An ongoing evolution in dining operations has been in effect on college and university campuses across the country for some time now. Gone are the days of mealtime cafeteria tray lines in institutional settings, serving three squares.
An ongoing, overarching trend in the design of current campus dining concepts brings the preparation of different meals and menu items out-front in exhibition-style cooking platforms, supported by back-of-house central kitchens and production facilities. This style brings all kinds of cooking and holding equipment front and center in dining facilities, effectively marketing an operation at the most basic level. The inclusion of out-front stations featuring wood or gas-fired equipment such as Charassco grills, Mongolian grills, smokers, pizza ovens, display woks, tandoori ovens and veggie roasters, equipment borrowed from popular international commercial dining concepts, is also in vogue for display cooking platforms in campus dining facilities.
“Basically, well-functioning, well-equipped campus dining operations can create a profitable endeavor for an institution of higher learning with a higher participation in dining programs, and can even contribute to recruitment of potential students,” says Jim Webb, principal, California-based Webb Food Service Design. “A great work environment can contribute to employee retention, as well.”
Webb believes that in an educational environment, involving student/customers in processes in the foodservice setting, such as including a special “chef's table” program in a campus foodservice kitchen where students may gather to learn to prepare meals and work with recipes, can be a great tool to market campus dining operations. “To market campus foodservice dining successfully, there has to be a positive perception on campus towards the quality of the food served, its value and convenience, as well as the feeling that a dining facility is a comfortable and lively place to hang out and meet with friends and professors, enhancing the college experience. There is a whole dance with design, including foodservice equipment, that contributes to the personality of a facility and to the successful merchandising and marketing of food items and menus.”
In Eleven 01 Café and Lounge, the newest residential dining renovation at the University of Washington, Seattle, even the central production kitchen is open to patrons' view, with three different cook-to-order stations curving around it. A glass-walled, soundproofed “chef's table” area is installed in the heart of the open production kitchen. Outfitted with butcher-block tables on wheels for configuration flexibility, wooden stools, maple cabinets for dishware and cookbooks, and a pull-down screen and boards for presentation, the space is used for training, menu planning and development, special dinners and events, and student cooking classes. Executive Chef Jean-Michel Boulot, the team leader overseeing the renovation, says that the old cafeteria was completely gutted and walls were removed to create the space for a new type of dining facility, with an out-front servery and seating areas seamlessly flowing into a retail/lounge area for students.
“When I first came to the University of Washington five years ago, I was given the task of transforming an outmoded dining program that was getting very bad press — greasy food, frozen food and mystery meat were the norms, and nobody was happy with it,” Boulot says. “The first order of business was to get rid of steam tables and bring small-batch cooking with fresh, high-quality ingredients upfront. Our first stations at our first renovation were tappanaki-style grills, where I learned how high-volume exhibition cooking could work for us.
“We've learned a lot about marketing our menus during the course of the first two renovations here,” Boulot continues. “We believe in mirroring the commercial dining marketplace, where people know in advance what type of food they want, and choose a dining experience accordingly. Now, we offer our customers â€˜destination dining' options, with our different locations offering different specialties.”
Instead of emphasizing station variety, Eleven 01 provides rotating menu flexibility in the three main serving areas. The space features no steam tables, of course. Instead, food displayed in small-batch ceramic platters is kept warm on heated ceramic holding counters. A sandwich-soup-pasta bar and grill offers
variety based on customer preference and it is stocked by an integrated baking area in the kitchen to supply fresh pastries and traditional and artisan breads. A regional American cuisine cooking suite provides a wide range of comfort foods on a rotating basis with recipes from the chef's library on display, and menus dictated by market availability of fresh produce and other ingredients. An Asian station includes woks and bamboo steamers as well as a glass, Chinese “barbecue box” that displays fresh whole chickens that are chopped to order and sold as part of a plated meal.
High-impact, animated LCD menu boards are an innovative marketing tool for Eleven 01 Café. “Our menus change based on the best market ingredients available, just like in the finest restaurants, so the menu boards are a great way to let our customers know about our current menus and also any special promotions we may be offering,” Boulot comments.
Julaine Kiehn, director of dining at award-winning University of Missouri-Columbia (Mizzou) and selected team/staff members have traveled on “fact-finding missions” to the University of Washington as well as other distinctive college and university dining operations. “When I see a great idea that could work for our foodservices, I steal it,” Kiehn says. While in London and thinking about an upcoming renovation for Mizzou dining, Kiehn took note of the open-air vertical merchandisers found in a popular grab â€˜n go chain there and, on returning, contacted a major manufacturer who had provided MU with refrigeration equipment for past renovations. “The manufacturer had not, as yet, developed these easy reach-in, air-curtain merchandisers, but decided that it was time that they did,” Kiehn explains. The 18-foot vertical merchandisers are now installed in MU's Emporium, a marketplace concept located in Plaza 900.
Plaza 900 is the most recently completed foodservice renovation at MU and represents a culmination of everything Kiehn and dining services have learned about marketing retail and culinary operations for their customer-driven campus foodservice operation. The complex is the third renovation to feature the dining service's “On Stage” concept with top-quality, out-front range cooking suites supporting display-type, customized meal preparation. “Our On Stage concept of exhibition cooking highlights the freshness of ingredients we are using for dining operations, and also allows students to interact with our chefs, creating a fun, lively dining experience,” Kiehn says. The concept also features Kitchen Corner, where breakfast customers can help themselves to a variety of cereals served from specially designed clear plexi dispensers, or prepare their own waffles using countertop waffle irons.
