Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Café @ Rio -- Made with Love!

Collage of images of Cafe at Rio staff, the Cafe at Rio Garden and a dish with grilled chicken, colorful vegetables and sides.
Pictured above are Café @ Rio staff members Michael Hodgins, Miana Spradlin and Thalia Martinez

Dash of Salt
By Rio Salado College Sr. Project Manager and Brand Journalist Mark Moran

A community college cafeteria may be the last place you’d expect to find a grilled panini, homemade soup or fresh sandwiches and salads made to order, with many of the ingredients grown just a few hundred feet away. In fact, most of the produce used at Rio Salado College’s sustainable café, called Café @ Rio is raised locally if not in the café’s on-site garden itself.

photo of cafe ordering area.  Employee smiling at camera.

Amid a clean and bright atmosphere, complete with digital menu screens and sparkling glass, waits an eager and knowledgeable staff ready to serve its patrons healthy portions of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, vegan options and lean proteins. The seafood choices all adhere to the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch standards for sustainable seafood

Café@Rio is unique among community college cafes in its sustainable approach to food

Café General Manager Michael Hodgins grew up in the restaurant industry. Literally. He started out washing dishes at a Country Club in upstate New York when he was 15 years-old, but it was enough to prompt his interest in the food industry. “I can tell you why I got out of doing dishes. It’s terrible staring down a pot sink,” Hodgins said chuckling. “Chef, can I peel five cases of shrimp? Anything to get me out of these dishes.” Once he got beyond the dirty dishes, Hodgins was hooked on the restaurant lifestyle. “I loved the camaraderie of the restaurant,” Hodgins said, “the adrenaline rush of the restaurant, the creativity component and the service.”

Hodgins working in the garden shoveling dirt in his office attire and sun glasses

Hodgins’ career took him from New York State to Arizona where he graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and worked a series of jobs, including head chef for what was then known as Bank One Ballpark, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He learned about the sustainable food movement on the job with a company called Bon Appetit, a sustainable food services company. He was the corporate chef for the Intel properties in metro Phoenix, where he created a network of local farmers from scratch. “I found that there were so many more producers here in Arizona than I would have ever guessed.” One of the most important producers is Café @ Rio’s on-site garden. The café relies on it a lot, said Hodgins. Especially in the winter months when the garden can be at full capacity. “There are days when the lettuce on the salad bar was picked at 8 a.m. that morning and we open at 11,” said Hodgins. We have lettuce from November to April coming out of our garden.”

While providing healthy, fresh menu options for customers and adhering to the highest sustainability standards, Café @ Rio has a larger purpose, too. People who want to make a career in the sustainable food industry can earn an associate degree in Sustainable Food Systems, and the Café@Rio and its garden are the labs.

Café @ Rio is part of a much bigger sustainable foods movement in America. In Los Angeles, for example, Ron Finley, the former CEO of a volunteer group called LA Green Grounds, which plants gardens in what are known as food deserts. Those can be anything from a strip of dirt in a roadway median to a homeless shelter or a vacant lot. Despite some civic opposition, LA Green Grounds was able to get some city ordinances changed to allow for even more urban gardening, and it has grown into a force in the volunteer sustainable food community. “I got tired of driving 45 minutes round trip to get an apple that wasn’t impregnated with pesticides,” said Finley in a TED talk. “This has got to stop.” With LA Green Grounds now on firm soil, Finley has gone on to start the Ron Finley project and calls himself The Gangsta Gardner. He has released an independent film about urban gardening that documents the stories of four unlikely gardeners in high crime parts of Los Angeles. “The food is the problem and the food is the solution. Growing one plant will give you ten-thousand seeds. So one dollars-worth of green beans will give you $75 worth of food,” Finley said. “I refused to be a part of this manufactured reality that was manufactured for me by someone else.”

As part of Rio Salado’s degree program, students learn best practices for raising and using sustainable foods, what the “real food movement” is and the best ways to prepare and serve those ingredients. The college composts all of its food scraps and tree trimmings to create fertilizer, sells its fry oil to be made into biofuel, and offers nutrient dense food options on a daily basis.

You don’t have to have an eye on the food industry as a career, either. It may be that you’re simply thinking about a sustainable planet for the future. “I don’t want to be responsible for having my kids’ or my grandkids’ generation not being able to produce nutritious food for themselves,” says Hodgins. “With sustainability being one of the core values of the college, I’d say that’s kind of walking the walk.”

There is more information on Rio Salado College’s Sustainability Food Systems Program here