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College Dining: Building the Future – US food trends

30 March 2010
College Dining: Building the Future – US food trends

Seven schools, seven new facilities: Dining managers at colleges and universities large and small across the country give the lowdown on their newest campus dining centers.

This article first appeared in the 1 February 2010 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.

By Christine LaFave Grace, Associate Editor

Designing a foodservice facility to meet the needs and diverse tastes of 18- to 24-year-olds is no simple task. And when the schools profiled here went to students to find out what they would want to see in a new dining hall, comments ran the gamut: more classic American comfort fare, more authentically flavored global dishes; more quiet areas conducive to studying, more-flexible seating arrangements to support socializing. What follows is a roundup of the top trends in new college and university dining facilities and a look at the goals for and standout features of seven new campus dining halls.

Restaurant-style seating:

Authentic equipment for authentic global dishes: Given students' growing interest in and knowledge of ethnic fare, colleges are aiming for authentic preparations with the help of tandoor ovens, Brazilian-style churrasqueiras for skewered meats

Dining on the Go: Online ordering, grab-and-go sandwich/salad stations and payment terminals at individual dining-hall concepts seek to provide superior convenience.

Show-Off Ovens: A wood-burning brick or stone oven is that rare piece of food-prep equipment that's multifunctional (serving up blistered thin-crust pizzas as well as breads and meats) and attractive to look at, and schools increasingly are turning to them as dining-hall showpieces.

Going Even Greener: With recycling, composting and grease-collection programs established, schools are using new builds to move to next-generation green practices. Vegetation planted on the roof of the new dining hall at Grand Valley State University helps reduce heat absorption, lowering the buildings' cooling expenses. Motion sensors and low-flow plumbing at Southern New Hampshire University and the University of Southern California cut lighting and water costs, respectively. The use of recycled building materials helped the new dining hall at James Madison University become the school's first facility eligible for LEED certification.

THE DINING CENTER, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, N.H.

Foodservice provider: Sodexo
Opened: Jan. 15, 2010
Footprint: 47,700 square feet
Cost: $13 million
Seating: 632

Maybe the biggest asset of the brand-new dining center at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), says Director of Facilities Management Bob Vachon, is that it doesn't look like a cafeteria. "We wanted to get away from [that] kind of scenario," Vachon says.

The new two-story facility is decidedly contemporary not only in its look-with a sleek linear aesthetic and floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the first and second floors-but also in how it functions. In the first-floor main dining area, a mix of high-tops, traditional two- and four-tops and booths makes the space seem more like a restaurant, Vachon says, and less like a holding pen. Upstairs, a multifunction room-absent in the now-closed, 1971-built previous dining facility-accommodates 500 in a theater-style setting and will be used for meetings and conferences as well as for small to midsize concerts. Dining Services' catering operation, too, finds a home in the new center, and outside groups dining in the building's private meeting room have a separate side entrance so they don't have to navigate through the main student-dining area to reach their destination.

The standout design element within the serving area is a flatbread-pizza/panini oven, part of Sodexo's LaTrattoria Italian concept. "It's a circular kind of setup; you can see the flames on either side," Vachon says. A separate char grill (Mill City Grill) will serve a variety of burgers as well as chicken and steak-and-cheese sandwiches, he adds, while a Mongolian-style grill is designed to meet students' interest in freshly prepared Asian-influenced fare in a format they recognize from similarly concepted chain restaurants.

Soup-and-salad, deli, home-style and coffee/pastry concepts round out the dine-in offerings; a grab-and-go station, called Express Zone, offers pizza and hot subs as well as prepackaged cold sandwiches and salads. The center is expected to serve approximately 5,000 meals a day, Vachon says.

Among the building's green features are low-flow plumbing in the restrooms, a Web-based energy-management system to allow for real-time temperature regulation, and a white membrane on top of the roof to help reflect light and reduce cooling costs.


RONALD TUTOR CAMPUS CENTER, University of Southern California, Los Angeles

Foodservice provider: USC Hospitality
Scheduled to open: summer 2010
Footprint: 193,000 square feet (total for building)
Estimated cost: $160 million
Seating: TBD

The Ronald Tutor Campus Center, the huge new student-union-like building under construction at USC, will see heavy traffic not just from students but also from faculty and staff and visitors to campus. To appeal to this diverse audience, USC Hospitality sought name recognition in its foodservice offerings, says Kris Klinger, director of USC Hospitality. Hence, diners will find national brands such as Wahoo Fish Tacos and Carl's Jr. as well as USC's signature pub, Traditions (an alumni favorite, relocating across campus). In all, nine dining concepts, including a Mexican concept, an Italian concept, a coffee shop and a grab-and-go, will operate within the center. Online ordering (with dedicated pickup windows for online orders) and the freedom to take out any item served in the dining areas aim to present ultra-convenient dining choices for students and faculty equipment.


HIRAM DINING HALL, Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio

Foodservice provider: AVI Food Service of Warren, Ohio
Opened: Aug. 17, 2009
Cost: $5.4 million
Seating: 440

Eleven-hundred-student Hiram College wanted to leave no detail unanalyzed in planning its new dining hall, given that the building serves as the only major dining facility on campus. Two years ago, as the college began designing the building, members of the student senate traveled to nearby schools to check out the campuses' dining options and generate suggestions for Hiram's building. When the school decided that it wanted to go trayless in the new hall, says Associate Dean of Students Liz Okuma, dining services tested the practice in its now-closed Miller Dining Hall for a semester to determine whether it would work. (It did.) And last spring, students were invited to try out 15 different chairs and vote for a favorite via a feedback form.

