including a Valentine's Day Coffee and Cake social for SRU's administration and College of Business faculty and staff.

"I like being in this environment; you're not just sitting in a class flipping through PowerPoint slides," said David Lewandowski, a senior resort, recreation and hospitality major from Pittsburgh. "I like to learn through hands-on experience. (Bob and Brian McCafferty) wanting to be involved with our major is huge for us; we would never have this if they didn't want to be a part of what we're doing."

The McCafferty brothers' involvement is not motivated by business development but rather building community.

"My brother and I were raised this way; we're really big on giving back to the community that supports you," said Brian McCafferty, who took over and continues to run his father's business, Kenmac Rentals and Sales in Butler. "We're all in this together, and it's all about whatever we can do to help that community. (This partnership) is a huge opportunity with (the business) in a college town. You have the residents and the college students from the same community coming together into this space, and it's just an honor for us to be able to open this place up for that reason."

The opening date of Rooster's Coffee Bar has not been determined as of April 15, but the beverage menu is available on its website: www.roosterscoffeebar.com. Brian McCafferty found a bean roaster for the café's house blend in Austin, Texas, and he has the espresso beans picked out from a vendor he found at a trade show in Seattle six years ago that he assures will "blow your socks off; it's that incredible." The food menu will include mostly pastries.

While future Food and Beverage Operations classes will meet at Rooster's with Bob McCafferty as a co-instructor, only the current students had the unique experience of working with the business just as it starts brewing.

"We have to be more creative and adaptive and to build experiences here, and thanks to the McCafferty family we're were able to start going down that road," said Ross, both metaphorically and literally. "Every class is going to have a different experience."

This semester's Food and Beverage class also has the different experience as it switched to distance modality during the coronavirus pandemic, which, according to Ross, provides an important discussion topic.

Roosters coffee bar

   Rooster’s Coffee Bar at 150 S. Main Street
   in Slippery Rock.

"The pandemic's effect on the tourism and hospitality industry is a live case study for students in leadership, communication, marketing and organizational survival," Ross said. "The fallout of our country's restaurant industry will be huge, but our come back will be bigger and stronger with new goals and objectives and our students will be prepared from being active learners.

"There will be even a higher demand in the future for a more educated hospitality workforce and with a greater value of what we actually provide the country following this challenging experience."

For more information about SRU's Hospitality, Event Management and Tourism Department and its programs, click here.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | justin.zackal@sru.edu