Outside of the Box: A Whole “Lot” of Cookin’ Goin’ On

Outside of the Box: A Whole “Lot” of Cookin’ Goin’ On

They unpaved the parking lot and put up paradise.

Apologies to Joni Mitchell, but that is a fine analogy for the University of Southern California's new “temporary” dining venue, the Lot Marketplace.

Located on a former parking lot near Grace Ford Salvatori Hall, the 20,000-sq.ft. Lot is designed to fill the campus's dining needs until the new Ronald Tutor Campus Center is finished in 2010. Then, it's supposed to go away.

Well, maybe, says Trojan Hospitality Services Director Scott Shuttleworth. “We may well decide to keep it even after the Campus Center opens,” he offers. “There may be plenty of business for both to thrive.”

Certainly, the Lot is thriving right now, and little wonder. With high-end concepts like Wolfgang Puck Express, Baja Fresh, Submarina, ZAO Noodle Bar and Red Mango, national chain outlets Starbucks and Carl's Jr., plus an upscale c-store and the temporarily relocated Traditions pub (a campus institution), the place is a foodie funhouse that has drawn crowds of customers since its August opening.

Welcome to life at USC, which enjoys a public school sized student body (current enrollment: 33,500) with private-school sized disposable incomes. That means plenty of deep-pocketed customers for campus services.

It also means sky high expectations. Hence the absence of anything slapdash about the Lot, temporary or not.

“Our students would never stand for substandard facilities, even on a short-term basis,” Shuttleworth says. “Two years may seem like a relatively short time to those of us who work on campus, but to four-year undergraduate students, that's half the time they're here. And who wants to spend half their college years eating in a tent, especially with the tuition their parents are paying?”

Despite the exterior shape, the Lot is no tent, if only because building codes in earthquake-threatened Southern California forbid flimsy structures. Rather, the “temporary” facility has a reinforced foundation, comprehensive plumbing and electrical systems and a shell made by a company (Sprung Instant Structures) that also made semi-permanent facilities in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Inside the structure and its distinctive 39-ft. dome, food stations line the perimeter of the elliptically shaped building, surrounding a central seating area that accommodates 350 diners (another 140 seats are available on the outside patio that rings the structure). Indoor diners can watch news and USC sporting events on six 50-inch flat-panel TV screens, or go online thanks to the complimentary wireless internet access available through the building and its patios.

Complementing the everyday fare is a weekly farmers market hosted by Trojan Hospitality Services. Called the Trojan Fresh Market, it brings growers and local producers from around the region to the McCarthy Quad next to the Lot, giving students a convenient way to purchase fresh, locally grown produce as well as specialty products like artisan cheeses and freshly baked breads.

The market, the concept mix and the other recent campus dining enhancements — like the arrival last spring on campus of the country's first college-based outlet of the popular Wahoo's Fish Taco concept — are designed to keep Trojan Hospitality on pace with the expectations of a student body that is not only affluent but incredibly diverse. (USC claims to enroll the most international students of any university in the country.)

The school's location next to downtown Los Angeles is another incentive to keep on-campus dining options fresh and exciting. “Our students know they have plenty of places to go within easy walking distance of campus,” Shuttleworth says. “They also have the means, so our challenge is to have a campus dining mix that motivates them to spend most of their dining dollars here.”

The Lot is prelude to the centerpiece of Shuttleworth's dining program upgrade, which is the new 192,000-sq.ft. Tutor Campus Center. The $138 million venue is expected to revolutionize USC's on-campus foodservice with a state-of-the-art dining pavilion, two cafes, a full-service restaurant (Traditions, currently in stripped-down temporary quarters in the Lot), an 800-seat ballroom, a student lounge hosting a variety of live entertainment events and a market featuring organic and healthy options.

The mix reflects the commercial hospitality background of the new director. Shuttleworth is a USC alumnus who came back to his alma mater in 2007 as director after a successful two-decade career as a restaurateur, most recently as director of restaurant operations for SBE Restaurant Group, where he oversaw daily operations for SBE's popular Katsuya restaurants (which he was also instrumental in developing) and The Abbey in West Hollywood.

Before joining SBE, Shuttleworth handled operations for Hollywood & Vine restaurant, Vine Street Lounge and Windows on the Bay, and also orchestrated numerous events in Tinseltown, including Oscar parties, Grammy funtions and a long series of red carpet movie premier events. He also served at one point as F&B director at the legendary Hotel Jerome in Aspen, CO.