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Dining Halls of Distinction

A taste of the best campus dining programs
University Business, Oct 2009

DINING FACILITIES AND PROGRAMS ARE an integral part of campus life. Long gone are cafeteria-style dining areas with cafeteria-quality food. Today’s students can savor a dining experience that rivals the best home cooking and their favorite restaurants?and college and university dining services departments are delivering just that. Program administrators realize that customer service and diner input are key. And they know that both environmental sustainability and financial stability are expected. Our Dining Halls of Distinction represent stellar programs that have features worth emulating elsewhere. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find on these campuses.

Dining Halls of Distinction

New Commons just opened in February 2008, but by student request it feels much like the old dining facility. The main seating area is the same size, with a similar vaulted ceiling. And if the tables look familiar, that’s because many were reused. The $24 million facility, designed by Sasaki Associates, serves as the center of interaction on the campus (Bates has no student center building).

Seating is on two levels, with booths and tables for two to 10. With some of the seven offering types located at the center of the servery and others on the outskirts, traffic flow is steady; within 30 to 45 minutes, 500 people or more can get through.

One of the first college members of the Green Restaurant Association, Bates’ dining program is sustainable from its core on out. Built to LEED Silver standards, the facility is self-ventilated, using 100 percent Maine renewable electricity. A grease recovery system allows the sale of oil to a biodiesel producer. The main ceiling features reclaimed wood, and local finishes and bricks were used. A full 82 percent of waste is diverted from the waste stream?composted, recycled, or sent to a pig farmer. There’s no need for a dumpster. Nearly one-third of the food budget is spent locally, thanks in part to a $2.5 million endowment gift in 2008 for local, natural, and organic food purchases. Buying locally in season, as well as buying in bulk, seeking opportunities for combined purchasing and aftermarket buying, and decreasing delivery frequency has helped keep costs in check.

Keeping student concerns in check involves manager face time and a food advisory committee that meets twice a month. The dining team also engages students by having some fun with responses on its napkin board?which can be viewed both in the dining facility and virtually. After all, late-night cravings and brainstorming go hand in hand. Continued:

With 28,000 square feet, The Fresh Food Co. at West Campus is Boston University’s largest main dining facility. Operated by Aramark, it primarily serves residents of the two high-rise dorms it links as well as three others close by. The facility has a nostalgic view?BU’s athletic field, former home to the Boston Braves team from which Babe Ruth retired.

Inside, guests can eat at bar stools, circular booths, or tables for two to eight. Glass partitions and stone columns break up the eating area into comfortable nooks, and wall-to-wall carpeting and upholstered banquettes help keep noise levels down.

Ingredients are on display and meals prepared in sight. Students are encouraged to enjoy each course separately, heading back for more as appetites allow. Diners tend to save room for the famous West Burger, BU’s own version of a patty melt. Although the urban campus setting offers many alternate dining options, students have reported that the meals here “rank right up there with the best restaurants they’ve ever visited,” says Craig Hill, associate vice president for auxiliary services. During an April open house, accepted students get a taste of campus dining at an upscale (yet casual) lunch.

Dining staff undergo initial and ongoing training, and premeal meetings ensure that everyone is current on menus and customer service focus points. E-mail surveys, focus groups, and Dining Service Advisory Board meetings keep the team current on what matters most to students. Catering to the high expectations of Millennials for sustainability, programs involve sustainable food choices, energy usage, waste management, and green cleaning. A sustainability bulletin board features stats on recycling, local food items of the month, and a farmer profile?proving that even at a large urban campus students can feel in touch with the local agricultural community. Continued:

Sights and sounds found only at Virginia Commonwealth and creative programming make Market 810 at Shafer Court Dining Center stand out. Murals created by VCU artists adorn the walls, and the student-run radio station feeds the ears. Built in 2004 for $18 million, the facility was designed by Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company of Norfolk, Va., and is run by Aramark. Located atop a winding staircase, Market 810 maintains the look of a restaurant, with bar seating, standard tables, high-top tables, bench seating, and exhibition seating arranged in pods around various food stations. There’s also a quiet zone. Among the seven stations is Upper Cuts, featuring premium items that guests can purchase with an extra dining plan block or pay for outright. Students can also attend events such as a late-night breakfast before exams (where they can mingle with professors and administrators and play games while eating), a monthly guest restaurant (with meals prepared by a local ethnic dining establishment), as well as arcade, Vegas, and karaoke nights. Not surprisingly, a full 45 percent of plan participants dine here voluntarily. Many visitors may well have first been won over during open house events, during which prospective students and their parents dine at the facility for free. The program has all of the in vogue sustainability features?from local food to trayless dining. Approximately 425 pounds of food are diverted from the landfill during the semiannual Waste Week, and at all times window clings are placed near self-service food and drink stations reminding students to watch portions. The facility also has a solar trash compactor, and its floor is cleaned by an ionically charged system.

