There's a new lunch spot in Hastings.

It offers soup, salad, sandwiches and comfort food specials of the day -- all of it prepared and served by local high school students.

Trio Café and Catering, a reinvention of the cafeteria in the basement of the Dakota County Judicial Center, opened this month through a partnership of School District 917, the county and the owners of the Green Mill in Hastings.

The teachers of the school district's culinary classes were searching for a place where their students could learn and gain work experience at the same time. The county had an empty cafeteria, complete with tables and chairs, that had been shuttered for about a decade since the last operator retired. The owners of the Green Mill saw a chance to support students and mentor possible employees.

"We're trying to give the students relevant work-based learning," said Dan Hurley, secondary education principal for School District 917. "These are live people who are coming in, who are buying food, who expect the best. These are paying customers."

District 917 offers alternative learning, special education and technical training to students from eight traditional Dakota County school districts.

Dan Cater, a county employee who also serves on the District 917 school board, has stopped in for lunch almost every day since Trio opened.

He has tried the pizza, the soups and the daily specials.

After finishing a salad, Cater said, "It's convenient and there's high quality food."

Steve Nystedt, the county's facilities manager, said he's heard similar comments from other county employees, especially those who can't leave the premises because of court or jail duties. The cafeteria, open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., also provides an option for people called for jury duty who may not be able to leave the building.

"They're really appreciative that there is a nice mix of salads and things," Ny-stedt said. "[The students] are getting compliments on the food."

The students are enthusiastic participants, and as if they needed extra incentive, they eat the food they have prepared for lunch at the end of their shifts.

Asked what they like about Trio, those gathered around a table for a bite before returning to school responded in chorus, "Everything!"

"My favorite thing is just being in the environment of a real kitchen," said Savannah Brown, a 17-year-old from Hastings.

The students work at different stations, stocking the salad bar one day and maybe assembling pizza or sandwiches the next. They also have to take shifts cleaning the dining room and the kitchen.

"It's an awesome opportunity," Brown said, explaining that they are all learning about teamwork. "Everyone has their own part."

For their work in the cafeteria and related classroom time, the students receive high school credit, and if their grades are high enough, credit through Dakota County Technical College.

The school district offers two other introductory culinary classes to give students a taste of food-industry careers.

"By the time they are done, they'll have a portfolio of things they can do, and I can give them a reference," said Cherry Cramer, the teacher who works with the Trio students.

Tim O'Brien, a co-owner of the Green Mill and PTJ Restaurants, said, "Maybe some of these kids end up working here [at Green Mill]. Maybe they're my future managers."

His staff will always be on site at Trio, leading the kitchen, and they will serve when students are unavailable and during the summer.

Trio gave away 600 meals during its soft opening, and it has drawn about 150 people each day so far.

"It's been going really well so far," O'Brien said.

And even though county employees and courthouse dwellers are the primary customers, Trio is open to anyone who is hungry.

"If people are interested and willing to go through security, the public is welcome," Cramer said.

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056