The sun was still tucked away and the stars were out as Vasilios Baggeas '14, Reilley McGee '16 and Lauren Cudgma '15 made their way to the Hazell Nut Café on a recent Friday morning.
It was 5:50 a.m. The campus was hushed as the three began to prep for the café's opening at eight, wearing their neat, pressed dress blacks and chef's caps.
Baggeas, the general manager, checked inventory and got the registers ready. McGee, the café's purchasing manager, spooned fudge brownie batter into a long pan and folded in chocolate chip cookie dough drops. Cudgma, a staff member and management trainee, cleaned the counters and made urns of fresh coffee.
For two hours, they baked, organized and prepped. Just before 8 a.m., their first customer, Joe Cruscuolo from the facilities department, stopped in for his daily bagel and coffee. "I'm here every day," he said. "They make everything fresh, and the students work very hard. They're very respectful and helpful. And the coffee's great."
'Learning How to Manage Everything'
The Hazell Nut Café is the essence of experiential education.
McGee handles the purchasing. "It's a huge job, and I had no idea how involved it was," she said. "We measure everything by the ounce, so we know exactly how much we use and need."
Daily, she and the other managers check the loose teas, the spices, the flour and the supply of vegetables, meats, cheeses and pizza boxes.
"If we add even one ingredient to a baked good or offer a new product, we have to know, to the last ingredient, the very last chocolate chip, exactly how much it will cost us to make," Baggeas added. "And we have to ensure we have everything we need when we open."
'Hidden Jewel of Maxcy Hall'
The café – renovated last winter and rededicated to honor the generosity of donor Jeff Hazell '83 – is a vibrant place with a cheery chef gracing the wallpaper, white teapots dangling from the ceiling and bookshelves brimming with volumes of cookbooks, foodie favorites and fictional culinary tales from Mills' personal library.
It's known for the daily pizza specials, particularly the lobster (customers called it a steal at $4 a pie) and "the Hazell Nut," a delightful confection featuring Nutella and fresh strawberries. Students do all the marketing including the often humorous and tantalizing campuswide email blasts announcing specials.
Later this month, the management team is planning a day of pizza sampling. "We are often considered the hidden jewel of Maxcy Hall, and we want to get the word out to everyone," Baggeas said.
At this lunch rush, many seemed to be craving the "The Rocky," thinly sliced steak, peppers, onions, cheddar and mozzarella cheese. Velez got down to business, stretching the dough, adding sauce, peppers, onions and cheese and putting more steak in the oven. She sprinkled corn meal on the pizza paddle, and soon she and the team were making one pizza and pocket after another. Miceli dashed in the back to prep some sauces.
Lobster is a central menu item, an ingredient the faculty, staff and students can never get enough of. Most Wednesdays, they are lined up into the hall waiting on the lobster pizza and lobster roll specials.
'That's Just Part of Learning'
Jeff Hazell donates the fresh lobster meat and, he says, he's proud the café can offer "great food at great prices. I spent summers working on my father's lobster boat," he said. "Lobster continues to be a big part of my life."
Hazell owns Bar Harbor Lobster Company, Florida's largest distributor of New England seafood, as well as Boston Lobster Feast restaurant, with locations in Orlando and Kissimmee, and Clawdaddy's food trucks, which serve premium lobster rolls at locations throughout Disney World.
On the first lobster pizza and lobster roll special day this semester, the café ran out of rolls a half hour after opening. "So they had to go back and figure how they could have predicted that and how they can do better ordering," Mills said. "That's just part of learning. They also have to find ways to let customers know that they have lobster every day."
She reminds them, "Specials bring the customer in; full price pays the bills."
McGee conceded that it's a challenge balancing her café work with six classes, the honors program and her own personal goal to make the Dean's list every semester. "But it's so worth it," she said. "You learn by doing here, and I love that about UNH."
For Baggeas, who grew up in a family restaurant, the experience is everything he could have hoped for. "I remember seeing my father in his chef's whites, watching his demeanor with the customers and their back and forth, and I wanted that," he said. "I'm a people person, and this is a people business."
The café has taught him so much about managing, team building, supervising staff, remaining positive and offering a delicious product and a smile, no matter how busy a lunch rush gets, as it did on this Friday afternoon.
"Dr. Mills told us the way to keep a calm head in any kind of service-related business, whenever it gets very hectic, is to step in the back," he said. "Take a deep breath and come back out and face the world. It works."