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Outback takes its menu to class

The chain is turning a high school classroom into a model restaurant. It's a new era in school-corporate ties.

By LETITIA STEIN
Published October 3, 2006


TAMPA - Andrew Santiago, a sophomore and aspiring restaurateur, has eaten once at Outback Steakhouse.

He says he enjoyed the meal, an appetizer of sorts for what could soon be his new classroom -- an authentic replica of the Aussie-themed restaurant at Chamberlain High School.

Outback's designers are helping transform the classroom into a model restaurant, complete with a signature purple ceiling, wood flooring and decor from Down Under.

Outback would become the first corporate restaurant to actually set up shop inside a Hillsborough classroom. School officials are touting the partnership at a time when educators statewide are brainstorming ways to make high school more relevant.

Business partnerships may hold a key. In recent years, student-run bank branches have opened in five Hillsborough high schools through the Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union. To students, it all seems oh-so-cool.

"When I was growing up, I never thought I was going to be in a restaurant for two periods in high school," said Santiago, who dreams of attending culinary school. "I can't wait. I think it's going to be exciting."

Hillsborough administrators have given the project a green light, pending School Board approval. The project is estimated to cost about $192,000, but the price after deducting services and in-kind contributions from Outback affiliates remains unclear, said district project coordinator Jim Johannessen.

Corporate benefactors are nothing new in schools. Pepsi's logo already decorates a sign outside Chamberlain. But the Outback partnership signals that traditional corporate ties - the kind recognized with plaques on walls - are evolving in form.

"There's some corporate pluses they get for their dollar," said Charlotte Hughes, an administrator in career and technical education. "But it's just so part of the American fabric that it's hard to divorce ourselves from industry, especially in career education."

At Chamberlain, culinary instructor Erik Youngs says the authentic setting will take his lessons on the hospitality industry to the next level. Students can learn fine points of culinary service, such as operating a beverage station. (Since this is a school, you can't call it a bar.)

"We're not teaching Outback," said Youngs, formerly a chef at Tampa's Castaways Restaurant. "It's a real-world facility for us to train in."

For now, he has students writing news releases for a groundbreaking ceremony set for Friday. The students hope to be in the Outback-like dining room early next semester.

Youngs won't change a lunch menu that requires students to use a range of kitchen techniques. They include a cheese soup with sauteed onions - a knockoff of a favorite item on the Outback menu.

Students relish the thought of attracting more customers than currently eat in the barren classroom, where lunch is served to teachers and visitors, but not to classmates.

"I look at what we have and what we're getting in an Outback - that's like getting blessed from God," said Mitch Smit, a junior in the school's culinary classes. "Now we're going to have a professional place to work."

Giving students a taste of the business world is nothing like the television advertising played in some schools, or billboards posted on school buses, said Bill Blank, a professor of career and technical education at the University of South Florida's College of Education.

"It's bringing badly, badly needed reality and authenticity into the high school curriculum," he said. "You're dealing with real products, real customers, real money."

And it's popular. The Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union has student-run branches at Brandon, Armwood, Jefferson and Chamberlain high schools. This year, it added a fifth branch at Newsome High School.

"When we go in, we're not just promoting the credit union. We promote financial literacy," said Juli Lewis, Suncoast's youth marketing manager.

Suncoast Schools is expanding its student branches to other counties and is considering bringing programs into middle and elementary schools.

If the Chamberlain partnership with Outback inspires other restaurants, Hillsborough gladly would talk about similar opportunities for other culinary programs.

"This is the first time anybody has stepped up to the plate," said Hughes, the administrator in career education. "We have plenty of schools to go around."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

[Last modified October 3, 2006, 01:15:04]


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