- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

CUMBERLAND, Md. The party of nine arrived at 11:35 a.m., a few minutes after the restaurant opened. For waitress Amanda Winfield, it was like a pop quiz.
"I was a little nervous when they all came in," she said. "I had never had more than four."
But Miss Winfield, a sophomore in Allegany College's hotel and restaurant management program, rose to the challenge. She served their soups and sandwiches within 20 minutes without a spill or mix-up.
"I was really proud of myself," she said.
So go the lessons at the Culinaire Cafe, a restaurant staffed by student cooks and servers on Cumberland's pedestrian mall. The moderately priced eatery has been well received by diners and most downtown businesses since it opened, for weekday lunches only, in late January.
The 50 students take turns preparing such dishes as seafood creole or potato-encrusted salmon and serving them in the garden-themed, 125-seat dining room of an art deco building that once housed a McCrory's dime store.
Many students had no previous restaurant experience.
"I thought it would be sort of easy, but if you get a lot of tables at one time, it gets difficult," sophomore Troy Weisenmiller said.
Their struggles, overseen by two alumni of the Culinary Institute of America, might sometimes feel monumental, but the restaurant is part of something even bigger: the economic revival of Western Maryland's downtrodden Queen City. City development officials and Allegany County, which owns the four-story building and paid half the $240,000 conversion cost, view it as an investment in the area's growing hospitality industry.
"The industry needs a trained work force in Western Maryland. We train the work force, and we bring dollars downtown," said David Sanford, the school's culinary arts coordinator.
Downtown Manager Ed Mullaney said the Culinaire Cafe and the half-dozen other restaurants on the three-block, red-bricked mall constitute the core of downtown revitalization in the city of 21,500.
"Years ago, there used to be maybe one restaurant down here that you would feel comfortable going to. Now there's a full menu," he said.
In four years, the mall's first-floor vacancy rate has eased from a dismal 70 percent to about 15 percent, helped in part by tax breaks, low-interest loans and other incentives offered by the local, state and federal governments, Mr. Mullaney said. A $120,000 grant from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission helped bring the student restaurant and Allegany College's entire School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culinary Arts downtown.
The community college, which draws students from Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, aims to train increasing numbers of workers for a hospitality industry that includes the nearby Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort and the Deep Creek Lake vacation area. Cumberland's planned Canal Place tourist attraction and a horse-racing track to be built near Little Orleans will create still more hospitality jobs in the next decade.
Other downtown restaurateurs are looking to the Culinaire Cafe for interns and baked goods. Some worry, though, about losing business to the student restaurant, which serves generous entrees priced from less than $5 to $7.50.
"It turned out to be a little bit more competition than we had thought. It's more of a real restaurant," said Jaye Miller, who co-owns the fine-dining Oxford House across the street with her husband, Bill.
She said it was too soon to gauge the effect on sales, but she was not pleased by the prospect of the Culinaire Cafe's adding dinner service.
At the City Lights restaurant a block away, owner Bill Shaffer said his sales have recovered after dipping for a few days when the Culinaire opened.
"The way I look at it, it's a good thing because it attracts more people downtown, which gives all of us a better chance to attract more customers," he said.
Debra Frank, Allegany College's hospitality program director, said the school wants to work with neighboring restaurants by inviting their owners to join its advisory committee. The Culinaire Cafe's dinner service is still a year or two away, which, given the downtown development trend, shouldn't be a problem for competitors, she said.
"The goal of the whole venture is to train people to work for them," she said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide