When Chef Mark Sandoval was hired as the College of Hospitality’s executive chef in 2016, he was charged with developing new and meaningful hands-on opportunities for students hungry for experience.
One of Sandoval’s first moves was to launch Rebel Grounds, a cozy campus café where students would get the chance to design and execute menus, train and manage staff, and serve customers.
The next step was to build a first-rate catering program, supported by a highly trained student staff.
Step three … world domination? With Chef Sandoval, you can’t rule it out.
“Whenever I walk around campus, I’m always asking, ‘Why are we not doing this? How can our students get involved?’” Sandoval said. “They’re already receiving the best education in the classroom. We just want to take what they’re learning and give it some real-life context.”
Hospitality College student Kenzie Collins thought her real-life context would be in the realm of casino management. But when she got a taste for events under Sandoval’s guidance, the senior was captivated by the excitement of creating great guest experiences.
“I love that it’s not a static desk job. It’s a different experience every day,” Collins explained.
Eager to learn all things events, the Reno native decided to concentrate her degree in meetings & events and joined the college’s burgeoning catering team. The culinary novice hit the ground running, working alongside Sandoval and his core team of about five caterers (and numerous student volunteers) on private dinner parties, sporting events, and formal banquets. Collins relished the chance to take what she’d learned in class and apply it to the real world:
“I love meeting and interacting with the clients,” she said. “Learning to cook was also a bonus.”
Turning classroom theory into experiential learning is the founding philosophy of the Hospitality College’s catering program. In addition to event management, students learn how to run a business, including managing inventories, implementing cost control, and understanding budgets. It’s a realistic exercise given that the catering program is self-sustaining.
“We invest the money back into things that benefit the students, whether that’s replacing old prep tables, hiring more workers, or purchasing state-of-the-art kitchen equipment,” Sandoval said. “The catering program is run with students in mind first.”
More Work Experience, Fewer Obstacles
The Hospitality catering team’s continuing expansion offers students more opportunities to gain crucial work experience while earning money. These on-campus work options are particularly important for students who have busy school schedules, age limitations (under 21), and/or are unable to get work permits (due to international status).
Although the college is not a culinary program per se, the experience of working for the catering team helps students learn business principles that transcend hospitality sectors. These include:
Turns out Sandoval may very well get his wish of world domination: In 2019, the catering team hosted more than 150 events, including retirement parties, council meetings, and tailgates. Also, a second Rebel Grounds location is planned for the new Black Fire Innovation building on UNLV’s Tech Park campus.
Sandoval was also called upon to serve as an adviser in the design and permit process of the kitchen in the new UNLV Fertitta Football Complex, opening the door to a partnership with athletics. This January, the college launched an extension of its catering program in the complex’s kitchen, which serves student-athletes breakfast and lunch throughout the week. This new service load called for the hiring of Chef Marc Ty and five student caterers.
“This partnership is exciting because it’s essentially students helping students,” Sandoval said. “With the anticipated growth of the program, we hope to eventually serve all UNLV athletes breakfast, lunch, and dinner five days a week.”
The Hospitality College catering team also has caught the attention of the off-campus community. For instance, the team is now the preferred vendor for the Liberace Mansion, a 14,400-square-foot event venue once home to the iconic Las Vegas performer.
“Our clients love to see the students working. It’s a unique aspect we’re able to offer,” said Ivan Serna, the mansion’s managing director. “Although they may be students, trust me, they have the experience and the knowledge. They always go the extra mile.”
That’s not a surprise, considering service excellence is a value Sandoval instills in the catering team at every stage. He coaches students before, during, and after events, and ensures they receive both front- and back-of-house training. This, he said, makes for a happy customer.
“We don’t settle for mediocre; we always make time to provide students with opportunities to learn how to do something properly,” Sandoval said. “At the end of the day, we’re here to provide food that’s delicious. That’s why our customers keep coming back.”