Plans are underway for the upcoming renovation of the Brady Student Center at MU. “As we are moving more and more towards exhibition-style preparation of food items, the equipment we use has become â€˜eye candy' and an integral part of the whole dining experience. In some cases, the aesthetic factor becomes part of equipment purchasing decisions,” says Steve Simpson, director of marketing for MU. “For example, at the coffee concept for the new student center, we want to roast our own coffee beans — this will help market the concept both in the inherent freshness quotient, and by the aromas created by the roasting process to draw customers. In this case, we're looking at attractive bean roasters with brass trim to enhance the visuals for the concept.” Other in-house concepts planned for the student center renovation include a Charassco grill with rotisserie spits and a carving station, a gas-fired pizza oven and the addition of a wood smoker to the back-of-the-house production kitchen to support a barbecue station, a regional favorite menu item.
“For our self-operated dining services' success, the trick is to develop in-house concepts that have the look and the feel of a national brand franchise or reflect trends in commercial restaurants, and choosing the right equipment to support menu concepts is essential,” Simpson says. “Our in-house marketing department does a great job of creating logos and signage that contribute to that goal, as well.”
Special promotions offered through foodservices can be a great marketing tool for campus dining operations. At Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, a “holiday bake sale” held in the campus' newest facility, Schaefer Court, ran from the week before Thanksgiving to the end of the term in December. The special foodservice-sponsored sale was enormously successful thanks to a particular piece of cooking equipment, according to Sean Gay, marketing program manager for the Aramark-contracted foodservice operations. “We were offering whole, 14-pound smoked turkeys along with two kinds of pies, rolls and soup. The turkeys were prepared in the smoker installed in the Ram's Grill concept, one of the six stand-alone concepts in the residents' dining center, Market 810. Although that smoker can handle about 40 turkeys a day in two shifts, we just couldn't smoke those birds fast enough,” Gay says. The bake-sale goodies were offered on a large table set up on the main level of the Schaefer Court building so that anyone could purchase them, either for cash or for a swipe from a meal card that residents use to enter and dine in Market 810 on the second level. “We marketed the bake-sale promotion using table tents in all retail and resident dining locations, as well as on the plasma screen TVs, that help us market promotions inside Schaefer Court. But the best marketing for those turkeys turned out to be students calling friends on their cell phones to tell them to get over to Schaefer and grab a turkey,” Gay adds.
Schaefer Court, including the retail market, Compass Pointe Emporium downstairs and the six dining concepts in Market 810 for resident dining upstairs, were designed with an attractive visual coherence throughout by Chape Whitman, and his team at Ricca-Newmark Design in collaboration with Aramark representatives, including Pam Neff, director of dining for the facility. Colorful tiled and wood-grain fronts, attractive contemporary lighting at stations and in comfortable dining areas designed to flow through the servery area, as well as brushed aluminum signage, all contribute to marketing the upscale, comfortable, modern personality of dining operations. Downstairs, the retail Compass Pointe Emporium includes Sbarro and Vie de France franchise offerings, including proprietary signage, cooking and display equipment, scaled for the campus operation. The Emporium also features a campus C-store including stacked wooden shelves for merchandise display, as well as a walk-in cooler to stock beverages and other refrigerated items from behind, accessed by customers from glass-fronted reach-in doors.
Each of the six platforms found in Market 810 are designed like mini-restaurants and contain an equipment battery to completely support the prep, refrigerated storage, cooking and holding duties required for each concept. A dishroom, bulk storage and offices are found in the back of the house. The servery was designed to offer a wide variety of menu options to appeal to the tastes of just about anyone, including soups and salads, entrées, grilled items, Asian stir-fry and wok items, pizza and pasta, and vegan and vegetarian offerings. “We designed the dining servery at Market 810 with a built-in flexibility so important in campus dining these days,” Whitman says. “Station countertops have plenty of room for the addition of tabletop equipment items, including plug-in induction cooktops for display cooking of offerings such as an omelette station, a tabletop steamer unit for vegetable preparation, or panini grills, when pressed sandwiches are added to menus — which may change daily. We assume when speccing equipment, that new menu items may be added down the road based on student preferences.” Based on student surveys, commonly used by campus dining departments to ascertain performance and possible menu changes, Market 810 is a hit. Plans are currently in the works to add kiosks to the facility that would provide information on menus and their caloric and nutritional components, and could even track a student's diet through the course of a semester.
What the operator looks for when making a purchasing decision:
- When making purchasing decisions for campus dining facilities, operators look for functionality, durability, maintainability and “cleanability.” Operators are also concerned that equipment is serviceable in their market, as some campuses may be located in more remote areas.
- Due to budgetary considerations, operators require equipment that fits a profile of cost vs. benefit. Some products may be an attractive option but may not be feasible given their lofty price tag.
- On campuses, operators frequently deal with renovations in existing facilities and must consider space, exhausting and utility capabilities for that location when considering new equipment purchases.
- Considering the trend in bringing food preparation out-front in campus dining facilities, operators sometimes look for an aesthetic visual appeal in equipment choices.
Suppliers should be aware:
- Suppliers and designers should be aware when recommending products for college and university dining facilities that campus dining directors really appreciate networking with others who can recommend equipment they are currently using, and they also like to be able to visit facilities to see equipment in action.
- “The college and university foodservice community is the most intersupportive in the industry. They participate in internet chat rooms where they discuss equipment and trade tips. If a piece of equipment is the latest and greatest, they share that idea, and if something doesn't work the way it should, you can bet they all know it,” Tom Ricca, principal, Ricca-Newmark Design, says.
- Flexibility in equipment and design is also a must on campus, where keeping abreast of trends and customer needs, and keeping dining and menu options fresh is important in successful marketing of campus dining services.