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College of DuPage weighs future of controversial Waterleaf Restaurant

The College of DuPage Board of Trustees discusses the future of the controversial Waterleaf Restaurant during its June 25 meeting.
The College of DuPage Board of Trustees discusses the future of the controversial Waterleaf Restaurant during its June 25 meeting.

The on-campus Waterleaf Restaurant at College of DuPage may undergo some drastic changes in the near future.

The 6,000-square-foot upscale establishment in the school's Culinary & Hospitality Center has come under fire in recent months for costing the college more than $530,000 in operations each year since it opened in October 2011 and being the site of controversial meals for trustees.

Board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton said the restaurant represents a “financial drain” for the school.

“We're really interested in redirecting where the Waterleaf is going, and so a thought-out analysis … is very important,” she said.

To that end, trustee Charles Bernstein led a committee to examine the future of the restaurant, delivering its findings at the board's June 25 meeting before staff offered options for Waterleaf's future.

Currently, students staff the front and back of the restaurant Monday and Tuesday nights, while Waterleaf operates as a professional restaurant the rest of the week.

Bernstein said the school's expansion to a full restaurant came at the behest of President Robert Breuder, who is now on administrative leave.

"From everything I've been able to determine, Waterleaf existed, was created, exists today, because of one man," he said. "It was the dream and the ambition of one man, one man who wanted a Michelin star. It had and has no educational role."

Staff presented three options for change at Waterleaf: convert the dining area to three small classrooms, open the restaurant to lessees and events, and repurpose the space as an academic lab.

A staff report stated repurposing the dining area and bar as classrooms – including removal of finishes and partitions, as well as ductwork and electric work – would run $378,400 to $516,000. Adding two classrooms in the kitchen area would bring the total to about $1 million to $1.3 million.

However, Dean for Business and Technology Donna Stewart said the additional classroom space would not add much value to the college's curriculum.

Ellen Roberts, director of business affairs, said school food service provider Sodexo is not interested in taking the space due to its poor location for foot traffic and the provider's disinterest in a high end restaurant, building investments and the negative publicity surrounding Waterleaf's finances.

She said the space turns down about five events each month due to lack of availability and could be used for more conferences. She also said population and employment in DuPage County are trending upwards – a good financial sign for restaurants – and that the college could generate revenue by renting Waterleaf's space to another restaurant for use.

Stewart said culinary and hospitality faculty were “erupting” with possibilities for curricula using Waterleaf's current facilities. Given the opportunity, faculty and outside advisers would look at implementing a variety of new classes as early as spring 2016 to take advantage of the real-world feel of the space.

She said Waterleaf is a valuable representation of a professional kitchen and restaurant, and its fare could be better tailored to fit curriculum options and make it more accessible for the community. Should the opportunity present itself, Stewart said, she is open to having more catering and full restaurant nights.

"It has to be driven by the curriculum," she said.

Tim Meyer, one of the school's culinary program coordinators, said students love the experience of working in the kitchen and faculty could likely handle day-to-day operations at Waterleaf, possibly eliminating several positions.

“It gives great opportunities – when students are in the kitchen, it's a very tight space, they have to stay organized," he said. "It forces them to do things that they normally have to do in the industry.”

Multiple residents expressed support for increased student involvement at Waterleaf during public comment, and the board seemed in favor of additional curricula.

"This sounds like a really wonderful option for the Waterleaf," trustee Dianne McGuire said. "We are really excited about it."

The board will take a formal vote in the future on next steps for the restaurant.

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