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Iowa Hospitality

Cedar Rapids, Iowa


The Art Is Elevated at Kirkwood

Story by Deborah Jansen, photography and slideshow by David Peterson

The shock of deep red catches the eye — crimson banners fluttering in the outdoor courtyard. They match splashes of velour inside — sleek, elongated pillows dotting vibrant white leather chairs. Black satin drapes and white gauzy sheers cloak the tall windows and mimic zebra stripes in the rugs underfoot. An aroma of a fresh-brewed latte wafts from a black quartz coffee bar. A relaxing samba plays overhead.

“Good morning.” A young bell captain wearing a double-breasted gray jacket nods. “We want your stay to be everything you’ve hoped for. May I help you with your bags?”

The Hotel at Kirkwood Center began as a bold dream nine years ago. Today this working laboratory on Kirkwood Community College’s main campus in Cedar Rapids is the reality-based training grounds for the next generation of hospitality arts professionals.

Seth Knight, a dual-track hotel and restaurant  management student from Cedar Rapids, taps rapidly on a keyboard at the front desk. His crisp white shirt, black necktie, and gray blazer display an air of professionalism. His grin is contagious, and guests smile back.

“When I graduate from this school, people will know I’ve been trained well,” says Knight, describing two-year degree programs in which students log a volume of on-the-job clinical hours that rivals that required at many four-year programs. “I can honestly say I’ve worked in every department of a hotel, and I’ve learned those departments need each other.”

Student Seth Knight championed an invitation extended to the president of the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) in 2010. “He was impressed,” says Knight, who helped to charter a student chapter of the AHLA, creating an additional avenue to industry knowledge and resources. The college has one of only 16 student chapters in the United States — and the first student chapter on a community college campus. “Kirkwood is definitely making a name for itself.”

Going Up

Dawn Stoltenberg scoots past a set of tall, funnel-shape white floor lamps just outside the elevator door, moving swiftly down a corridor filled with abstract paintings in gold, sandstone, and indigo tones. She unlocks the supply room door and wheels out a housekeeping cart.

“I’ve never worked in a place as beautiful as this,” says Stoltenberg, a Vinton native and housekeeping veteran who worked for more than a decade in area hotels before joining the Hotel at Kirkwood Center’s professional team.

“Look at this detail.” She presses the doorbell outside the Presidential Suite, one of her favorite rooms. The chime inside the guest room — lending at-home atmosphere — sounds faint in the hallway ­— a nod to courtesy for other guests and a reprieve from door knocking. “I used to have sore knuckles by the end of the day.”

Inside the Presidential Suite, Stoltenberg supervises a student as together they complete tasks in clockwise order, bustling in and out of the doorway to deposit used linens and empty trash cans, to retrieve cleaning supplies and thick cotton towels.

A snap of the snow-white sheet and it parachutes onto the bed, each ripple smoothed by hand.

“The best part of my job is working with students,” says Stoltenberg, who supervises the work of about a half dozen undergraduates each semester. “How many housekeepers can say they’ve had a chance to influence so many students?”

The teaching hotel — including restaurant and banquet facility — is staffed by 174 employees, 14 of whom hold full-time salaried positions on top of classroom responsibilities.

During the school year, hospitality arts students circulate through the various hotel departments — sometimes working side by side with a trainer, sometimes themselves taking a supervisory role — generally with a 3-to-1 ratio of industry professionals to student workers.

Back in the Presidential Suite, drapes are swiped, carpet is vacuumed, desks and tables are dusted, glass is polished. Before leaving the room, Stoltenberg and the student stand together in the doorway.

She trains each student to pause for this final visual sweep. “If I were staying in a luxury hotel, would this room meet my expectations? Would I be getting my money’s worth?”

Going Down

Stripped bedding and towels arrive at the commerciallaundry facility in the hotel’s basement, where a large dryer hums and tumbles white linen tablecloths. Another dryer buzzes, and Lindsay Wright, a hotel management student originally from Kalona, pulls out several lapelled cotton jackets matching the one she wears (above left, with former employee Danielle Cummings).

Each student in the hotel and restaurant management programs — whether serving in the laundry room, on housekeeping rounds, at the front desk, or in the restaurant dining room — wears the gray jacket or, if serving that day in a management role, a gray pinstripe wool blazer. Both serve as an emblem and reminder of professional caliber.

Wright came to Kirkwood to round out her education. With a degree in massage therapy under her belt, she dreams of working in an exclusive resort someday. Kirkwood’s hotel management degree, she says, moves her one step closer to that. She’s considering a degree in restaurant management as well.

“I want to be versatile when I’m finished here. I’d like to tell an employer I could do massage therapy and fill in as assistant manager in either lodging or restaurant,” says Wright, feeding freshly dried tablecloths into a commercial pressing machine with eight-foot rollers.

She envisions a future in Colorado — maybe one of the ski towns. “I’d like to work in a resort where guests have deep respect for service staff.

Those guests understand that the relationships they have with staff make just as much difference in their vacation experience as amenities offered.”

