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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Hospitality Program Receives $50,000 from Darden Restaurants

LAS CRUCES - New Mexico State University's hospitality program will use a $50,000 donation from Darden Restaurants, parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden, to remodel labs for restaurant classes and fund scholarships for Hispanic students.

The grant will benefit about 300 students majoring in hotel, restaurant and tourism management at NMSU, the state's only university offering a major program in the hospitality field.

"New Mexico State has really helped us have great talent on our management staff as well as for our restaurant in Las Cruces," said Steve Weigel, a director of operations for Red Lobster's Dallas division, who presented the check during a Feb. 20 reception. "It's an excellent hospitality program."

About $40,000 will help fund a kitchen lab and dining room in remodeled space on the west end of Gerald Thomas Hall's first floor, said department head J. Michael Cerletti. The remaining $10,000 will fund scholarships for Hispanic students preparing for careers in food service management, he said.

"A little over 50 percent of our enrollment is minority students, so we appreciate your support of our Hispanic kids," said NMSU President Jay Gogue. Gogue said he felt a close personal connection as a native of Waycross, Ga., population 1,900, hometown of Red Lobster's founders. Gogue grew up eating at the Green Frog Restaurant, forerunner of Red Lobster.

"We'll keep producing wonderful students, and we hope you'll keep hiring them," Gogue told company representatives.

During the reception, students and visitors toured ground-floor labs on the west end of the building, where interior walls are being demolished to create space for the new kitchen lab and dining room.

"It's exciting to see where the labs will be," said Jill Fowler of Carlsbad, a senior majoring in hotel, restaurant and tourism management. "It's a lot larger than I thought it would be."

A planned technology lab across the hall will allow hospitality students to work with computer systems used by hotels and restaurants, Cerletti said. "We think the combination of the technology lab and the kitchen lab is going to give the students tremendous hands-on opportunities," he said.

NMSU, which started its hospitality program in 1988, relies on an advisory board of industry representatives to help design its curriculum, Cerletti said.

"It's obvious from the student body here that the department has a big passion for delivering managers and talent for the restaurant industry," said Marvin Short, a director of operations for Olive Garden's Dallas division.

Darden Restaurants operates more than 1,100 Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones restaurants in North America, employing about 122,000 people. All the restaurants are company-owned rather than operated by franchisees.

In 2001, the company's nonprofit foundation awarded some $600,000 in educational grants from the elementary to university level, according to the company's annual report.