Employees are charged with providing exceptional customer service, and feedback is collected through a semiannual survey, guest intercept surveys (typically used to test a new concept and conducted with a touchscreen device), comment cards (with responses posted within 48 hours), and monthly food advisory meetings that students can attend. Suggestions are prioritized based on legality, morality, and affordability; pertinence to the majority; and the anticipated implementation timeline. Considering the atmosphere of this dining center, however, students may well want to sit and wait. Continued:

Located in Bucknell’s student center and managed by Parkhurst Dining Services, The Bostwick Marketplace has menus that mirror the ethnic diversity and developed palate of the student body, with one-quarter of offerings focused on world cuisine through the Hemisflavors program. At the Egg Bar, Mongo Bongo (Mongolian BBQ), and Bravisimo stations, everything is prepared to order. Beverage stations are located in the dining room, and the ice cream station and Wall of 16 Cereals are near the back exit door?all helping to prevent congestion in the servery. Through the Be a Refiller program, students can buy a sticker for a buck and display it on their own mugs to get a price reduction on refills. On-the-go students can grab a special take-out meal and be on their way; a reusable plastic container is sold for $5, and students can bring it back to exchange for a clean one.

To gauge student opinion, the dining team conducts two 300-guest satisfaction surveys and several focus groups each year (student catering and new pizza concepts are some past topics). Outside one entrance a digital picture frame shows responses to submitted comments. Students can also share their thoughts with two peers who serve as dining sustainability coordinators. Other green efforts: One-quarter of produce is purchased locally (which also helps keep costs in check), and biannually a “local and organics” dinner features products from local growers, farms, dairies, and purveyors. To keep quality and customer service top of mind, culinary staff undergo a mandatory Culinary Institute of America web-based training program, and all staff participate in regular associate training.

The facility shows so well on tours, which may bring 100 families a day through the space, students have reported that it not only was a deciding factor in enrollment but that it caused them to question other institutions’ dining programs. Management will chime in during tours, particularly to answer questions about special dietary needs. About 20 private storage bins within reach of the cooks are available for students who need particular ingredients. It’s just one example of how a dining program can think globally while paying attention to the details. Continued:

Students can order from Trim Dining Hall’s menus via a touch-screen ordering system. The student body is 20 percent international, hailing from 64 countries, so ethnic cuisines are incorporated into the menus. A self-service spice and condiment area allows guests to add extra flavor. During a monthly meeting with admissions staff, the dining operations manager discusses new offerings that tour guides can highlight. The dining team’s flexibility got tested during a recent norovirus outbreak on the small, suburban campus. Bagged lunches and dinners were provided through retail caf? areas to help limit the spread of the virus while staff cleaned the entire campus vigorously. Continued:

Highlights: Colonnades Dining Hall has three distinct dining areas so students can change up their dining experience. Efforts to increase cost efficiency include making more items from scratch, which also allows for better quality and variety. The Elon Dining Services Facebook page allows current students to get updates on specials and promotions, and posted photos give prospective students a closer look at campus dining venues. Continued:

At The Dining Center, students can make their own sandwiches and press their own paninis?and even serve as guest chefs at the “eggs to order” station. Vegetarians and vegans help themselves from a fridge filled with deli protein items. And students run an on-campus organic garden for greens and herbs used in the facility. Among the many theme dinners, a Thanksgiving feast served family style by faculty and staff is most popular. The “Spoil ’em Long Distance” program offers delivery of birthday cakes, cookies, and seasonal baskets and makes about 700 deliveries on campus annually. Continued:

Highlights: Rathbone, the largest of three main dining facilities, underwent a $1.5 million renovation in 2005 that updated its look to that of a restaurant. A variety of seating options include a side room seating 80 that has a 60-inch flat-screen TV. Dining Services meets regularly with student groups to help in decision making and partners with admissions staff to ensure that dining facilities are assisting them in attracting prospective students. Continued:

Highlights: Hayden Dining Hall is one of six full-service dining facilities on campus. A 2007, $2.3 million renovation used green construction practices. A service-oriented culture is maintained through initial and annual training in service, an employee recognition program, and a customer-service dining task force that involves frontline employees sharing success stories, discussing opportunities, and recommending tactics to improve customer satisfaction. Continued:

Highlights: Newly renovated and expanded in a $22 million project, Reisner Hall is the largest of three main dining facilities. Its L-shaped dining area offers views of campus from every table. To help maximize traffic flow, each concept area offers options for a complete meal. So a guest at the Mongolian Grill will also find assorted salads, vegetables, and desserts at that station. Training classes and an annual daylong retreat at a nearby state park, mandatory for employees, helps ensure a high level of guest service. Continued:

Highlights: Boozel Dining Hall recently underwent $7.5 million in renovations, reopening with eight open-kitchen food stations. A new glass atrium lobby features a “grab-n-go” concept and soft seating so friends can comfortably wait for each other. The program generates significant income, in part because of waste reduction efforts. An annual culinary camp is hosted for cooks and chefs, and chefs attend quarterly culinary councils for networking and for exposure to marketplace innovations. Third-party auditors and a mystery shopper program help ensure top customer service. Continued:

Highlights: Whitney Commons features a contemporary black-and-white color scheme with views of campus on one side and a glass wall overlooking the university center’s atrium on another. Chefs offer one recipe a week from a student’s home, crediting the family?a program that culminates in a best home recipe contest. A follow-up survey after campus visit day includes questions on the dining program. Continued: