Wild mushroom grits with oyster stew and bourbon-grilled jumbo shrimp are featured items on the menu at Peninsula Grill in historic Charleston, S.C., a city that is serious about its chow.
John Crotts, who heads the College of Charleston’s department of hospitality and tourism management, counts 28 “fine dining” restaurants in town. It’s seemingly an overcrowding of the marketplace for a city of just over 100,000 people (and about 330,000 in Charleston County) -- that is, until you realize that tourism is the economic engine that drives Charleston.
Visitors come for the Southern hospitality, which means the region runs on chefs, restaurant managers, hotel operators and the like.
“In order to maintain quality, we have a dire need for a reliable, highly educated labor source,” said Hank Holliday, owner of the Peninsula Grill and several other city establishments.
So when Johnson & Wales University, a nonprofit institution that trained much of the service industry work force, was lured away by Charlotte, N.C., a few years ago, Charleston was in a bind. Holliday knew it. His executive chef at Peninsula, Robert Carter, came to the city nearly 20 years ago as a Johnson & Wales student and never left. That’s a common story, and one that is unlikely to be replicated without a major arts, management and culinary institution in town.
Since Johnson & Wales left, the built-in supply of interns and recent graduates has evaporated, and positions have been left vacant in kitchens and management offices.
“There has been a tightening in the labor market,” Crotts said. “A university of that size pulling out did leave a void. The city felt something missing on the higher end of the culinary scale.”
Joseph P. Riley Jr., Charleston’s eight-term mayor, said that the link between higher education and the local economy is so strong that there was no choice but to bring another institution to town. After investigating replacement options, Riley and other local leaders decided to go the for-profit route -- striking a deal with Education Management Corp.,  which operates the 30-plus Art Institutes across the country.
Charleston's recruitment of the Art Institute is a particularly vivid example of the link that civic and state officials see between postsecondary education and local economic development, and it shows the extent to which one city’s leaders went to keep that higher education presence strong.
State and private money had gone toward increasing hospitality-related offerings at existing institutions, but Crotts said his and other public and private nonprofit colleges would not be able to hire professors and create new programs rapidly enough to keep pace with the city’s need for labor. That’s why the nimbler for-profit model seemed attractive -- and one reason why the industry has been able to enter new markets in need of a quick turnaround.
“It’s wonderful for our community,” Riley said in an interview. “We worked hard to attract the Art Institute because of what they can bring to us and what we can do for them.”
Pending a state license approval, the Art Institute of Charleston is scheduled to open its doors in April, with degree and non-degree programs in interior design, graphic design, interactive media design, digital photography and culinary arts.
Charleston is smaller than most cities that are home to an Art Institute. But Richard Jerue, who will serve as president of the Charleston campus, said the persistent pitches from the mayor and the local business community persuaded the company to open a branch there. Robert Pitts, dean of College of Charleston’s School of Business and Economics, said that restaurant and hotel owners understood it was in their best interest to rebuild a fractured higher education pipeline.
Johnson & Wales left Charleston in 2004, wooed to Charlotte by a financial package from a consortium of political, business and civic organizations. The institution had been in Charleston since 1984 and continued classes there and in Norfolk, Va., (another city that lost a J&W location) until earlier this year to honor its commitment to enrolled students.
Jerue, the former president of two Art Institutes who most recently represented Education Management as its lobbyist in Washington, said the Art Institute of Charleston has yet to begin official recruiting of students, although it is already posting job listings . He expects about 50 students to begin classes this spring, with two-thirds of them in the culinary arts program. The institution is preparing to take over a 50,000-square-foot building that is undergoing renovations.
That building is in the heart of downtown Charleston, which Jerue said should help make the institution a “vibrant part of the community.”
And already, there is talk of collaboration. College of Charleston’s department of hospitality and tourism produces graduates who are primarily interested in management careers. Trident Technical College’s Culinary Institute of Charleston offers associate degrees, diploma and certificate programs in culinary arts, hospitality and tourism, and continuing education courses. The Art Institute of Charleston will cater to students who are interested in the creative end of the hospitality field.
Jerue said the plan is for the institution to work out an articulation agreement with Trident and determine ways to allow students to take courses for credit at College of Charleston.
“We are all talking with each other to see how to best fill in the gaps of course offerings,” Crotts said.
In that regard, he said, the city is in a position to “produce more students who have a depth of knowledge [in the field] than have ever been here before.”