131 Scovell Hall
University of Kentucky
Paulk was an associate professor of nutrition and food science in what was then the College of Home Economics. He wanted to teach students about food service and hospitality. So in 1971, a small group of students served lunch to 24 of their friends for $1 each, and The Lemon Tree was planted.
The Tree grew leaves and began to mature as Paulk’s students designed the restaurant over several semesters and finally opened it to the public in 1976 as the Lemon Tree Tea Room. Students staffed the tearoom, and by 1981, they were cooking and serving patrons three-course meals in an upscale setting in Erickson Hall for $2, two days per week.
A 1981 news article in The Kentucky Kernel quoted Paulk as saying “I took one idea here and another one there and put the best ones together. I think all the students felt they had a part in it.”
In the early days, Paulk and about 12 students ran The Lemon Tree, which was always filled to capacity with 40 patrons who had to make reservations sometimes months in advance to get a seat at the table. With such popularity, service was expanded to four or five days a week by 1989, and paid employees supplemented students from the quantity food production class. At that time, patrons were treated to a soup or salad, a choice of two entrees, two vegetables, fresh baked bread, a choice of two made-from-scratch desserts and bottomless beverages for $4.55.
Students also helped operate the deli next door, then called Block and Barrel.
Through the years, The Lemon Tree has gone through a few organizational changes. While the class and restaurant began in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, née Home Economics, The Lemon Tree came under the umbrella of UKAg and the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition when HES merged with the College of Agriculture in 2003. The focus, however, has never changed. It has always been about providing real-world, science-based experiences to students in the quantity food production class, a capstone course for dietetics and hospitality undergraduate students.
Liz Kingsland oversaw The Lemon Tree experience for about three years.
“We had some great students,” said Kingsland, who is now the family and consumer sciences extension agent in Bourbon County. “It was an interesting mix with hospitality majors, who knew a lot about the restaurant business, and dietetics majors, who were great organizers and minders of detail; they all worked so well together to get things done.”
Kingsland said the biggest benefit for the students was getting real-life experiences in a controlled environment. As with any real-world business, the students experienced unforeseen setbacks such as running out of a meal component or a dessert not working.
“Sometimes they really had to scramble to come up with solutions, but that was the beauty of it,” she said. “In this scenario, they really couldn’t fail; they had advisers to help them through it.”
Many students look back on their Lemon Tree experiences with fondness. Liz Combs was part of the class in 2005.
“The very first day of service, I was in charge of making the entrée, eggplant parmesan, which I had never made before,” she remembered. “Even though the situation was stressful, I remember being so proud of the final product.”
Combs said her experiences served her well as she began a dietetic internship. She is now the academic coordinator for Dietetics and Human Nutrition for the College.
Kingsland said the class did much more than run The Lemon Tree. She remembers several extra research projects they did such as a linen comparison survey, making note of how patrons responded to different table settings. One year, she even took the students to the National Restaurant Show in Chicago.
“It was a fun time in my life,” Kingsland said. “I was always grateful for the experience.”
Since 2007, Sandra Bastin and Bob Perry have directed The Lemon Tree experience and taught the quantity food production class. Bastin is the interim chair of the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, and Perry is the department’s food laboratory coordinator. Together, they maneuver students through a series of stations designed to provide quality instruction and hands-on learning activities.
Bastin explained that the core course is required for dietetics and hospitality management and tourism majors.
“It encompasses principles of quantity food preparation and processing, food production and control processes, sanitation and safety, equipment and facility planning, waste management, food science, and sustainability,” she said. “But even more than that, students experience food systems management, strategic and operational planning, workload productivity, fiscal management, interpersonal communications, leadership styles, conflict resolution, problem solving, decision making, marketing analysis, quality control, public relations, and ethical practices.”
Good food is essential to the success of The Lemon Tree, but Bastin said the behind-the-scenes lessons are what make the course challenging for students and ultimately play a large role in their future career success.
“The Lemon Tree allows students to put their food science and leadership knowledge into practice in an environment where learning is the top priority,” she said.
Perry is also part of the College’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Working Group. He tries to include local food in every meal, whether from the local farming community, the UK Horticulture Research Farm or the College’s meat lab in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences.
They still make every menu item from scratch, “even the ketchup,” he said, and try to use as few processed foods as possible.
“We have 40 students who are paired to make 20 teams,” he said. “We do 20 meals a semester and each team rotates through different stations in the front and back of the restaurant. We only do 20, because it’s not really fair for a team to have to do dishes more than once.”
It may sound comical, but Perry is serious. Because of the limited time frame, washing dishes is a monumental task after preparing a meal for 50 people plus themselves.
Students also rotate through the restaurant critic station. As patrons, they use their observation skills to critique the plate presentation, the taste of the food, and the hospitality provided by their server and front of the house managers. Then the students write a restaurant critique which is posted on The Lemon Tree Facebook page, along with the photos of the day taken by the food stylists.
Students in Perry's and Bastin’s class also rotate through a station in the next-door deli, now called Fusion, as part of their Lemon Tree experiences.
“We have a unique arrangement with UK Dining Services,” Perry said. “We operate as a unit of dining services during The Lemon Tree service; they purchase the food and collect the revenue, while students work the back of the house and front of the house to provide a quality experience for patrons.”
Perry said the bottom line is The Lemon Tree experience helps expose students to leadership roles within the food service arena, and to the difference in preparing food for large crowds as compared to preparing food for a family.
“It’s a very positive experience for them,” Perry said. “They learn new tastes and cooking techniques—especially the quality and quantity aspect. Students are amazed at how big everything is; for each veggie we prepare, we need 20 pounds. Students are not used to the larger equipment and tools found in an institutional kitchen.”
The meal is now three courses for $10. They also accept donations, which go to The Lemon Tree Scholarship Fund. Through that fund, two students each year receive a $500 scholarship to help with expenses for their required professional internship experience.
Kenyatta Chandler is a 2012 Lemon Tree student. She considered the experience vital to her education.
“Many different qualities surface while working in The Lemon Tree,” she said. “Your teamwork, leadership, and hospitality (skills) are put to the test. Teamwork was critical; a team was responsible for every plate that was served and service could not be completed properly without the coordination of everyone working together toward a common goal.”
Kenyatta was also responsible for painting the new Lemon Tree logo on the walls in the dining room.
When The Lemon Tree first opened, a real lemon tree stood in the dining room. That tree is long gone, but over the years, through changes in directors and decor, the restaurant’s goal of offering an enjoyable, upscale dining experience at a reasonable price remains the same. And students still take away valuable experience that gives them a solid foundation for their future careers.