With the sounds of construction and the growing monument of the high-class Merrill Hotel out their bay windows, the culinary artists tasked with providing the sustenance and gastronomic style for its guests are hard at work in the Button Factory building next door.
The long-empty Button Factory, a stone’s throw from the new boutique hotel at 119 Mississippi Drive, has been renovated and renewed, as students from Muscatine Community College and other surrounding schools are being taught the culinary arts and other aspects of hotel business.
“Five years ago, the old owners left everything behind, there was still grease in the fryers. It was a giant mess. Now look at it,” said Chef Bradley Scott, Chef’s Apprenticeship Facilitator and head of the program, as he looked around the clean, well-lit room. “This is a great space. When they decided to do the hotel, the Button Factory was sitting idle, so they decided to buy this property, two years ago, and start this up. It’s an excellent location and opportunity for us to build these opportunities for our students. And maybe down the road, who knows, it could become something more.”
The vintage locale, full of modern touches and rustic nostalgia, is certainly ripe for conversion into a restaurant of its own, with lush wood and brass, brick textures and gorgeous panoramic views, as well as a distinct conversation piece – an antique button-making machine.
“Ideally, yeah, this would definitely be a great space in and of its own,” Scott said. “But, for now, we’re happy to be here as part of the team at the new Merrill. It’s a great relationship that has wide-ranging benefits for our apprentices and this area and the region.”
Spurring the construction on the new site was James Howe of the Howe Foundation, Scott said.
“He’s very ahead of his time,” Scott said. “This is a great asset to Muscatine.”
“This is a great way for our apprentices to gain valuable experience,” said Steve Hall, adjunct chef instructor at MCC. “I’m very happy to be a part of this. I feel really fortunate.”
Those entering into the program are from a diverse group of students, not only those from the local MCC program and Chef Scott’s home base at Scott Community College’s culinary program, but from local high schools and the Riverside Casino. Some high school students are gaining dual credit from their work for use in culinary school. There are a dozen students in the program in its current cohort, but that number is expected to grow.
“There are more and more people getting into trade schools and the different trades,” Scott said. “It’s a booming market. So this is a win-win for everyone involved. We have this great training center that allows apprentices to get the experience they need, the hotel gets a well-prepared staff and the area gets a spot like this in a building that’s rejuvenated by it.
“What’s very cool is that instead of us working out of a trailer or a temporary location to train people, we’re working in a spot that’s very much a part of the community,” Scott said. “The majority of the students here will work through the hotel. Some won’t, but they’ll take this experience and use it to help their careers, and they’re having a great time doing it. This is a perfect spot for the training center and a great environment.”
The apprentices are upbeat about the experience.
“It’s been great learning all the recipes and techniques, and this is a really nice spot for us to train in,” said Collin Carroll, 20, a second semester apprentice at the MCC culinary program. “It feels really good to be a part of something when it’s just starting out.”
“I’m pretty excited to be a part of this,” said Matt Hesford, 36, also a second semester apprentice. “I’ve been cooking for 16 years, but I went back to school to get my credentials so this is a great opportunity.”
Building the next generation of culinary giants and keeping them in the area will only enrich the cultural and culinary landscape, Scott said.
“I’ve been very blessed to have had a long and rewarding career, and this is just the latest part of it,” Scott said. “To be able to pass that along to the next generation of culinary apprentices and to be a part of something that’s going to be so great for Muscatine and the area, that’s really a wonderful thing for me.”