Kirkwood graduates have secured professional roles in a wide variety of venues: hotels, restaurants, casinos, hospitals, senior-care facilities, conference centers, and food corporations. Ninety percent find jobs within 100 miles of the Cedar Rapids campus.

Hospitality Arts Department Chair David Horsfield attributes that strong representation to the college’s respected reputation in the local market.

“It’s part of our charter, if you will, focusing on the seven counties, servicing their educational needs,” he says of a region that includes the burgeoning Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor. “We are keeping a pulse on market expectations.”

In the laundry room Wright folds with precision and prepares stacks headed for the restaurant upstairs, where white-clothed tables will later greet guests for dinner.

Eating In

It’s early, and the wait staff in The Class Act Restaurant is shifting from morning omelets to mid-day meals. A student spreads lunchtime’s red tablecloth on top of breakfast’s yellow canvas.

She folds back the new cloth, tugs on the old, unfolds the fresh covering, and transforms the table without ever revealing a naked tabletop — a trick of the trade she’s learned on this job. Place settings and chair backs aligned, the dining space is ready.

In the kitchen Chef de Cuisine Ryan Harbaugh listens to his sous-chef, whose pitch and volume rise. He’s tense. Two students just failed to prepare dishes that pass his inspection, and those meals will not go out on time.
Harbaugh speaks directly to the students and lists the steps they’ll need to take to succeed. The students breathe deeply, take ingredients out of the refrigerator, and begin again.

“There are a lot of kitchens out there full of turmoil,” says Harbaugh, a Kirkwood alum who graduated in 2010 with degrees in culinary arts and restaurant management.

“I want students to have a firm grounding in respectful professionalism when they work. I take great pride in that, and I want to pass it on.”

Harbaugh describes a fusion of flavors on the menu today. Cuban pork on refried plantains offers a delicate balance of sweet and salty thanks to the mojo marinade created with sour orange, garlic, salt, and sugar.

Fried plantains lend a subtle, sweet crunch while refried black beans and jalapeño crema pack a smooth but spicy finish.

While he’s passionate about culinary beauty, he’s fascinated by the process of altering food at a molecular level.

Originally educated as a chemical engineer, he chose to further his career by earning a culinary arts degree. Melding science, nutrition, and art, Harbaugh steers his students through an inventive process.

“I love working here. Not only do I get to cook and create, but I also get to teach,” says Harbaugh, a Muscatine native. “Every two months I get a new batch of culinary arts students. I learn to manage and adjust for so many personalities.”

The food on the menu at Class Act is created with local or regional ingredients whenever possible. Much of the produce comes from local farms, spices from local vendors, meat from small producers, beer from regional microbreweries, and wine from area wineries — including selections from the Winery at Kirkwood. The emphasis is on a quality cuisine and the local economy.

Stepping Out

Just outside the restaurant, Lee Belfield stands behind the fireplace-warmed seating area in the hotel lobby. From this vantage point he listens to the hum of guests’ voices. This is his favorite spot.

Belfield helped launch and operate hotels and restaurants around the country before taking a teaching position within Kirkwood’s expanding hospitality arts programs in 2001 and soon after guiding a new hotel management program.

For the first few years of the program, host hotels in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City provided on-the-job training for students, but work experiences were inconsistent. When a hotel was short a dishwasher, for example, plugging in a student intern was a great temptation.

“Without our own hotel, I’m not sure we would have continued our hotel management program,” says Belfield, now general manager of what began as a daring aspiration.

“If we were to prepare our students to take entry-level supervisory roles, I knew they’d need hands-on, real-life experiences.”

Belfield spent two years visiting and studying teaching hotels in Maine, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas. He returned to Cedar Rapids with a set of realty-based ideas and a focus on industry trends.

He pitched a boutique hotel with a Euro-chic design — HUT (hip, urban, and trendy) became the project’s catchphrase — that would offer guests a unique experience in Iowa’s I-80 corridor and give students an exceptional learning opportunity that would open doors at top hotels, restaurants, and conference centers.

A world-class conference center and banquet room were already in the works. In addition to classrooms, teaching kitchens, and student spaces, decision makers agreed the new hotel should also include a gourmet restaurant and expanded professional kitchen — all intended to boost students’ hands-on learning.
 The staff-to-guest ratio at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center is 1 to 1, contributing to a level of service that recently earned the American Automobile Association’s (AAA) prestigious Four Diamond Award for lodging.

 “We didn’t want taxes or students to pay for the structure, so our only option was to increase the revenue from room occupancy,” explains Belfield.

Planners built a comprehensive financial model based on national comparisons and determined that The Hotel needed at least 60 to 65 rooms for the plan to work. Architectural design offered the exact number of 71 — 65 guest rooms and six suites filling the upper three floors of the $30 million facility.

The entire project has been funded through revenue bonds, which are not tax supported, and will be paid back through the operations

Occupancy numbers have been high since the July 2010 opening, and The Hotel at Kirkwood Center is expected to break even by fiscal year 2013.

The revamped Hospitality Arts department now trains some 350 students annually in five programs leading to two-year degrees (hotel management, restaurant management, culinary arts) and one-year diplomas (bakery, and food service assistant).

