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What's on the Menu: Successful Changes

Campus dining must step up to the plate--by revamping facilities, trying out new programs, or making friends with local facilities--to bring better service to the counter.
University Business, Aug 2007

Today's college students are not shy about giving compliments or voicing concerns about their school's dining services. When it comes to speaking up about their culinary concerns, they are savvy customers: seeking variety, meeting dietary needs, knowing where their food comes from and how it's prepared, or just wanting a tasty and/or nutritious meal.

Three of the following examples speak of major overhauls, while one describes the importance of giving back to the community in an earth-friendly manner.

Recognizing that college dining is an essential component of campus life, Johns Hopkins has performed major surgery on its resident dining facilities this past year.

Dissatisfaction among both students and administration was quite high, says Dave Furhman, director of Dining Programs. Back then, the preparation and serving of food was in a cafeteria-line fashion.

"We had aging facilities; the menu [we had] did not appeal to our students," he says. "We wanted to make an upgrade to our menu and facilities in order to serve fresher, more quality food. This really stems from the university's desire and need to expand and improve the campus's dining experience," says Furhman. After a nationwide search, Johns Hopkins picked Aramark to be its new dining provider in July 2006.

Large-scale renovations involved two resident dining facilities. One, formerly the Terrace Court Cafe and now called the Fresh Food Cafe, has remained a resident dining facility. The other, formerly called Wolman Station, is now Charles Street market, a convenience store featuring the bagel chain Einstein Bros.

In addition, work on Nolan's, a multipoint retail dining facility in the university's new Charles Commons Complex, was completed last September.

Dining programs incorporate sustainability. Along with using locally grown produce and locally caught seafood, Johns Hopkins outsources its baking needs to an area-based artisan bakery, providing goods such as brioche and pastries. The university also uses cage-free eggs and hormone-free milk, and to-go food is packed in biodegradable containers. Tables made out of bamboo are used in the Fresh Food Cafe. Pura Vida, the on-campus coffee shop in Leverine Hall, sells organic, shade grown, fair trade coffee.

Listening to students' dining needs has brought many innovations in meeting dietary requirements, such as providing gluten-free and kosher foods. This fall, John Hopkins will bring in halal products for students who follow Islamic dietary laws.

Meals have also been changed as well. The plan for freshmen has gone from a block plan system to a traditional plan, while plans for sophomores and upperclassmen are now all declining balances, Furhman says, "which gives them the most flexibility" with their meals.

Getting positive reactions, Furhman says, "the fact we are listening to our customers ... and responding to whatever customers are asking for [is] translating into a very successful dining program on campus."

Through local partnerships, the University of Minnesota practices sustainable responsibility within its community.

In April 2007, University Dining Services (UDS) switched to using cage-free eggs in all residential restaurant locations. It also offers at least one fair trade coffee at every dining location on campus and operates three Java City EcoGrounds coffee houses. Transfat-free cooking oil is recycled for biodiesel products. In 2006, the Centennial Residential Restaurant on campus donated 1,200 gallons of used oil to be recycled.

A client of Aramark's, the university recently participated in RecycleMania, a nationwide recycling competition among universities in the nation. From January through March 2007, six dining halls (Centennial, Comstock, Middlebrook, Sanford, Pioneer, and Bailey) collected 57,000 tons of cardboard to be reused. Each UDS venue uses recycled paper napkins, with more than 7.2 million paper napkins made from recycled materials used in 2006 on campus.

In support of local agriculture, UDS developed an ongoing partnership with Midwest Food Alliance, an organization that provides certification of products grown with environmentally friendly and socially responsible agricultural practices in the Midwest. UDS also participates in the Minnesota Heartland Food Network, which increases the availability and variety of local and organic food items on campus.

Bistro West Restaurant, in the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, an academic building on the university's West Bank campus, features local and organic food entrees daily. It hosts a monthly event series called "Third Thursdays," in which a local guest chef is invited to prepare and serve a signature product made from local ingredients.

Organic offerings are also available at on-campus dining locations such as residential C3 Markets (convenience stores located in residence halls) in Centennial, Middlebrook, and Sanford Halls, and at retail locations such as Essentials Market in Blegen Hall and M Deli in Coffman Union. The Greens to Go Station at Coffman Union's Minnesota Marketplace offers organic greens in made-to-order salads.

