When Robin Williams worked at the cafe at the Santa Rosa Junior College as part of her culinary arts course, she overcame her intimidation of the grill and learned how to make memorable meals, like juicy burgers with apples, white cheddar and bacon.
The memory will have to suffice for customers, who won’t have access to student-cooked meals for the next two months since the Culinary Cafe will be closed until April 3 — halfway through this semester.
The cafe was expected to reopen this month at the start of the spring semester, but officials delayed the opening to re-evaluate the culinary arts curriculum amid a drop in enrollment in the program. The college operates a sit-down cafe and bakery to give culinary students hands-on experience in restaurant operations.
“It’s pretty unfortunate they couldn’t keep it open. It’s a way to make money,” Williams said as she frosted sugar cookies in her production baking class Wednesday at the B. Robert Burdo Culinary Arts Center.
Williams has had a positive experience with the program, and she’s learning in a $20 million culinary arts center built in 2012. Classes are taught by instructors who have extensive experience in the food and beverage industry. One chef with a bakery background has taught her about large food productions, and another chef is particularly knowledgeable in plating and decor.
“You get a well-rounded education,” said Williams, who recommends the program to friends considering private culinary schooling. “I like all the different styles of cooking that you learn.”
Enrollment in the culinary arts program has dropped 12 percent over the last year. There are now 1,143 students enrolled, a decline of 154 students from the previous year, said Jerry Miller, senior dean of career education and economic development.
Miller said curricula for career education programs, including culinary arts, are reviewed every two years. The process involves looking at learning objectives, the scope of a course, facilities and technology.
“Let’s try something different and see if that helps students get in here,” Miller said. “Every restaurant retools and tweaks process and procedures from time to time. We’re no different. We’re all confident the café with be back bigger, better and more successful.”
Board trustee Jeff Kunde said the college has declining enrollment overall, a trend that’s all too common in schools across Sonoma County and the state. The college is looking to convert operations to an appropriate size, or make necessary cuts so that the educational programs fit demand.
“We don’t have the amount of student body that we used to four or five years ago,” Kunde said.
The temporary closure of the Culinary Cafe was decided about a month ago by a group of faculty, department chairs, deans and the chief instructional officer for the district, Miller said. The culinary arts program has five full-time instructors and about a dozen part-time faculty.
The temporary closure was a surprise to a few regular patrons of the Culinary Cafe.
“I’m puzzled and disappointed. I expected it to be open,” said Sheldon Erkkila, a retired physical therapist who occasionally eats at the cafe and visits the bakery at least once a week.
This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.