Another top priority for Hiram's students was daylight. "The old dining hall was very dark," Okuma says. "Students wanted [this building] to be light, wanted it to be airy." The result of students' demands is a full wall of floor-to-ceiling windows in the seating area.

What else did students want? Of all things, an old-school soft-serve ice-cream machine, Okuma says. "That was surprising," she says-but the school added one. The new hall, which allows carryout only of beverages, features nine main food stations, including a grill (with Reubens and patty melts as well as hot dogs and veggie burgers), a home-style station and an international station that offers selections as diverse as German potato-and-onion pancakes and Indian coconut-curry rice cakes with seared scallops. A wood-burning bread and pizza oven serves as the focal point of the serving area, and expanded food-prep space and a greater number of cooktops means that more food offerings can be served at any one meal.

Additionally, outdoor patio seating gives students the welcome to dine al fresco as the weather allows.

THE CONNECTION, Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, Mich.

Foodservice provider: Aramark
Scheduled to open: August 2010 for foodservice, May for the building's classrooms
Footprint: more than 22,000 square feet
Estimated cost: $6.1 million
Seating: 200

Quick service and customized food offerings were top priorities for Grand Valley State's fifth major dining venue. The two-story mixed-use facility, tentatively called The Connection, is slated to open in August and was designed to provide a convenient dining option for students living in the new (opened between 2006 and 2008) residence halls at the south end of campus. Each of the main dining area's concepts-an exhibition cooking station for entrées and stone-oven-baked pizzas, made-to-order sandwich and salad stations and a beverage station-will have its own (cashless) payment terminal, says Mick Doxey, the university's director of business services. Grab-and-go sandwiches and salads also will be available.

True to its name, the building will have WiFi and will feature numerous outlets for laptop use as well as digital menu boards in the dining room to help students find out the day's food offerings easily and navigate quickly to the concept of their choice.
The new facility also will be home to a c-store and a self-operating Papa John's and four upstairs classrooms. "I think we've done a pretty good job combining dining and learning in one space," Doxey says. "It's going to be a hub of activity." Off-campus students can purchase a $100 meal plan for use in Grand Valley State's dining facilities, Doxey adds.

IKENBERRY COMMONS, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Ill.

Foodservice provider: University Housing, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Scheduled to open: late summer 2010
Footprint: 72,688 square feet for dining areas only; 137,000 square feet total for building
Seating: 1,200

Prior to the ribbon-cutting on a new residence hall in the fall of 2008, University Housing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hadn't opened any major new facility in more than 30 years. "We're a little behind the 8 ball in terms of doing anything new," says Don Block, the campus's director of dining services. So University Housing looked to students for suggestions early on in its planning for Ikenberry Commons, which replaces two nearby dining halls and is scheduled to open in late summer. "We asked them, ‘When you're at home, where do you eat?'" Block says. What students said they wanted was more of everything-more comfort food, more vegetarian fare, more international foods, and more space to socialize or meet with groups rather than just eat and run. From a menu standpoint, Ikenberry will address students' diverse demands by offering everything from scratch-made donuts (rolled out and baked in view of students) to Brazilian-style grilled meats. An Asian specialty restaurant will highlight flavorful sauces and accents such as curries and kimchee. Dining space will be available on the first and second floors (900 and 300 seats, respectively); nine meeting rooms and one multipurpose room will provide gathering spaces for groups.

BATES DINING COMMONS, Bates College, Lewiston, Maine

Foodservice provider: Bates Dining Services
Opened: Feb. 24, 2008
Cost: $21 million
Seating: 950

Students have been "ecstatic" about two-year-old Bates College Dining Commons, says Dining Services Director Christine Schwartz.

A new vegan station, which serves a variety of animal-product-free items at lunch and dinner every day, has been remarkably popular with students, she says-and not only with dedicated vegans but also with the growing number of diners who seek very simply prepared vegetables and grains. "They want [these items] simply done, steamed," says Schwartz. "At every meal, we have four vegetables." Vegan entrées include mixed-bean stew and gluten-free chana masala (a spicy Indian chickpea-based dish). A brick oven also has proved a hit with both students and dining staff, with the latter group excited about the equipment's versatility: During the day, it bakes pizzas; overnight, it roasts beef or pork for pulled-meat sandwiches to be served the following day.

EAST CAMPUS DINING HALL, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va.

Foodservice provider: Aramark
Opened: Aug. 18, 2009
Footprint: 50,000 square feet
Estimated cost: $18.8 million
Seating: 700

James Madison already offered a choice of 21 dining locations-including units of popular national chains as Chick-fil-A and Quiznos-when it embarked on plans for a facility to serve students on the east side of campus. But rather than expand its portfolio of big-name brands, the university decided to return to the tried-and-true format of all-you-care-to-eat dining.

"With the economy, our students are looking for that value price point," says Stephanie Hoshower, resident district manager of Aramark and director of dining services at James Madison, explaining that James Madison decided an all-you-care-to-eat facility would hold more value-based appeal for hungry college diners than an Á la carte food court would. With all-you-care-to-eat, "[students] feel like they're getting a full plate," Hoshower says. Moreover, she notes, the lack of national restaurant brands in the new, clean-lined and contemporary-looking hall puts the focus on dining services' signature creations, such as the Buffalo mash (mashed potatoes combined with chicken tenders in a barbecue hot sauce) and dog-bone-shaped cream puffs (James Madison's mascot is the Duke Dog), which have developed a strong following among students. That's not to say that the menu is strictly traditional-a tandoor oven bakes up both fresh naan and skewered meats every day, and a showpiece pizza oven, with flames roaring for students to see, delivers thin-crust pies.

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