Cattails Café, Ogeechee Technical College's first dedicated dining facility with food cooked to order, serves the public as well as students, faculty and staff, and offers a foretaste of more culinary services to come.
"We're open to the public," confirmed OTC Director for Dining Services John Witherington. "Anybody that's out this way Monday through Thursday is more than welcome to come join us."
The café opens at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast, switches to its lunch menu at 10:45 a.m., and remains open until 6 p.m.
Breakfast items include buttermilk pancakes, stone-ground grits, French toast, and omelets with fillings ranging from ham, bell peppers and cheddar to asparagus, artichoke hearts and goat cheese. The café has an espresso machine and brews lattes and a Cattails Café Coffee from local Three Tree Coffee Roasters.
For the rest of the day, the gas-fired, stone-hearth pizza oven is a star of the show, used to cook specialty pizzas with names like Going Green, Doctor's Orders, Fun Guy (portobello mushrooms are fungi), Carne Pazzo (with six meats, including house-prepared meatballs) and Hang Loose (involves pulled mojo pork, pineapple and roasted red peppers).
The café cooks a Cattail Burger, involving a beef patty on a potato dough bun but no aquatic plants, let alone felines. However, The Cattail, a corndog made from an all-beef hotdog hand-dipped in the café's unique batter, does actually resemble the plant's flower spike.
Various salads and smoothies also appear on the regular menu. Sandwiches vary from a pimento cheese club to Italian-style panini.
But the kitchen staff led by Witherington also prepares what he calls blue-plate specials, more like home-cooked meals, such as a recent one with pot roast and mashed potatoes.
Before Cattails Café opened with the start of fall semester, Ogeechee' Tech's entire meal service for students had consisted of a counter and a few tables and chairs inside the bookstore.
The items were cooked in a kitchen in a different building. It was mostly "grab and go" food, as Witherington puts it. Fresh-baked pizza was available, but a brand commonly found in convenience stores.
Renovations this year to the entire student services area inside the Joseph E. Kennedy Building - Ogeechee Tech's front and original building - provided the opportunity for the café's creation. It has about 60 seats inside, and some exterior seating is planned for the patio visible through the glass of the outer wall. Real cattails grow there in a landscaped fountain. The fountain was originally built by students in the OTC Fish and Wildlife Management program, and is still maintained as part of the program's aquatics portion, said OTC Vice President for College Advancement Barry Turner.
Part of renovations
To find the café, walk through the front lobby and bear right through the tile-backed passage. The café is then immediately to the left, with cattails painted on the wall leading to the counter. The kitchen is open to the dining area, allowing customers to see their pizzas baking and other items being prepared.
The big idea behind the café was to improve meal options for students, most of whom were eating cold items and chips or leaving campus for lunch, Witherington said.
"So one of the main driving forces behind this idea was saving students gas money ... and time having to travel back and forth," Witherington said.
As Turner and Witherington observe, there were not many places to eat south of town beyond the bypass. But the businesses on Joseph E. Kennedy Boulevard behind Ogeechee Tech employ a significant number of people, and the Great Dane factory and other industries are nearby.
"We're not here to compete with local businesses," Witherington said. "We're here to meet the students and faculty and staff's needs that are here - and the public as well."
OTC employees and alumni get a 10 percent discount, as do students who put $100 or more on a meal card. There is a version of the meal card that students can use with financial aid. Gift cards are available to anyone.
Dining services director
Witherington has worked at Ogeechee Tech for eight years, but until January he was the hotel-restaurant management instructor. He has an MBA from Ashford University.
Earlier, he had graduated from Georgia Southern University's hotel and restaurant management program. He worked at some smaller restaurants before becoming a chef for Savannah's Live Oak Restaurant Group, which owns several restaurants on and off River Street.
His first teaching job was at Starfish Café, which was run by Union Mission in Savannah in cooperation with Savannah Tech. He taught culinary skills to people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness and served as assistant café manager.
"I've always loved to make people happy with food," Witherington said. "That's kind of my passion."
Now, as OTC food services director, he operates a small program with growth potential.
Catering work ahead
So far, Witherington and Cattails Café Assistant Stephan Williams are the café's only full-time employees. But it employs seven other people part-time.
Dining services is separate from the college's culinary arts instruction program, which has two chefs of its own as instructors. But six of the nine Cattails employees are either culinary students or graduates, Witherington said.
He is looking for ways to expand the café's appeal in the late afternoon and evening by preparing meal items customers can take home for dinner.
"I think there's a big market there, especially faculty and staff who don't want to go home and cook," Witherington said. "We work long hours, 10-hour days, so the last thing they want to do is go home and think about cooking."
But the certain growth ahead for dining services will come from outside the café. The college's new Natural Resources Building, which is nearing completion, will include a rentable conference facility with a commercial kitchen. The college is in the process of hiring a banquet chef.
Just the kitchen in the new facility, Witherington said, will be about the size of the Cattails Café dining area.
"We're not really going to do a lot of offsite catering, but we will be the exclusive food service provider for Ogeechee Tech," he said.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.