In partnership with the university's Facilities Management department and Hennepin County, UDS developed a pilot program to recycle organic compost waste in residential dining locations. It began in late June, according to Leslie Bowman, director of UDS, Contract Administration.

It is also involved in the Campus Kitchens Project, a nationwide student-run program that works with universities to collected unused food and deliver it to those in need.

"It's important for University Dining Services to be good stewards [to] the environment and to incorporate any environmental programs that we can, sustainability being one of the most important to us," says Bowman.

As the first school to implement Chartwells' "Pulse on Dining" program--which centers on fresh/healthy food options and customer service--Marywood has served not only as the site for its yearlong testing stage, but officials there also wrote the Pulse menu, says Tom Notchick, director of Dining Services. "Pulse on Dining focuses on service and menu selections," he explains. "Our menu offerings are not driven by a sign from a station, but driven by the equipment behind the station and thinking about what I can do back here." Marywood began implementing the Pulse program in September 2005.

Prior to "Pulse on Dining," Marywood operated Chartwells' "Running the Profiles," with every food station named after the food served there. Nowadays, Marywood runs an 18-day cycle menu, revamped during the summer of 2006, that's revised every fourth Tuesday of the month, in which the cycle attempts not to repeat an entree. The cycle runs about 1,100 different entrees. "You get menu fatigue quickly because you see the same foods every day," says Notchick. The program helps maintain variety. For example, a hearth oven doesn't just cook pizza every night. It may be used for roasting or baking instead.

The "old cafeteria server" format, Notchick notes, made for very little or no interaction between student and staff, in that "nobody talked to the customer" when a student was receiving a serving.

To fix this problem, plates have been moved to the counter in front of the line. Servers have to ask the student for a plate to place the meal on, a request that initiates eye contact and conversation, Notchick explains. "It's almost like an icebreaker," he says.

Since the Chartwells program started at Marywood in July 2004, participation in dining services has increased by 30 percent. More nonmandatory meal plan students are now purchasing plans, with Notchick estimating a 10 to 15 percent increase.

At Louisiana State University, remodeling plans are underway for its Laville Food Emporium. The facility will incorporate LSU's first "Pulse on Dining" program for the fall 2007 semester, according to Chartwells' Resident District Manager David Heidke. Renovations will turn the facility into an upscale dining hall with customized dining options. Work is scheduled to be completed this month.

Presently, LSU Dining operates its Highland and Pentagon dining facilities. These venues handle traditional residence meal plan operations, with an "All You Care to Eat" program of traditional college fare: pizza, deli, grill, display cooking, and a traditional hot line, along with a vegetarian area called Tera Ve. The Union, a retail dining location, offers national brands, including Pizza Hut and Chick-fil-A.

Once Laville is reopened, Pentagon will be closed for renovations to be transformed into LSU's second "Pulse on Dining" facility, scheduled to open in the fall of 2008. At that time, Heidke says Highland will be closed.

A small C-Store (the "C" stands for convenience), open until 1 or 2 a.m., will be incorporated in both Pentagon and Laville. Both sites will have a Pizza Hut Express and a Taco Bell.

Later evening meal service won't be entirely new, as LSU Dining currently provides extended service until 10 p.m. in its Union Sandella's. This past semester, Sandella's experienced an increase in evening meal trades of almost 500 per week. Heidke attributes this to its new location in the Union: in the backside of the Tiger Lair food court. The late night program was a trade-off from a previous Highland offering, known as the "Highland Grille," that ran until 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

Pulse's "My Pantry," a feature equivalent to a home kitchen, will be included in both Pentagon and Laville. Heidke likes how, with Pulse, students can watch chefs as they prepare dishes. The feature of right-on-the-spot food preparation will be a big thing, he adds. "Students will have more input in the food they are eating."

Cooking classes are another perk. Students will be provided with some culinary "how-to" for postcollege living. "When they graduate, if they want to, they can prepare a meal other than macaroni and cheese," Heidke says.

Additionally, LSU Dining will feature a 14-day rotation cycle to avoid the constant offering of staples that can quickly become stale options.

With $5.8 million in meal plan income, student enrollment in the meal plan has steadily increased in the past four years. For example, in the fall of 2002, 75 percent of students living on campus were participating in the meal plan. Four years later, in the fall of 2006, virtually all on campus students were enrolled, plus a number of off campus and apartment students.

Meal plan usage has continued to grow with off-campus students as well, Heidke says.

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