CHAMPAIGN — Anyone looking for the Charger Cafe on the first floor of Centennial High School on Friday mornings should just follow the aroma.
There's the cinnamon smell of monkey bread and crumb cake and blueberry coffee cake, then a more savory one with four different kinds of egg casserole and brewing coffee and steaming waffles.
It's wafting out of the family and consumer science foods room so heavily that a staff member pops in before the cafe opens, and while students and teachers are still preparing, just to tell them how good it smells.
The cafe, which is in the foods room at Centennial High School, is run by students in several classes, including Nutrition and Culinary Arts II, the first-semester entrepreneurship class and second-semester marketing class. It serves teachers and other school staff members.
The students volunteer to participate Friday mornings, and early in the school year, they'd be waiting for their teachers in the early hours before the 7 a.m. start time.
This late in the semester, the teachers — business teachers Connie Brillhart and Sandi Stubbins, and family and consumer science teacher Caitlin O'Grady — are there first, sliding already-prepared dishes in the oven.
The food students start showing up at about 6:40 a.m. to slice cake and monkey bread and transfer egg casseroles from baking dishes to warming trays.
Closer to 7 a.m., students in the marketing class show up and a couple take spots in the doorway to greet faculty and staff as they enter.
Soon, the kitchen is buzzing with students in black chef coats preparing for the morning rush, and after opening, they're calling out orders and their customers' preferences, for example, about whether their iced mochas should be topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
Students in O'Grady's class work every Thursday to prepare the food for Friday's cafe. Popular sellers are egg casseroles, and they've made versions with vegetables, sausage, bacon and ham. They've learned about cooking, but also about presentation. For example, they're now careful to wipe down the edges of their casserole dishes before baking, so they look nice.
"It's really student-led," O'Grady said, and students are the ones tweaking the recipes and trying new dishes for the cafe.
That works out well, because several are interested in owning their own restaurants and bakeries someday. O'Grady's class, which handles the cooking, is a year-long class and includes some sophomores. Marketing and entrepreneurship are both one-semester classes that juniors and seniors take for dual-credit, which means they get both high school and college credit for it, through Parkland College.
The students in the business classes have created marketing plans for the cafe, starting with a survey of school employees at the beginning of the school year, and continuing with setting prices as well as weekly emails inviting them back and listing that week's menu. They also created punch cards that give teachers a free item when they've purchased four things.
There have been valuable lessons in marketing to that specific audience, said Stubbins, who teaches the marketing class. For example, if students were marketing to their peers, they'd probably use Twitter to get the word out. But that's not necessarily the best way to reach teachers and other staff members at Centennial, she said.
The classes have tried various promotions, including offering staff members a free item if they bring someone who hadn't been to the cafe before.
"They've been able to put real-world experience with what they're learning in the classroom," Brillhart said.
They've learned to greet their customers and offer other items for sale, too, O'Grady said.
"They're very professional," Stubbins said.
Students have also set the prices, and considering their target customers, have comparable prices to McDonald's, rather than Starbucks.
The most expensive items are $2 each, but most are $1 apiece.
Senior Niya VanEaton said she's learned about food and how to serve it during class and in volunteering at the cafe. For example, she'd never worked as a cashier before, or realized the best way to talk to customers.
Sometimes, it's hard to get up to get to school early Friday mornings, she said.
"But once I get up and get here, I'm glad that I came," she said. "It's a great way for teachers and students to interact."
Her teachers tell her in class they look forward to the cafe each Friday, and she said it's fun to interact with them outside a classroom setting.
Senior Traveon Baker said he likes the atmosphere of teamwork and getting things done together in the cafe's kitchen.
"I find it fun," he said. "I enjoy serving food to people.
He also likes eating the leftovers, and the egg casseroles are his favorite.
Reinvesting in the cafe
The idea for the cafe began when Brillhart heard about a similar project at a conference three years ago, the Cool Beans Cafe at Schaumburg High School. Then, when O'Grady joined Centennial's staff, Brillhart learned she'd student-taught there, and worked with that cafe.
At that point, the teachers asked to start the cafe, and the school's administration was open to it, Brillhart said. They started preparing to open the cafe last year. They needed several weeks of teaching to start the school year, and the cafe opened in October.
Since then, the cafe has changed as students analyzed feedback and inventory. The cafe puts out surveys for teachers each week.
For example, some teachers didn't have time to stop by the foods room to buy breakfast, so students started delivering to-go containers to their desks. The teachers order via email on Thursdays.
And while a survey showed the cafe's customers wanted healthy offerings for breakfast, the egg-white casserole and oatmeal-banana muffins didn't sell as well as the cinnamon rolls and monkey bread. The food students work in the lab each week to tweak the menu, and continue to make some things that are popular with staff members.
All the money made at the cafe goes back into it. The students and teachers running it have purchased equipment like waffle makers and warming trays, as well as things like napkins and special cups for their ever-popular iced mochas.
They also enjoy party at each semester's end to celebrate their work on the cafe.
Next year, the cafe may be different — Brillhart said they're thinking about adding reusable coffee mugs and will also accommodate the new students' ideas.
She said it's been a good way for students to gain hands-on knowledge.
"It's really shown them so much about how it really works," Brillhart said. "To get that real-world experience has been so valuable to them. ... It's just so different from any other learning experience."