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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Running Ellington’s Restaurant: What does it take?

Sasha Norman
Homemade apple and walnut salad, stuffed mushrooms, green bean casserole, corn flake cheese potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce with the side of a dinner roll and mint tea. There are many meals coming up on weekly Ellington’s menu. (Sasha Norman | Northern Star)

DeKALB – The heat in Ellington’s kitchen can be difficult, but the restaurant’s students can take it.

Ellington’s Restaurant, located in the Holmes Student Center, is a buffet-style dining establishment. Unlike other NIU dining services, it provides a trial by fire for students studying nutrition or hospitality and tourism to learn the ins and outs of running a restaurant.

Ellington’s Restaurant serves as a classroom for the BADM 303 Foodservice Systems Management in Practice class. In Ellington’s, nutrition and hospitality majors learn how to manage a restaurant through hands-on learning.

In the class, students learn how to develop a menu, scale food proportions to match sales costs , prepare meals, and market their menu.

While Dan Koenen, executive director of campus dining, and John Boswell, director of retail dining, teach the class, it’s the students that run the show when the restaurant is open.

Each week, two students are made managers of the restaurant for a day. Those two managing students develop a menu, assign tasks for the other students, providing customer service and making sure operations run smoothly.

“They (teachers) can just as easily lecture us about how to set up a buffet line; but instead, they’re letting us get firsthand experience,” said Alex Orloff, a senior business administration with an emphasis in hospitality and tourism. “I think that far outweighs the difficulty of working in a kitchen for four hours.”

Food dishes for the menu are picked and schedules are prepared between days of service. When making a menu, a dish served must cost 60% of what it’s sold for – usually around $10, Orloff said.

The dishes are made from scratch by the students. Most of the ingredients acquired for the menu are from Gordon Food Service, the food distributor campus dining uses for all of NIU. Foods that can’t be obtained from GFS are purchased from nearby grocers.

Students have from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. to set up Ellington’s before the restaurant opens. These tasks include cooking dishes and setting tableware.

During dining hours, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., students must keep up with the demands of the restaurant. A day of service includes making sure the buffet options are still stocked food, cleaning dishes, meeting with customers and answering questions. Typical customer questions are what is on the menu and if there are options for those with dietary restrictions Orloff said.

After the service ends, the students meet together with class instructors for a 15-minute debriefing. The discussion covers what went well that day, what didn’t go well, reading customer comments and preparing for next week’s menu.

Most of the comments Ellington’s receive are positive with patrons looking forward to coming in though are minor complaints regarding food preparation, Koenen said.

“It’s a big time commitment, and it can be demanding, but if you put in the effort, you’re going to be successful,” Koenen said.

The customer base is 80% faculty and staff, 10% community members, 10% students, Koenen said.

Ellington’s used to be a sit-down restaurant but changed to a buffet style due to not enough students to service it, Koenen said in an email.

There are 12 students enrolled in the class this semester, eight nutrition students and four from business and hospitality Koenen said.

The number of service days vary from semester to semester. In Spring 2023, Ellington’s had 12 days of service. With a smaller class this semester, Ellington’s has only eight days of service.

Ellington’s days of service are Tuesdays and open to all members of the public with no reservation required. Cost for access to Ellington’s buffet is $13.95, and Dining Dollars, Huskie Bucks, debit and credit payments are accepted.

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