This AL hotel concept is the next big thing
A completely alluring and ultra-chic hotel has just quietly opened in Auburn, Alabama, offering fine dining, rooftop revelry, and hands-on learning in this quaint SEC town. As I entered the elegant entrance of The Laurier Hotel & Spa, a team of broad-smiling students quickly took my bags and led me inside. “Students?” you may be thinking. I was also intrigued.
A hotel, spa and restaurant run by students?! Impossible.
Almost all guest-facing staff here are in a course lab and earn academic credit. Students in Auburn’s Hospitality Management program gain real-world experience by learning the intricacies of hotel and hospitality management through full-immersion training at Laurel Hotel & Spa. Culinary students do the same in the restaurant and adjoining restaurants.
The first luxury teaching hotel of its kind
The Laurel Hotel & Spa is part of Auburn University Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, a 140,000 square foot building where learning and recreation meet. Undergraduate and graduate students who want careers in hospitality, events, cooking, baking, wine, etc. real work experience in all corners of the Rane Center. Equally remarkable, we, the audience, can witness and enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Beyond the hotel there is an educational restaurant called 1856a coffee roastery and a cafe called [email protected]a multi-concept food hall called Hey Day Market, a two-story wine cellar and – opening in March 2023 – a microbrewery. It’s the only hotel management facility in the world with all these characteristics.
An immersive experience for guests and students
Not only is it fascinating for the students to interact with real guests, but the guests can also see the students in action. It was almost… high? Meta? (I’m looking here for a suitable descriptor for college) than simple not from the hotel is a state-of-the-art culinary school.
On my afternoon exploration, I watched a class learn the art of pasta-making through one window and the master sommelier sort out the night’s wine pairing through another. There were as many curious visitors and lucky locals roaming the halls as there were students and professional educators.
The rooftop: swimming pool, garden and views
The elevator’s first stop was not on my floor but on the roof. I was greeted with a glass of champagne and a bustling 4,000 square foot garden maintained by the Auburn School of Agriculture. Plants in the garden—all edible except for a few pretty flowers—provide fresh, sustainable ingredients for the new 1856 Culinary Lab. They even infuse delicious lemongrass into the lobby’s water and the restaurant’s after-dinner refreshment.
A few cabanas and giant lounge chairs line the heated infinity pool just off the gardens. You can order cocktails, snacks and more from your poolside oasis. There’s also a world-class spa, fitness studio, and yoga pavilion to help combat any hint of boredom.
Spacious rooms with futuristic amenities
The hotel comprises 16 luxurious rooms, 10 suites and six private residences. My night in one of the 750-square-foot suites rivaled most four- and five-star hotel stays I’ve enjoyed.
I opened the door to find my suitcase had a new adornment: a Laurel Hotel engraved leather luggage tag with my name printed under the plastic box. I munched on an array of elaborate appetizers and opened a bottle of red in the kitchenette as I took in the view of the red-brick Auburn skyline. My suite had two smart TVs and another smaller one built into the bathroom mirror so you wouldn’t miss a single second of a game.
The bathroom had a huge tub, bathrobes, slippers and even scent. The center was still under construction (I spent the night in one of the open hotels, after all), but I was never disturbed during sleeping hours. The remote controlled blackout curtains enveloped my king bed in a cozy bedroom sleeper.
A $110 million facility, three years in the making
Hans van der Reijden (Founder and CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners) and Martin O’Neill, Ph.D. (Acting Professor and Head of Department) gave me an in-depth tour of the building. The architecture – fully LEED certified and bathed in natural light – is breathtaking.
“We wanted students to be able to learn, cook and test dishes with natural light around them,” says Hans. “We don’t want students running out of the building right after class, so we’ve created lots of places for them to sit, chat, study and relax.” Watch a timelapse of the center’s three years of construction.
1856 brought fine dining to Auburn
I can’t remember a more delicious recent meal than the one I had at 1856, the Rane Center teaching restaurant. The giant-ceilinged room is modern and welcoming, and sets the stage for serious cooking. They call the concept a “culinary residence”, regularly rotating the chef. Swarms of attentive young students stood ready. “Each student’s lab is the same four-hour ‘shift’ two days a week so they can learn consistency and work with a regular team,” says Hans.
The open kitchen gives guests an unobstructed view of Chef Tyler Lyne at work. Tyler and his team can watch each table progress through the courses on CCTV, ensuring every dish is timed to perfection. Wine pairings were generously served by master sommelier Thomas Price. Yes, oenophiles, you read correctly; They have one MASTER staff sommelier. How big is this problem? A standard. Only 273 people in the world have obtained this title since its creation in 1969.
I love a tasting menu, but your male must have bang. I want to leave feeling full and feeling like I’ve been on a chef-led expedition where every part of the menu counts: the order, the presentation, the service, the pairings. 1856 blew me away. And it was their very first dinner service. At $95 per person (wine pairings are $95 more, or you can order drinks a la carte), 1856 will be the next busiest reservation in the South, I call it now.
I was admittedly baffled to find all these distinctions…this charm …in such a small town in Alabama. And in a place run by students and graduates. But I think that’s the goal. There has never been anything like it. As pleasantly surprised as the guests are, there is a flip side.
Hans hopes that students working and learning in this stylish and challenging incubator will find they can reach the next echelon of catering and hospitality. They could land at Amanyara, St. Regis, Four Seasons. They could one day open their own charming B&B or neighborhood restaurant. This place is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is both a beacon and a breeding ground for southern hospitality. Reservations are now open here.
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