New Center Lets Students Break Bread in Style
Augustana College sits perched on a scenic 115-acre wooded campus in Rock Island, Ill. Founded in 1860 by Swedish settlers, its history is long and rich, but its food options — a couple of c-stores and, more recently, two small, traditional dining centers — had never been much to write home about.A small, independent liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church,
That all changed last fall, however, with the opening of the college's newly expanded and renovated Center for Student Life (CSL). The $20 million project connected the CSL with the school's library and added meeting rooms, offices, student gathering spaces and a dazzling new Marché-style dining operation that took the place of the two existing halls. Positioned as a central hub that provides a connection from the residence halls on the upper campus to academic buildings on the lower campus, the new CSL has achieved what was a primary objective for the space: "to provide a comfortable, well-designed space where students could come together, relax, study and break bread together," says Garry Griffith, director of dining.
Located on the fifth floor, the dining center covers some 35,000 square feet and operates on a new all-you-care-to-eat meal plan system. Its main kitchen and two restaurant concepts sit in the existing building, which was once part of the library, and the balance extends into the new addition. A large, open space, the dining center features a circular layout with a mezzanine overlooking the floor below. Large windows offer dramatic views of the wooded campus beyond, and liberal use of stone, exposed ceiling beams, earthy colors and sustainable materials create a comfortably rustic yet contemporary environment. A hydroponic wall in the dining room, measuring roughly 12 feet long, grows 5 tiers of fresh herbs for the chefs' use and this spring served to start vegetable seedlings for Augie Acres, the school's organic vegetable garden.
Built with sustainability as a priority, the center is trayless: Students taking food out receive reusable to-go boxes; napkins are the only paper products the operation uses; and all hoods have infrared sensors and activate only when the cooking area below is hot. Augustana composts the food waste, which local farmers use, and converts waste oils to biofuels.
Such efforts helped the CSL building earn LEED Silver certification. "We looked at everything we could do to be more sustainable," Griffith notes. "It's important to us, and it just makes sense. We knew it would cost a bit more, but we also knew we'd gain that money back over the years."
Now Augustana College's single main dining facility, the CSL offers plenty of all-you-care-to-eat options from seven diverse stations powered by the latest, most energy-efficient display cooking and serving equipment. They include American Grill (sandwiches, burgers, fries), Carvery (roasted meats, home-style entrées and sides), Wild Thymes (vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free), Green Creations (salads, soups, deli, salad bar), Global Fusion (Asian and Middle Eastern specialties), Bella Luna (hearth-baked pizzas, pastas, Italian specialties), and the Söt (Swedish for sweet) dessert station. The center also includes the Breakfast Nook, which is open all day, and three separate self-serve beverage stations.
The layout positions the various concepts throughout the fifth-floor space and intersperses them with seating areas that accommodate roughly 720 diners. "We wanted this type of layout because we knew it would help us to avoid long lines, particularly at peak service periods," Griffith says. "It's also designed to provide a variety of types of seating and be comfortable for students to spend time in — not just eating, but on their computers, visiting with a friend, studying or socializing in groups."
Most of the food stations offer a variety of customizable and made-to-order items but also have a few grab-and-go options. "At the deli, for instance, we might have brie and apple paninis ready to go, or you could wait and have one of the specialty paninis on the menu created fresh for you. We've found that offering both options — made-to-order and grab-and-go — at most of the stations works well. It meets the needs of students who are in a hurry and helps us to avoid lines," Griffith says. "Once in a while we'll have a line at the Asian wok station, but I've never seen a line longer than 10 at most."
That wok station (Global Fusion) and Bella Luna were strategically positioned toward the rear — in the old building to the right of the main entrance — as both were rightly anticipated to be among the busier of the center's concepts. Both are equipped for self-contained operation, with their own small kitchen and walk-in refrigeration unit behind them, and don't rely on the facility's main kitchen for support.
Global Fusion sizzles with two large and three smaller high-BTU woks, rice cookers and fryers for preparing items like pot stickers and egg rolls. Bella Luna's marquee piece of equipment is its gas-fired stone pizza oven, which turns out a variety of traditional and specialty pies throughout the day. It also features a pasta bar with various toppings and sauces for students to customize their selections, as well as set signature menu items.
The balance of the concepts reside in the new portion of the building, to the left of the open mezzanine entry area. While fully equipped for service with refrigeration and the appropriate quick-cooking and warming platforms, these concepts receive support from the facility's main kitchen, which sits directly behind them. Griffith estimates that kitchen, which also services catered meetings and other campus functions, takes up 20 percent of the total space.
The kitchen area also includes a full-service bakery that's visible through large porthole-style windows behind the Söt dessert station. "It's great to let the students see items being prepared in the bakery," he says. "Even though we had a bakery in our previous dining center, it was hidden, and a lot of the students didn't realize that we made the majority of our baked goods right here."
From the bakery to the front Marché stations, Griffith adds, the facility boasts state-of-the-art cooking equipment that makes it possible for Dining Services to offer a very diverse slate of menu offerings and to change menus daily to keep things fresh. "The equipment that we have is fantastic," he says. "It gives us so much flexibility, and the quality of the food that we're able to produce is just amazing. "
Indeed. While the new dining center has made students very happy, it is also generating returns that are sure to make the school's administration smile as well. Revenue is up considerably, Griffith says, and profitability increased almost 200 percent last year over the prior year.
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