Purdue HTM alumna reflects on creating the annual upscale Black Tie Dinner

Elizabeth and Andrew Whittaker stand for a picture at the first HTM Society Black Tie Dinner.

Elizabeth and Andrew Whittaker pose for a photo at the first HTM Society Black Tie Dinner in 1999.Photo provided

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

In 1999, the average cost of gas was $1.17. The Backstreet Boys wanted it that way and a Purdue University White Lodging-J.W. Marriott, Jr. School of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s (HTM) student organization’s signature event was born.

Prior to the first event, in 1998, the idea for the HTM Society Black Tie Dinner was planted in then HTM undergrad Elizabeth (Dimos) Whittaker (BS ’99). As president of what is now the HTM Society, Whittaker wanted to put the hospitality skills she was learning into practice. From presentation to getting the food out hot and delicious, it was a way to show what HTM students could do front- and back-of-house in an upscale setting.

“A team of students got excited about it when there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement on campus for this because it was an unknown,” Whittaker remembered. “This is a real-life experience that has a ton of planning, but the lessons the students gain are invaluable for setting them up for success in their future careers.”

Like the price of 1999 gas, the HTM Society Black Tie Dinner has changed, grown and evolved. What started with 35 attendees in the former location of the John Purdue Room in Stone Hall now consists of 240 patrons in the Purdue Memorial Union (PMU) ballrooms. Student volunteers swelled from about 20 in 1999 to 120 in recent years.

Despite now being older than most of the undergraduates that work it, the Black Tie Dinner is still a hot ticket. The three levels of ticket releases — students, family and sponsors, and general public — sell out in minutes. This is the case for the 2023 event on March 25.

The HTM Society Dinner has gained numerous sponsorships from hospitality industries near and far. Like a recruitment tool, its reputation also attracts students to study HTM within the Purdue College of Health and Human Sciences.

Black Tie has grown monetarily too. Some of its profits go into the HTM Society’s two endowments and Purdue HTM scholarships. Cash prizes are awarded to four students who shine the brightest. Half of the net proceeds of the silent auction goes to charity. This month’s event will benefit Food Finders Food Bank in Lafayette. Since 2016, the annual event has raised nearly $31,000 for Food Finders. Remaining proceeds support HTM Society activities throughout the year, including the annual professional development trip, which takes about 30 students to a select destination every year where they tour hospitality facilities, meet with alumni and learn about the many opportunities available to them upon graduation.

Sunday rehearsals

From Whitaker to current HTM Society president Faith Kim, students who work the Black Tie Dinner are indeed volunteers. They receive no class credit, but the industry experience is as quality as a Black Tie Dinner main course for them.

“Some students buy into it and volunteer all four years. They do it the entire time that they are here,” said Carl Behnke, HTM associate professor, who has served as a faculty advisor for all but two Black Tie events.

This experience doesn’t just involve showing up a couple hours before the event. It’s months of Wednesday nights and Sunday rehearsals and meetings to make sure every detail is covered.

Behnke’s role is to help with various behind-the-scenes tasks of the event. Anthony Cawdron, HTM adjunct instructor, leads front-of-house students. He has been a core leader of the Black Tie Dinner every year except for the first two events. He brings the etiquette and theatricality of the service. Chef Dawn Sieber, an HTM clinical instructor, is there for back-of-house (kitchen) guidance.

Almost a year goes into planning each Black Tie Dinner. Behnke works as a soundboard and sometimes wrangler for the student planners. Early in the event’s history, students were adamant about ice carvings on every table. Those never returned for future dinners. Then, the students attempted to turn Stone Hall into a lavish garden complete with a working fishpond.

“They sodded in the lobby, and I don’t think the dean was happy about that,” Behnke said with a chuckle. “They really get into the look and feel of the event. We try to keep things feasible for the population.”

Behnke said the event hit its stride in the 2000s and has not looked back. The reputation for a good meal and a one-of-a-kind experience in West Lafayette keeps patrons coming back year after year.

“I think the beauty of Black Tie is that the students take ownership of it,” Behnke said. “They don’t do it for credit. They’re giving up their time. They’re training themselves. They’re doing it solely for pride.”

With so much demand, why not go bigger? Behnke doesn’t see that happening due to lack of available kitchen space needed for a larger event. Plus, the quality would suffer, he said.

“This is really the happy number. We really can’t go beyond that (in terms of attendees),” Behnke continued. “But I would love to see more students get involved. The HTM Society is open to any Purdue student, not just HTM. This is something anyone can do.” 

‘In awe’

Andrew and Elizabeth Whittaker light sparklers outside of their small West Lafayette hotel, The Whittaker Inn.

Andrew and Elizabeth Whittaker light sparklers outside of their small West Lafayette hotel, The Whittaker Inn.Photo provided

Whittaker and her husband, Andrew Whittaker (MS, ’99), have attended several HTM Society Black Tie Dinners since their Purdue days. Andrew Whittaker was a graduate student, who helped lead the event, for the first dinner along with serving as the dinner host for the evening, and he is thrilled to see the event grow in size, quality and theatrics. Where else are you going to see dozens of servers set first-course plates all at once like clockwork? It’s almost a dinner and a show.

The Whittakers use their HTM and Black Tie Dinner experiences daily operating their Whittaker Inn, a West Lafayette gem of a small hotel and fine dining venue. Service, presentation and quality product are the foundation of the inn and the hospitality industry in general.

Elizabeth Whittaker isn’t too surprised Black Tie is still going strong because it’s in the hands of HTM students.

“For us, it’s very humbling to go back. We’re just in awe of what the students have grown from our first year to what it is now,” she said. “The pride they take in the event certainly makes us excited to go see what the students dream up with each dinner.”