SWCA's Academy Grill reopening with curbside pickup service

Alan Froman
ThisWeek group
Culinary-arts students Kristina Worthington (right) and Melany Torres, both 17, prepare chicken wings for baking after seasoning them as part of a test-kitchen exercise in the South-Western Career Academy's culinary-arts program Nov. 4 at the Academy Grill in Grove City.

The food-service industry is volatile even in the best of times.

"There may be no other industry that's so subject to change," said Chris Wright, culinary-arts instructor at the South-Western Career Academy.

Restaurants and other food-service businesses have to be able to adjust to meet the changing demands and tastes of their customers and the trends and factors that affect the industry, he said.

And that's not counting something as unexpected as the COVID-19 coronavirpandemic.

For the culinary-arts program at SWCA and its student-run Academy Grill restaurant, the pandemic has provided the ingredients for quite an education, Wright said.

"It's changed the landscape for sure," he said. "We've had to learn to adapt and change. The great thing about young people is that they have the ability to learn anywhere and anyplace."

The Academy Grill was forced to close in March when the pandemic hit, and the South-Western district closed its school buildings and switched to a remote-learning model.

The district now is operating under a hybrid model in which every student is attending school in person for two days each week and participating in lessons and learning activities at home the other three days. 

South-Western students in the "blue group" attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays whereas those in the "green group" go to school on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are set aside for teachers to plan, hold remote lessons that both the green and blue groups participate in and for buildings to receive a deep cleaning. 

Chris Wright, chef and South-Western Career Academy culinary-arts program instructor, demonstrates trimming and preparation techniques on a pork tenderloin for student John Worden, 18, as part of a test-kitchen exercise Nov. 4 at the Academy Grill.

The career academy offers 16 career-tech programs for juniors and seniors.

The Academy Grill had been closed since spring, but it reopened Nov. 10 with curbside service offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays for customers and weekend boxed meals for four that families can order throughout the week and pick up on Thursday or Friday afternoons after school.

"We're offering our traditional grill menu items for lunch during the week – sandwiches and soups, including new cream of tomato and chicken corn chowder soups," Wright said. 

A whole new menu has been created for the weekend meals, including homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes and pork loins with brussels sprouts served with smashed potatoes, he said.

"The weekend meals are complete meals people can pick up on Thursday or Friday afternoon and enjoy with their families on Saturday night," Wright said.

The Academy Grill also is offering two new macaroni-and-cheese recipes on the menu submitted by students, he said. One is a creamy mac-and-cheese dish and the other is a buffalo-chicken recipe.

"Our goal is to be the best restaurant in Grove City," Wright said. 

Junior Brittini Freshour submitted the creamy mac-and-cheese idea, which, she said, is "based on my Aunt Cindy's recipe."

"We make it with more butter and cheese than your traditional mac-and-cheese," Freshour said. "It just makes it so much more cheesy and delicious. I really love it." 

The challenge the culinary-arts students have faced in switching to a curbside-pickup operation and creating a new weekend family-meal menu "has been really exciting," she said.

"It has taken a toll because we can't all be together at the same time," she said.

Senior Destiny Righter serves as general manager of the Academy Grille.

Planning the reopening of the restaurant as a curbside-pickup venue has been challenging under the hybrid model, she said. One of the biggest challenges has been in making sure there's smooth communication about how the restaurant operations will run between the blue and green groups of students, she said.

Righter said she also misses the opportunity to get to know and engage with all the students in the culinary-arts program.

"It's a shame that we can't all be together," she said. 

Someday, Righter said, she would like to own and manage her own restaurant.

"We're getting some great experience having to make some of the adjustments because of the hybrid model that I think will be really helpful and make us even more ready to get involved in the industry after graduation," she said. 

That includes completing the National Restaurant Association's ServSafe training and certification that cover COVID-19 precautions, Righter said.

Each culinary-arts student has been required to complete the training and receive the ServSafe certification, Wright said.

The creation of the weekend meal menu has provided additional and valuable experience that's also been fun, junior Layla Jones said. 

"I really like working on par cooking, which is preparing foods that people will pick up and take home where they finish cooking or reheat them," she said.

Wright said the lunchtime menu is available for curbside pickup between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Academy Grill entrance at the back of the school building, 4750 Big Run South Road in Grove City.

Orders for either the weekday lunches or weekend meals can be placed by calling the Academy Grill at 614-801-3480.

A method for placing orders online also is under development, Wright said.

The Academy Grill also is able to take payments by credit card, he said.

No one wanted a viral pandemic, but some positives have emerged from the situation for the culinary-arts students, he said.

"It's been a whole new experience for them they wouldn't have gotten otherwise," Wright said. "It's going to make them even more prepared to enter into the food industry after they graduate from high school."

Wright has had to make adjustments in the culinary-arts program since all students can't be together in person each day.

"It's a mixture of in-person activities in our lab and 'ed tech' interactive activities students can do online from home," he said.

In one of the ed-tech lessons, Wright said, he posts videos in which he demonstrates cooking activities students are to do at home.

"We provide them with the ingredients they need, and then they make videos they can post showing themselves preparing the dish at home," he said.

The mix of in-person and online activities serves a broader group of students, Wright said.

"Some students aren't as comfortable with the in-person activities," he said. "They find it easier to participate in and learn from activities and lessons they can do online from home."

Jones said she likes the at-home activities.

"I find it a little easier to complete my work by myself at home without all the distractions that can happen with other people around," she said.

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