Kokanee Café may be down to final meals | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Kokanee Café may be down to final meals

James May

Steve Newell / Tahoe Daily Tribune / South Lake Tahoe Community College student Brooke Berry, right, receives her change from Brad Budd, the food service manager for the Kokanee Cafe.

The kitchen table traditionally has served as a place of discourse. Family and friends have gathered there to discuss the day’s events: politics, art, literature, popular culture – it doesn’t matter; we talk about our most important issues over good food and drink.

Yet this spring, the discussion at Lake Tahoe Community College revolves around whether or not its own table of proverbial bread breaking will remain open.

I was concerned when rumors regarding a possible closure of the college’s Kokanee Café began to circulate around campus.

If the café should close, Lake Tahoe Community College President Guy Lease said the culinary arts program would most likely continue, while a portion of the dinning hall and student center would possibly be converted into classrooms.

LTCC opened a new student center and café in 2002. The addition was part of a state-funded, multimillion-dollar expansion project that included a new gymnasium. Previous to the café’s opening, there was no on-campus food provider at LTCC.

Students and faculty were forced to make the grueling decision between 2-day-old sandwiches from the bookstore or, possibly a more healthy choice, an artificially flavored Hostess Fruit Pie with a side of peanuts.

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“We thought that students would really want to have food service – we certainly had that indication from surveys we did before we built the building,” said Lease.

Yet business has been slow. So slow that after just two years of operation, the café faces its final verdict as to whether or not it is a worthwhile investment for the college.

The café is running a monthly deficit of roughly $10,000. Lease said that the college cannot continue to subsidize the café as it has been, noting many other California community colleges’ food programs are making money. However, these colleges have one thing LTCC lacks – a large student population.

Lease mentioned that some colleges, such as Santa Monica College, have student populations upward of 30,000 students, while LTCC’s this spring is 3,430. A small student population, plus a lack of interest in the café, has caused serious problems.

The Kokanee Café and Student Center opened with the goal of providing food service, but also to serve as the heart of non-academic activity on campus. Students can go there to check e-mail, catch up on current events (the dining room houses a flat-screen TV that runs 24-hour news, and meet up with friends for lunch or coffee – a laid back spot to talk about campus activities, social happenings, and, of course, the pursuit of knowledge – all things that seem fundamental to the college experience.

In an effort to stave off looming costs, LTCC hired a food service manager in 2004. Brad Budd arrived at LTCC to find an exorbitant menu, filled with marginal, pre-packaged food, and relatively high prices – not to mention unhappy student pallets.

The new manager immediately began to overhaul food preparation – cutting back the scale of the menu, reducing prices, and making all dishes from scratch. On top of what changed in the kitchen, Budd condensed operating hours and reduced his staff to a skeleton crew. While raising prices was not an option with the student demographic, Budd said he managed to reduce the cost of food production by about 35 percent.

“The first two or three months were a tough transitional period,” Budd said, “but we are continuing to make food from scratch, provide hot meals, as well as pre-made sandwiches, salads, and sushi in an effort to bring in students.”

Still, the changes made over the past several months have not dramatically spurred student’s interest in the café. On Wednesday afternoon, LTCC’s Student Council sponsored an afternoon movie in an effort to draw students to the café.

Student body vice president Sierra Harbison stated how important the café and student center are to the college.

“I feel that the café is pertinent to the school because it does the best job that it can to offer variety on campus,” she said.

The café’s struggle reflects overall budgeting concerns at the college. While spring 2005 enrollment is up, the college has seen an overall decline in enrollment since their peak in fall 2002. The drop in enrollment has slowed the college’s income, forcing the administration to make hard decisions about which programs need to be cut back or dropped.

The biggest factor that influences the college’s quarter-to-quarter decisions is the South Lake Tahoe community.

“The community is really changing,” Lease said. “The school district is losing students in large numbers, many people are moving off the hill, selling their homes to people who are buying a second home. Those people aren’t going to college here.”

The college remains optimistic about its plans for student housing, its new library, and the overall growth of LTCC. Even so, students, myself included, remain hesitant. Each quarter, classes continue to be canceled due to low enrollment and the café – a place designed to enrich the student’s college experience – struggles to remain part of the LTCC campus.

– James May is a sophomore majoring in political science. He hopes to attend UC Santa Cruz or UC Berkeley in the fall.