Auburn University produces next generation of elite hospitality professionals
It’s peak dinner hours at 1856 — Culinary Residence as guests arrive with anticipation at the hostess stand. A cheerful, young Auburn University College of Human Sciences student confirms their reservation and gracefully shows them to their table. Soon the four-person party will settle in for a rooftop garden-to-table tasting menu designed by Chef-in-Residence Chef Ford Fry, each course expertly paired with wine chosen by Master Sommelier Thomas Price.
To the diners, it’s an elegant experience they will rave about to their friends. For the students working in the kitchen, front of house and side-by-side with experts in culinary and guest management, it’s vital, real-world experience as they earn their degrees in hospitality management.
“This program is nothing like you’ll see anywhere else,” said Shane Berner, a junior earning his Bachelor of Science in hospitality management with a focus in hotel and restaurant management. “Last spring, I worked lunch service in stations all the way around the restaurant: serving, introducing guests, at the expo station between the kitchen and front of house, on the line with Chef-in-Residence Tyler Lyne. This fall, I’m working two rotations in the dinner service under Chef Ford Fry. I get to be a floor manager. And I take a bartending rotation with Thomas Price.”
Both 1856 — Culinary Residence and the luxurious Laurel Hotel & Spa are designed to give visitors exceptional service and experience and provide immersive, hands-on learning opportunities for Auburn students. Housed in the world-class Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, home to the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management in the College of Human Sciences, the restaurant, hotel and spa, classrooms and laboratories give students unmatched hands-on opportunities as they work toward their degrees.
“The hotel, restaurant and spa are embedded within our program,” said Martin O’Neill, head of the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management. “This entire building, this entire facility, is focused on education.”
The $110 million Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center is now in its second year as a unique combined space that offers culinary experiences, industry, academics and state-of-the-art, hands-on training for hospitality management students. Beyond 1856 — Culinary Residence and the hotel and spa, it houses the city’s first food hall, Hey Day Market, a 4,000-square-foot rooftop garden that supplies the restaurant kitchen and the food hall, the New Realm Microbrewery and laboratories devoted to brewing science, wine appreciation, distilled spirits and culinary exhibition.
The school collaborates with Ithaka Hospitality Partners to support operations, the academic program and mentor students.
“Our priority has always been education. Ithaka’s role is to support what we’re doing here in a programming sense. They are overseeing students in training. 1856, Laurel Hotel and Spa, Thrive Coffee: they are all teaching facilities,” O’Neill said.
In addition, Ithaka helps bring in top talent to mentor and guest teach the students. This year, that includes the 2023-24 Chef-in-Residence Fry – the founder of Rocket Farm Restaurants and its 23 restaurants in markets throughout the South. Fry is no stranger to the hospitality program at Auburn. He served as a guest chef for the college’s annual Hospitality Gala fundraiser, and he’s an Auburn parent.
“My son graduated from Auburn, so having the opportunity to return to this incredible campus and mentor students means the world,” Fry said. “My hope is that some of these talented students will want to come work and grow with our team at Rocket Farm Restaurants one day. I’m amazed by the Rane Culinary Science Center and grateful to be a part of the important work they are doing.”
Experience in the field
The Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management also enjoys close relationships with large events like the Masters Tournament, which reaches out to Auburn first when recruiting employees for the prestigious annual golf tournament.
Caitlin Barry, who will graduate this December with a concentration in meeting and event planning and has a job waiting for her on Glynn County, Georgia’s Sea Island, worked at the Masters for several years in different roles, including a server at the golf course and two years as a food and beverage intern.
“Through the program, we have to do a minimum of 600 work hours and then a 400-hour internship in the hospitality field,” Barry said. “Experiences in those line-level roles really helped me connect to the people I was leading, the people I was managing and gave me managerial and administrative experience, which was invaluable.”
All students — whether they choose to concentrate in culinary science, event management or hotel and restaurant management — complete a core curriculum that requires hands-on training in every part of the hospitality industry. As one of only 46 programs nationally, and the only program in Alabama accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Programs in Hospitality Administration, the Hospitality Management program is a blended educational program that requires students to learn every part of the hospitality business.
“We put students through the paces to attain those accreditation standards,” O’Neill said. “Students in their freshman and sophomore year — regardless of their concentration — are required to take an operations course in food and beverage production, a course in hotel and restaurant management and a course in discipline and skill development for managing events. So every student has to go through 1856 — Culinary Residence, The Laurel Hotel & Spa and so on. It exposes them to every part of the business so they have a more holistic view of the industry and the experience helps them make a better-informed decision when it comes to choosing their program option.”
That exposure helps students hone in on what they want to do career-wise, many finding their way to new, unexpected goals. Tyler Schmidt, a senior in hotel and restaurant management, originally came to the degree with his sights set on becoming a chef.
“As I got more kitchen experience, I realized that the chef thing wasn’t totally for me,” he said. “Talking with my advisors and the College of Human Sciences staff helped me realize that front of house management was a better path.”
Opportunity, agility, expertise
Schmidt’s open mind also led him to find a study abroad program in Nepal. He was looking for an out-of-the-box experience that would expose him to how another culture approached hospitality operations.
“I talked to the staff in the human sciences study abroad office, and they suggested a 10-week program with Five14 Nepal, a tourism company based in Kathmandu,” he said.
“I saw how hospitality in Nepal has actual effects in fighting human trafficking. And while that’s not going to be the focus of my career, seeing that side of the industry along with learning how to create hand-tailored experiences was super valuable. It definitely made me want to work internationally. These are the experiences you can find through the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management.”
The program is designed so that students, regardless of their concentration, understand every aspect of hospitality management. In addition, each student earns a minor in business from the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business.
“Students are trained to understand the why and the how of culinary, events and operations management so the business of hospitality makes sense,” O’Neill said. “We achieve nearly 100% job placement for our graduates. We have preferred relationships with some of the best employers in this country, and our annual career fair in October is standing-room-only. Employers are keen as mustard to get on campus and to have access and exposure to the students.”
At the heart of this comprehensive program — and what sets it apart — is that it values the human aspect of hospitality.
“More than anywhere else on campus, we try to embody the part of the Auburn Creed that talks about the human touch,” Schmidt said. “What makes this program special is that it’s focused on human sciences first. It’s teaching me and my fellow students to understand how humans think, work and live so that we can better serve, manage and lead them in the hospitality industry.”
The rooftop garden supplies produce to the restaurant and food hall in the Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center
Chef-in-Residence Ford Fry works with students in the 1856 kitchen.
Hospitality management students work several rotations in the Laurel Hotel & Spa.
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Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.