Kitchen Plays Starring Role at New Hollywood Campus

Emerson Kitchen is a 7,000-square-foot street-level facility that’s part fast-casual restaurant, part coffee shop and part c-store.In January of this year, Boston-based Emerson College raised the curtain on its new Los Angeles campus, giving a permanent and iconic home to the school's internship program for seniors working toward degrees in visual media arts and related fields. Located on Sunset Boulevard in the historic studio district, the campus puts Emerson students in the heart of Hollywood's film, theater and music production industries.

The living-and-learning campus consists of a single building — a stunning 10-story, $110 million complex designed by Pritzker Architecture Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne at L.A.-based Morphosis. Built to LEED Gold certification standards, Emerson's L.A. campus can house up to 217 students and includes wired classrooms, an open-air screening and live-performance space, state-of-the-art postproduction and screening rooms, computer labs and a high-tech distance learning center.

It also includes amenities that help ensure the "living" side of the living-and-learning equation gets top billing. Playing a starring role here is Emerson Kitchen, a 7,000-square-foot street-level facility that's part fast-casual restaurant, part coffee shop and part c-store. The only foodservice facility onsite and available to students on the ELA meal plan (all in the program have a meal plan included with their housing fees), Emerson Kitchen is managed by Sodexo Campus Dining, which in the fall of 2013 won the contract for Emerson College in Boston.

While essentially a modern microcosm of a more traditional campus, the Los Angeles facility provided some unique foodservice challenges. The program, now in its 27th year, previously provided rental apartments and academic spaces in Burbank for students coming out from Boston to complete their senior internships. They were on their own for meals.

Now, students live in what is essentially a residence hall — one of the building's two towers is used for housing. "Being seniors, most of these students had lived on their own for a couple of years; on the Boston campus, housing is provided for freshmen and sophomores, but most others are in apartments," says Jay Phillips, associate vice president for facilities and campus services at Emerson. "Now they're going back to a dorm environment, albeit a very special one. As such, the food piece was discussed quite a bit. We debated if we should let them fend for themselves at nearby restaurants, of which there are many affordable options, allow them to cook their own meals within the facility, or provide some sort of dining hall or café for meal support. The end result is a little bit of all of the above."

A common kitchen in the residential tower provides the equipment and supplies necessary for do-it-yourself meals, and a large outdoor terrace on the fifth floor is set up with barbecue grills. But Emerson Kitchen, which operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., is most students' go-to spot for at least one or two daily meals. As part of the meal plan, each has $1,800 Board Bucks to spend during the semester, a value roughly equivalent to what meal plans offer students in Boston.

Offering freshly prepared foods in a fast-casual format, Emerson Kitchen's menu features items like spinach and artichoke dip, macaroni and cheese, a vegetable risotto plate, Caesar salad, a chicken pesto BLT sandwich, a bacon bleu cheeseburger, chile con carne and flatbread pizzas. Vegetarian, vegan and gluten- and allergen-free foods are always available, and a large percentage of the menu is produced with organic, locally sourced ingredients.

Culinary staff cook menu items to order in a partially exposed back of the house that comprises roughly 60 percent of the total footprint, according to
Phillips. In addition to serving Emerson Kitchen proper, that facility also serves as a production kitchen for catered events, which Phillips anticipates will increase as alumni and business and community organizations become more aware of the campus. An elevator positioned directly behind the kitchen facilitates easy transport of food and equipment for special events on upper floors.

High-Tech, High-Touch Service

Like many campus dining facilities today, ELA, utilizing Sodexo's Food on Demand (FöD) system, offers high-tech amenities designed to speed service and enhance convenience. Students and visitors use kiosks to place their orders. While the system currently requires the additional step of heading to the cashier to pay once the order is entered, Phillips says the operation is being enhanced to allow the entire transaction to be completed at the kiosks.

Once they've ordered and paid, guests each take a number. They can linger along the cooking line to watch staff prepare the food; or if they prefer, customers can get their drinks, find seats and wait for a staff member to deliver the orders to their tables. "You don't see it often in campus dining, but we have expediters who deliver the meals to the tables," Phillips says. "It's part of how the Food on Demand system is designed. It works well for us because our space is pretty tight. It gives us a lot of flexibility to provide great service for students eating in as well as those taking out."

The FöD program also includes an app that enables students to order their food and schedule a pickup time remotely. The enhancements being made to the kiosk program will also allow remotely submitted transactions to be completed at the time of order rather than pickup. "It hasn't been a big issue, but that will ensure that we don't suffer losses in the event a student places an order and then changes his or her mind and doesn't pick it up," Phillips says.

The Emerson Kitchen also includes a version of Sodexo's coffeehouse concept, Jazzman's Café. Customers can choose from fair-trade coffees, a variety of teas and fresh-baked pastries.

The third component of the space, a retail area, stocks grab-and-go items and grocery staples, from organic canned goods to ramen noodles. "We're continuing to tweak the retail product assortment," Phillips notes. "Initially, we focused on locally sourced and organic as much as possible, to the point where we actually overdid it. The students let us know that while they want that option and appreciate it, they also want to be able to grab basic junk food. So it has to be a balance."

Open to the public as well as to students, Emerson Kitchen generated an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of sales from nonstudent guests in its first semester. With its pleasant Sunset Boulevard sidewalk seating area, in the shadow of what's being called one of LA's most iconic new buildings, it's a stage set for more action in the years to come.


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  • No. of students: 217 capacity
  • Operation: Sodexo Campus Dining
  • Meal plan participants: All students
  • Dining locations: 1, Emerson Kitchen
  • Average daily transactions: 500 (estimated)
  • Total employees: 32, including management


Key Players

  • Kevin Bright, founding director, Emerson College Los Angeles
  • Jay Phillips, associate vice president for facilities and campus services, Emerson College
  • Don Carter, director of facilities and dining services, Sodexo
  • Richard Dietz, food operations manager, Sodexo
  • Architect: Thom Mayne, Morphosis
  • Foodservice consultant: Webb Design
  • Equipment: J.F. Duncan Industries, Inc.