When she started in December of that year, the inn had been the property of the Jacksonville State University Foundation for just a few weeks. She started as a prep line cook, getting first-hand experience with what she was learning in JSU’s hospitality and culinary management degree program.
“I really credit the Victoria with teaching me the culinary part of my degree,” said Burrage, who worked her way up to sous chef. She graduated JSU in 2011, and earlier this month left the Victoria for a job at Roma’s in Jacksonville. “Jax State is really strong in the management side of it and having the internship … that’s where I was really able to excel with my culinary techniques.”
The Victoria has provided similar experiences to students like Burrage since the previous owners of the restaurant and hotel, Earlon and Betty McWhorter, donated the property to the JSU Foundation in September 2009. The foundation’s decision recently to put the property on the market — with a $1.5 million asking price — has disappointed the donors, though foundation members say it’s the right move to accomplish their mission of supporting JSU and its students financially. Meanwhile, the entrepreneur who leases the restaurant space from JSU says a sale might be good for business and wouldn’t necessarily shut the kitchen door to students.
JSU students at the Victoria get a “front-of-the-house, back-of-the-house experience,” said Alan Martin, the restaurant business’ chef and its owner since the donation. He leases the space from JSU, so the partnership just came naturally, he said.
Students learn everything — cooking and presenting the food, organizing and cleaning the kitchen along with the customer service aspect of managing a restaurant, Martin said.
He estimates that five or six students have served internships at the Victoria. Students also serve at an event for the faculty at the restaurant each year as part of their coursework. In addition, the Victoria has hired students who are working through their college years.
Being able to provide that experience is one of the benefits that has helped triple enrollment in the program, said Debra Goodwin, head of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. She teaches dietetics and culinary classes and had five students from her class work with chef Alan Martin in the restaurant this semester.
“When we were approached about this, we thought it was a wonderful opportunity,” Goodwin said.
And the university has taken advantage of it. Students have worked not only in the restaurant but in other areas of the inn’s operation — accounting, for example. That distribution does, however, make it hard to get a concrete number of students who have used the inn as a teaching tool, said Rebecca Turner, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs.
“I put the word out that it was now Jacksonville State University’s resource,” Turner said. “I could see the breadth of the opportunities for our students in such a large variety of academic programs from the beginning.”
Besides the hospitality and culinary management program, business, marketing, public relations, and graphic design majors might have had an opportunity to work at the Victoria, she said.
In addition, Bill Meehan, JSU’s president, said music students perform and art students display their work there.
“It’s a wonderful gift that the McWhorters, both Earlon and Betty, gave us,” Meehan said.
It is also the largest single gift the university has ever received from an individual, Meehan said.
The foundation board’s decision to sell the property disappoints Earlon McWhorter. He had seen a similar program at Auburn University, where he was a trustee, and that gave him the idea to donate the Victoria to JSU.
“I did have several meetings with the administration about the use of it, and there was a lot of excitement during that time about how they could use it, would use it and wanted to use it,” McWhorter said.
However, at the last minute, the university asked that the donation be made to the foundation instead of the university. So McWhorter redid the paperwork, but he never spoke to any foundation board members. It did worry him at the time, he said.
“Foundations don’t have administration staffs to operate something,” McWhorter said. “So, anyway, I think I was concerned we might have this problem,” when the property went the foundation, he said.
Turner said all donations to JSU are handled through the foundation.
Meehan and Julia Segars, a member of the foundation’s board, said the move to sell is simply a business decision.
“Those things have to produce a certain return,” Meehan said. “Although the figures I’ve seen show the institution is making money, it’s probably not making as much as the foundation would want it to make.”
Segars said whether the Victoria was making money for the foundation or not, it’s just not part of the foundation’s mission to run a hotel.
“The mission of the foundation is basically to raise private support, assist and assure that our children have a bright future,” Segars said. “As a responsible steward of all the gifts that we get from all of our benefactors, we’ve got to be prudent in the long-term investments we make.”
The earnings from the foundation’s investments have a direct impact on the lives of the students, Segars said.
Martin believes the foundation’s decision is a good one. A professional hotelier is going to be more able to invest in the property and keep expanding the business. It’s his hope that the new owner and he can work together to build both the businesses.
And Martin’s plans include keeping students at the restaurant.
“I think it’s just a healthy part of the environment, the working environment here,” Martin said. “To have them here learning and to have them in the environment is good for all the employees.”