Classroom instruction — on topics ranging from sanitation and safety to nutrition and menu planning to risk management and legal issues to cost control and accounting — is leveraged with boots-on-the-ground hospitality delivery.

“We wanted students to experience the pleasure of giving pleasure to others,” says Belfield. “You can teach practical skills in a lot of ways, but it takes something unique to show students the art of giving pleasure.”

The Hotel at Kirkwood Center was built using regional materials — including native black walnut and sandstone quarried in nearby Stone City — and artwork produced by students, faculty, alums, and area artisans. More than 300 photographs, paintings, sculptures, and textiles grace guest rooms, common areas, and meeting spaces.

Artist Henry Royer’s stainless steel, copper, and granite sculpture (Untitled) is one piece of a sizeable art collection putting a regional stamp on the hotel and enhancing the guest experience.


Taking Risks and Opening Doors

OuYang Xinchun glared at the dark sky in the west. Thunderclouds threatened September’s Swine & Wine, a first-ever, outdoor barbeque event featuring pork dishes created by culinary students at Kirkwood Community College, Iowa wines, and local musicians.

As a hotel management student at Kirkwood, Xinchun, a 25-year-old student from China, had plunged into promotions, menu-selection, booking musicians, and set-up for this event.

“Communication is huge in this industry, but we had one major breakdown before the event! I knew nothing about sound equipment,” says Xinchun, who let another team member handle that aspect.

Unfortunately, that person was sick the week before the event and didn’t leave any notes. Xinchun and the banquet chef made contact by phone, took notes, rallied the set-up crew, and lined up the equipment.

“I learned from my mistakes — from beginning to end — with that event!” says Xinchun.Xinchun first heard about Kirkwood’s hotel management program from a Cedar Rapids couple who had been her college English instructors in China.

The Iowans had graduated from Kirkwood and kept in touch with their alma mater. They told Xinchun of Kirkwood’s teaching hotel, and she liked what she heard. She applied for a student visa and enrolled in the hotel management program in 2010.

Throughout her education, Xinchun has worked in every department of a full-service boutique hotel. “When I messed up, I’d ask myself, ‘How could I do this better next time?’ My managers and professors told me everyone has problems behind the scenes. But things get done—and often beautifully.”

The freedom to take risks and learn from mistakes, she says, is the experience she values most in Kirkwood’s hotel management program.

Beyond the classroom and hands-on experience of The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, Xinchun has seized on additional opportunities, including a hotelier convention in New York and an internship in a posh Las Vegas hotel.

During a recent visit back home, she traveled to several major Chinese cities where the hotel industry is growing. “I’ll have many opportunities in China,” says Xinchun, noting the rapid expansion of international tourism in her homeland.

“But I wanted knowledge and experience — so I could to excel in the real world. I’m eager to work smart and become a professional, international hotelier.”



Dishing on Entrepreneurship

“I’ve been working with food since I was 12 years old—culinary arts are my calling,” said Gabriela “Gaby” Weir, a 2010 Kirkwood Community College graduate who now lives near Iowa City.

She grew up in Venezuela, where she worked in her mother’s upscale restaurant and tasted Mexican, Venezuelan, Peruvian, and Columbian cuisines. She moved to the United States before she finished high school.

Her multicultural experience continued at Kirkwood through the Hospitality Arts short-term exchange program, through which students can study culinary arts for three weeks in one of six different countries.

Weir chose to study culinary arts in Japan, an opportunity that introduced her to even more flavors and techniques.

“While attending Kirkwood, I was encouraged to experiment freely with food,” said Weir, 29, who graduated with a two-year degree in culinary arts. “I was given a budget and purchased everything I needed for a four-course meal.

”According to Weir, Kirkwood’s mentoring and hands-on training prepared her to become an artisan farm-to-table chef, a profession that specializes in locally grown food.

Weir appreciates Kirkwood’s emphasis on buying food from local farmers. If a chef buys fresh ingredients and applies creativity, she designs a delicious meal that also sustains local growers and vendors, according to Weir.

“I love the act of buying food from people I know, so I can create meals for people I know,” Weir said.

Weir and her partner Denise Bushnell, also a Kirkwood graduate, now operate a personal chef service.

Their business plan was hatched through class projects in the Hospitality Arts program and ultimately field-tested after graduation.

Today Back to the Table( is a boutique catering service based in Iowa City. Weir meets with clients to learn food preferences and special dietary needs. She designs menus, selects fresh produce, and buys groceries. She travels with her own equipment, prepares in-home meals, and does the dishes.

In her spare time, Weir teaches seasonal, gourmet cooking classes, which begin in the farmers’ market, mosey to specialty grocery stores, and end in the kitchen.

Both Weir and Bushnell view their Kirkwood experience as a vital stepping stone that prepared them to seek certification courses through American Personal and Private Chef Association and the American Culinary Federation.

Together they recently represented Iowa City as new members of the National Association of Professional Women, an organization that recognizes the country’s most accomplished women in over in over 200 different careers.



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