Flip on one of television’s many food or cooking-related shows and there’s a pretty decent chance your screen will be full of images of shrimp and grits, barbecue, or fresh oysters on the half shell.
The Technical College of the Lowcountry is looking to capitalize on the popularity — and of course, the undeniable deliciousness — of southern and Lowcountry cuisine with plans to build a museum dedicated to showcasing the region’s rich food history.
The museum, part of the college’s culinary institute planned for the Buckwalter Place area of Bluffton, would be the first of its kind, TCL’s vice president for institutional advancement Mary Lee Carns told Bluffton leaders earlier this week.
While there are other food-centric museums — including the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and the Museum of Food and Drink — “there is no such initiative that focuses on exclusively on southern Lowcountry cuisine,” Carns said.
TCL’s proposed museum, currently known as the Lowcountry Culinary Arts Interpretive Center, would help set Beaufort County area apart from regional tourism rivals such as Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Savannah, she said.
“We are going to have exhibits you can eat,” Carns said. “I don’t think it gets better than that.”
Leigh Copeland, TCL’s assistant vice president for marketing, told members of Beaufort County Council last month that the museum is an example of “how the institute can directly impact tourism.”
Potential themes for exhibits — some of which would be permanent and some of which would change throughout the year — could include agricultural and farming history, Gullah-Geechee cuisine and culture, and Lowcountry seafood.
In addition to exhibits, the museum could host events such as cooking classes, dinner theater performances, guest chef lectures, and food festivals, Copeland said.
While local officials have expressed excitement about the project, the museum and culinary institute are still in the planning and fundraising phase of development.
The college’s proposed $11.5 million, 26,000-square-foot facility is its way of addressing the county’s shortage of trained restaurant workers, an issue TCL officials say has resulted in shortened hours for some restaurants, gaps in customer service and threats to the county’s reliance on tourism revenue.
Museum space would make up about 2,000 square feet of the institute and is not expected to add to the overall construction or operations cost estimates.
The institute could accommodate up to 300 full-time students. Estimates put the construction time frame at around two years.
The inclusion of the museum concept into plans for the culinary school may help generate additional funding sources. A recent opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s office indicates that hospitality and accommodations tax revenues could be used for the project.
Those revenues, collected on overnight lodging from visitors, must be used to promote tourism and fund tourism-related activities.
While the institute would benefit tourism indirectly by eventually providing more trained culinarians to work in local restaurants, the museum provides a direct benefit for visitors interested in learning about Lowcountry food, Carns said.