November 7, 2008

Any restaurant kitchen is hectic, but behind-the-scenes at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture's Lemon Tree Restaurant it was particularly chaotic recently when 80 masters of business administration students descended on the facility. It was all part of a week-long course in the UK Gatton College of Business and Economics. It was also a prime example of the College of Agriculture's close relationship with other areas of the university.

"Our college is inherently interdisciplinary," said Scott Smith, dean of the College of Agriculture. "We tackle subjects and issues that demand many different kinds of knowledge and skills. Collaborations like this are always rewarding and frequently essential."

It's not unusual for dietetic and hospitality management students in the college's School of Human Environmental Sciences to find themselves immersed in the workings of a successful restaurant. Sandra Bastin, associate extension professor in nutrition and food science, and Bob Perry, coordinator of the Food Systems Initiative, team teach a course in quantity foods production using as their classroom the Lemon Tree Restaurant on the UK campus. But this time, the facility was thrown open to business students as part of a unique immersive M.B.A. program.

"I've always said that anyone who can run a restaurant can run any other business there is," Perry said, "because there's nothing harder than running a restaurant."

Apparently Walter Ferrier, Gatton Endowed Associate Professor of Strategic Management, agrees. With the Lemon Tree as a classroom and Perry and Bastin lending their expertise, Ferrier used a restaurant setting to teach the basics of small business start-up. The reason was twofold, he said. Everyone has some experience with restaurants, whether as a customer or as an employee. And because of that familiarity, restaurants are a perfect situation in which his students can acquire an understanding of basic business functions such as marketing, operations, purchasing, finance and strategy.

The graduate students in the course had one week to theoretically build a business from the ground up by developing a business plan for a new Lexington restaurant, as well as working out logistics, such as developing a menu, shopping and preparing a signature dish. At the end of the week, each of the eight, 10-member teams presented their plan and their signature dish to a panel of judges comprised of business professionals familiar with small business start-ups.

"Basically we've been building a business from the ground up," said Ben Gritton, one of the students in the course. "It's a really short amount of time to do it, but I think a lot of times in business, there are crunch situations where you have to make snap decisions. I think this has given me some experience in that."

Preparing a signature dish worried a few of the students, but Perry, who has spent much of his career as an executive chef, guided them through the ins and outs of a professional kitchen.

"They came up with the dish themselves. Then I looked at their recipe and said, ‘Yes, but why don't you do it this way instead,' because I know tricks," he said, chuckling. "I know tricks."

Apparently he does because one group's signature dish of pan-seared salmon with a bourbon mustard glaze won high praise from the judges.

Students learned a second lesson that week. Perry, who is the force behind the Lemon Tree offering a menu built around locally-produced foods, pushed the students to use at least one Kentucky-produced product in their signature dishes.

"Local food is the trend right now in the restaurant industry," he said. "The trend toward sustainable agriculture is growing every day. Some of these students might not have been aware of this movement until this class, but I think I've introduced them to the importance of a sustainable food system."

Ferrier said that the collaboration between the colleges has been a wonderful eye-opener for him, too. He's learned that, though there are differences between the two colleges, there are also similarities.

"Clearly, this college, by way of the Lemon Twist and the Lemon Tree, has provided immersive education for their students, precisely the same mission and approach that we want to take for our (business) students," he said. "I hope to return the favor somehow by maybe involving the students from their program in some entrepreneurship-related activities; activities that we can share from our perspective."

News Topics: