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College and University Spotlight: 6 Steal-Worthy Campus Dining Moves

Keeping up with the changing needs and increasingly complex demands of their constituents is a constant and invigorating challenge for most college and university dining directors today.

After all, almost nothing about campus dining remains the same as a decade ago. And with the segment having fully embraced its role as a powerful and innovative game changer, there’s almost nothing that progressive campus foodservice leaders won’t try to make their programs more appealing, engaging, efficient, relevant, healthful or sustainable. Here’s a cheat sheet on a few of the bright ideas and smart moves being made by campus dining programs across the country. They range from hot new culinary offerings to student engagement initiatives, security measures, food-education events, plant-based platforms and popular pop-ups. And all were new arrivals to their respective campuses within the past year and a half. Stealing good ideas is allowed, so go ahead — have a look over their shoulders.

Great Idea No.1: The 24/7 Study at Hedrick

  • University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • Opened: January 2017

The modern, comfortable study offers varied seating styles. Photo courtesy of UCLA Housing & Hospitality Services

Synopsis: UCLA completed a $9.1 million remodel that turned an all-you-care-to-eat residential dining hall into a modern, comfortable study space with an integrated bistro/cafe. Offering a Northern European-inspired menu of crepes, tartines, wurst sandwiches, quiches, an artisan bakery, freshly prepared salads, handcrafted drinks, kombucha on tap, a full coffee station with nitro cold-brew coffee, and a grab-and-go marketplace, the cafe serves from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.

The all-hours study area features comfortable lounge seating and tables throughout as well as private study carrels, quiet reading rooms, and soundproof discussion rooms with state-of-the-art technology and write-on wall surfaces to support collaboration. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide ample natural light, and a fireplace lends coziness, while free high-speed Wi-Fi and plenty of charging outlets keep students plugged in and productive.

Why It Scores High: It transformed a dated dining hall in a somewhat remote residential building into an on-trend, multi-use destination for studying, working and relaxing. Also, the cafe introduces a new and unique culinary concept to UCLA’s dining portfolio with the entire menu conducive to eating and studying at the same time — no knife or fork required.

Daily Covers: Approximately 5,000

Key Learnings: Demand exists for self-service kiosks to supplement the current manual/order-and-pay-at-the-counter system. “Students actually prefer kiosks, so we’ll be adding them,” says Al Ferrone, associate director of dining services. “They would also help to speed up service.” In addition, The Study’s cafe menu has expanded beyond its once regular, set menu items to include create-your-own options at each station, which has contributed significantly to the operation’s success.

great idea The Study at Hendrick 1The integrated cafe introduces a new cuisine focus — northern European — to the UCLA dining portfolio. Photo courtesy of UCLA Housing & Hospitality Services

Extra Credit Idea: Inspired in part by Menus of Change initiative guidelines, which advocate for more plant-based eating to improve human and environmental health, UCLA’s Dining Services replaced all of its traditional 100-percent beef, lamb and poultry burgers last summer with proxies made from a blend of meat (70 percent), vegetables and grains. UCLA blends and packs its burgers in-house, investing in the same type of high-capacity patty machine used in meat-packing facilities. And the dining services team went a step further to kick its custom-blended burgers up a notch, developing a recipe that requires cooking down and caramelizing a mixture of mushroom and onion — d’uxelles — prior to blending it with the meat.

“A lot of people just grind mushrooms and blend them in, but that can result in a watery burger. You lose all that meat-type umami by not cooking the liquid out of the d’uxelles,” Ferrone says. The university even recoups some of the cost by supplying blended burgers to a nearby hospital operation.

In any so-called “stealth health” initiative, particularly when serving young students just coming out of high school, the food still has to taste great. Sometimes, that means trying harder, being more creative and doing more testing to ensure that food hits the mark.

Great Idea No. 2: Culinary Nutrition Series

  • University of Missouri
  • Launched: Spring 2017

great ideas Missiouri Culinary Nutrition 1Following culinary- and nutrition-focused information sessions, students work in teams of three to prepare multicourse, family-style meals. Photo courtesy of University of Missouri Dining Services

Synopsis: The University of Missouri spiced up its four-year-old Culinary Discovery Series themed dinners in its in-house teaching/demo kitchen. The Culinary Nutrition Series consists of one part hands-on cooking classes that teach fundamentals and one part nutrition education. The program is a collaborative effort between the school’s dining and nutrition departments, led by Executive Chef Eric Cartwright, CEC, and Assistant Manager Kristen Hasan, RD.

The three-hour evening classes, two per semester, have themes such as “Lean & Mean Protein,” “Plants on the Plate” and “Comfort Food Makeover.” Each of the 12 student participants must reserve a spot in advance and be on a campus dining meal plan. The cost is $28 per class per person, equivalent to four meal swipes.

Divided into four teams of three, students work at cooking stations set up in the teaching kitchen and collectively prepare a multicourse meal they enjoy family-style at the end of the class. “Each class starts out with Eric and/or me or another dietitian presenting information on things like knife skills 101, sanitation, nutrition and healthy cooking techniques geared to featured recipes,” Hasan says. “Then we get into hands-on cooking, with each team preparing components of the meal.”

Student employees of Dining Services and senior-level nutrition students assist in program development, contributing ideas for themes likely to interest their peers. They also assist students as needed during the prep and cooking process.

great idea Missouri Culinary Nutrition 5Signs next to foods indicate possible allergens; the sign near the spaghetti squash lasagna has “dairy” circled. Photo courtesy of University of Missouri Dining Services

Why It Scores High: It leverages an existing facility, existing equipment and current staff to engage with and educate students in a new way. And it’s extremely popular — sessions often sell out within 15 minutes of Dining Services posting new classes on its website. “This new endeavor has been received with great enthusiasm by students. They find it educational, engaging and a contributor to their success here at MU,” says Cartwright.

Key Learnings: Careful menu planning ensures the student teams have equitable assignments and that stations are properly equipped for preparation of the various courses — some hot, some cold. While participants handle most prep from scratch during class, dining services staff pre-prep components in some cases to ensure teams can complete all menu items in the time available. Currently utilizing stations created from dining-height tables in the teaching/demo kitchen, the instructors expect to invest soon in new tables that can adjust to standing prep height for better comfort and ergonomics.

Great Idea No. 3: Dining Advisory Board

  • University of Wisconsin – Madison
  • Launched: Fall 2017

great idea UW Madison At WorkThe Dining Advisory Board meets with Dining Services leadership twice a month to provide feedback, discuss ideas, and sample recipes and products.Photos courtesy of University of Wisconsin – Madison Dining & Culinary Services

Synopsis: Utilizing dollars already allotted for student employment, the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Dining and Culinary Services hired students to serve on a new dining-specific advisory board. The goal was to have a student from each residence hall represent peers who live in the hall or in surrounding buildings. Their primary charge: solicit feedback from students regarding campus dining programs/offerings and gather suggestions for improvement.

The Dining Advisory Board (DAB) meets with senior Dining Services leadership every two weeks, and during off weeks, each member meets with a management representative from his or her home unit. “We talk through new programs and new menus, sample new recipes and products, and bounce ideas off them throughout the year to ensure that our new ventures will be successful,” says Peter Testory, director of Dining and Culinary Services, who says he brought the idea with him from a previous position at another campus. “If we need feedback on a particular topic, we ask them to focus on that for the next two weeks until the next meeting.”

Advisory board students also take on an extra assignment: Working in pairs, they research schools of similar size and gather information on programs or offerings that they’d like UW–Madison to implement. “It’s a great learning experience, both for the students and for our staff,” Testory notes.

In addition, each semester, all DAB representatives must work one special dining hall event in order to experience what goes into planning and executing large-scale events.

Why It Scores High: The DAB provides a direct line of communication and feedback from students who live in residence halls, which previously was lacking. “There was already a Residence Hall Advisory Board in place, but it focuses on general residence hall issues versus dining,” Testory says. “We knew we needed a direct line to our student base so we could ensure changes we’re implementing are in line with their wants and needs. It’s also effective because it has students communicating with students. They like to do things on their own time and are more willing to stop a floormate walking down the hallway and talk about a dining experience than they are to attend a focus group and talk to a bunch of administrators.”

Key Learnings: It’s important to spend time up front training the students on what type of feedback Dining and Culinary Services wants and how students should collect that feedback. “Emphasize that it’s not just about their or their friends’ personal opinions,” Testory cautions. “They need to understand that it’s important to solicit and gather feedback from as many different students as they can.”

Great Idea No. 4: Vegan Pop-Up Dinner

  • University of Michigan
  • Launched: April 2018

great idea Vegan Popup Michigan 4The dinner’s main course showcased carrot “osso bucco,” served with fingerling potato crisps, celery root puree and gremolata.Photos courtesy of University of Michigan Dining

Synopsis: As part of Michigan Dining’s ongoing pop-up series, the culinary team showcased a completely plant-based menu for an event held in April at the East Quadrangle residence hall. “The East Quad community is passionate about sustainability and animal ethics, which drove the team’s embrace of plant-based menu items for this special event,” notes Elliott Rains, marketing coordinator for Michigan Dining.

The vegan pop-up showcased five courses developed by East Quad chefs Allan Sheldon and David Adler, who aimed to showcase vegetables’ versatility and depth of flavor in nontraditional menu presentations. Students enjoyed an appetizer of root vegetable chips (beets, taro, carrots and sweet potato) with cranberry bean humus and olive tapenade. Then came whole-roasted and grilled beet “steaks” stuffed with d’uxelles and topped with aquafaba-based foam flavored with grains of paradise. (Aquafaba is the viscous liquid from canned chickpeas that can be whipped into foams and meringues and used as an egg substitute in vegan baking.) For the third course, students enjoyed braised carrot “osso buco,” served with fingerling potato crisps, celery root puree and gremolata, followed by zucchini roulades filled with creamed cauliflower and spinach. For dessert, the chefs served vegan salted caramel peanut butter truffles with dairy-free soft serve.

great idea Vegan Pop Up MichiganFive vegan courses made up the entirely plant-based menu. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan Dining

Approximately 20 students attended the dinner, each selected via raffle. “That’s typically how our smaller-scale pop-ups are handled,” Rains says. “We publicize the theme, interested students drop a raffle ticket into a box at the designated dining hall and about a week before the event we have a drawing to see who gets to attend. There’s no extra charge — just the same as a regular meal plan or credit-card purchased meal.”

Why It Scores High: It played to the passions and interests in sustainability and meat-free eating expressed by many students living in East Quad. It also gave East Quad chefs a great opportunity to research and add to their plant-based recipe database, and enabled Michigan Dining to showcase its commitment to providing creatively presented, sustainably produced plant-based cuisine. Post-event feedback was overwhelmingly positive and Michigan Dining will likely repeat the event in the coming school year.

Key Learnings: Demand for vegan dining experiences on campus is high, including among students who may not identify as vegan but want more plant-based options. Implementing student feedback is critical in developing such events. “Providing a memorable experience is great, but having the memorable experience be student-driven and building it around what they’re passionate about is even better,” says Rains.

Extra Credit Ideas: To kick off its new Global Chef Series, part of ongoing efforts to expand and enhance the authenticity of international cuisine offerings, Michigan Dining hosted celebrity Indian chef Nishant Choubey for a week of training, cooking and special events in April. Hailing from New Delhi, India, Choubey mentored Michigan’s culinary team on executing authentic Indian recipes and engaged with students throughout the week. Events included chef demos and themed meals in dining halls and cafes, as well as invitation-only samplings.

Student interest in authentic ethnic cuisine demands serious effort to get it right, and weeklong initiatives require exceptional attention to detail in order to execute properly. Careful logistical planning ensured that five days of two to three events per day were executed seamlessly for students. Still, holding multiple events on consecutive days in multiple locations may have been overly ambitious, so for future Global Chef Series visits, the team may opt for a simpler schedule of appearances.

Great Idea No. 5: Bibimbap Bowls

  • Yale University
  • Launched: January 2017

Great idea Yale Hospitality bibimbap 2A new station showcasing Korean bibimbap is a big hit at Yale’s new dining hall. Photo courtesy of Yale Hospitality

Synopsis: Live-cooking stations at Yale’s new Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray residential colleges showcase a rotating selection of bowls, the most unique and marquee version of which is bibimbap.

The quintessential Korean comfort food traditionally consists of warm rice topped with sauteed and seasoned vegetables and gochujang (chili pepper paste), soy sauce, or doenjang (fermented soybean paste). A raw or lightly fried egg and sliced meat (usually beef) are common additions. The dish, often served in a hot clay pot, gets stirred together thoroughly just before eating, with the hot pot serving to crisp the rice and cook the egg.

“We gave it our own twist, creating a plant-centric bibimbap bowl that works in a dining hall setting,” says Chase Sobelman, executive chef and managing director of Franklin and Murray Dining, which connect by a shared kitchen (Read more in Facility Design Project of the Month, page 81.) Yale’s version features brown rice, fresh and quick-fermented daikon radishes and cucumbers, sesame-marinated shredded carrots, shiitake mushrooms and a choice of protein. Fried egg toppers are offered every day, while Korean marinated beef and chicken are offered periodically throughout the week.

While the bowls were initially served as a fully customizable, cooked-to-order specialty, the Yale Hospitality team chose to modify their execution for improved quality and for faster throughput to handle the volume.

“When the students had so many ingredient choices to make, it created long lines at the station,” Sobelman notes. “Also, it really wasn’t resulting in the authentic flavor of bibimbap. By the time the students sat down to eat it, it was more like a warm bowl of rice with toppings, some hot and some cold.”

Staff now pre-prep a base mixture of rice and vegetables, which is then quickly fried to order. Students choose their protein, sauce and whether they want kimchi and/or a fried egg on top. The end result is much closer to an authentic bibimbap experience, according to Sobelman. The front-of-house cooking station equipment includes saute pans, induction burners, a refrigerated prep table and rice cookers.

Why It Scores High: It showcases a unique and beloved ethnic specialty, one unfamiliar to many students, in a semi-customizable, fresh and healthful one-bowl meal. Yale’s Korean student population is delighted to be able to enjoy a favorite homestyle dish. It incorporates fermented vegetables, which are growing in popularity on campus for their intense flavor and healthful properties. It’s easy to execute in the front-of-the-house cooking station.

Key Learnings: In addition to solving the line problem by pre-prepping the rice and vegetable base, Yale’s team switched from serving the bibimbap in glass bowls to melamine bowls. “Glass was great as a heat conductor, but almost too great. The bowls got too hot to hold comfortably by the time students got to their seats,” says Sobelman.

Extra Credit Idea: Yale Hospitality is in the process of updating and rolling out a new version of its app. Set to go live this fall, the app will enable the dining team to know much more about what students want and don’t want, where they’re going, when they’re eating, and the like. Specific new features on the app will enable students to rate menu items, events and facilities and to indicate food allergies, likes, dislikes and favorites.

Great Idea No. 6: Market at Tate

  • University of Georgia
  • Launched: Fall 2017

great ideaInspired by a local c-store concept, Market at Tate offers quick service and freshly prepared items in a modern retail setting.Photo courtesy University of Georgia

Synopsis: Taking inspiration from a local convenience store, University of Georgia Dining Services created a new grab-and-go platform, Market at Tate, in the Tate Student Center. Opened last fall, the 1,500-square-foot venue showcases revamped and upgraded food offerings in a clean, modern retail setting.

“We wanted to build a platform that provides quick service with quality items,” says Robert Holden, associate vice president of Auxiliary Services. “We completely revamped our grab-and-go program, focusing on everything from quality of products and customer input to packaging and labeling. We spent a year reviewing programs, menus and sampling with our students.”

Part of a broader renovation of a multiconcept area at the Tate Center, Market at Tate now shares front-of-the-house space with Barberitos, a quick-serve burrito chain, and Bulldog Burgers, a grill concept, both of which are strong draws for the location, Holden says. One other existing concept, which wasn’t meeting expectations, was eliminated, and the area was reconfigured to make room for Market at Tate. “We had a significant amount of wasted space, with cashier stands and a large beverage island that blocked views of the concepts and took up valuable floor space,” Holden says.

great idea DSC 0291Dining Services completely revamped its grab-and-go program, upgrading everything from ingredients to packaging. Photo courtesy University of Georgia

Why It Scores High: The new concept has been very well received. Beverages from the large cooler island represent the highest sales volume, but the most popular items are the new grab-and-go wraps, salads and sandwiches. They’re made fresh on campus daily, and many feature local ingredients. Menu highlights include a spicy Thai chicken wrap, chili-roasted sweet potatoes, a buffalo tofu wrap and a Southwest salad.

“When we opened the new location, our grab-and-go items sold out before noon,” Holden says. “For the next several days, we doubled the number of items prepared every day until we reached the level where we could maintain products throughout the day. With the new Market, sales in this location are more than double what our previous sales were, and our labor is lower. We’re now getting ready to open another Market this fall and are planning a third location to follow.”

great idea DSC 0473Large refrigerated merchandisers provide quick-and-easy access to a wide variety of beverages and snacks. Photo courtesy University of Georgia

Key Learnings: Don’t underestimate the importance of grab-and-go options as a retail option for campus dining. “People are busy and are looking for quality, quick options,” Holden notes. “We knew we had an opportunity to fill a void, but the success exceeded our expectations.