After a small fire destroyed part of a grill station last summer, Iowa State University, in Ames, fast-tracked its plans for a new dining concept that focuses on simple foods, prepared well.
“Our customers crave foods that are healthy and fresh,” says Chef de Cuisine Jeremy Bowker, who has been with the university for nearly six years. “They want less processed foods, leaner proteins, more modern and global ingredients and more healthful cooking methods.”
These desires, plus the fire, paved the way for Simple Plate, which opened in January at Union Drive Marketplace (UDM). It serves salads and vegan, lean-meat and gluten-free dishes for lunch and dinner, all in USDA-recommended portion sizes.
“We didn’t have to do much rebuilding after the fire,” says Bowker, who was instrumental in developing and launching the new concept on such a tight timeline. “We removed the fryers, purchased a combi-oven, grill and flattop, and rearranged some of the existing equipment so that the layout of the space was better suited to our needs. We opened up the front area to create more of a demonstration kitchen, too, which helps our cooks connect with students.”
The dishes coming from Simple Plate’s kitchen meld quality ingredients with global influences. They were developed by Bowker and run on a two-week menu cycle. Entrées include churrasco flank steak, sweet potato and corn succotash, lemon-herb roasted chicken and edamame pesto.
“We always offer at least one vegan/vegetarian item at Simple Plate, as well as gluten-free options,” says Bowker, adding that dining services relies on eblasts and daily dining updates to promote the concept and its menu items. “This simplifies the dining process for students seeking those types of meals and menu items.”
While many students select entire meals from Simple Plate, Bowker also sees students picking certain components from the station to use as a complement for other dining options within UDM.
“While we offer a proper portion size, it’s not all or nothing for students who choose to dine with us,” he explains. “We also use different plates for our Simple Plate entrées—they’re square. This helps students identify what a full portion should look like whether they’ve chosen a meal from Simple Plate or not.”
Bowker adds that he sees far less waste coming back through the dishroom on the square plates.
As for the elevated food costs associated with the new concept, Bowker was able to pull from other parts of UDM’s operation to cover those costs and better balance everything out.
“For example, we were able to take out the vegan options that were being served in our homestyle concept,” Bowker says.
Going forward, Simple Plate will continue to build its menu library, even acting as a test kitchen for other parts of ISU dining.
“As we determine what dishes, flavors and ingredients are most popular with students, we’ll be able to expand on this knowledge and bring some of the same dishes and flavor profiles to other parts of campus dining as well,” Bowker says.
Eventually, Simple Plate dishes might even find their way into the retail side of ISU’s operation.
“This type of dining isn’t going away,” Bowker says. “Our students want simplified meals. They want high-quality ingredients. They want fresh, unprocessed, lean and healthful dining options.
“Simple Plate helps us to meet the needs of our customers within one dining concept, but also across our entire program,” he continues. “As it grows and student desires continue to evolve, Simple Plate will help us to more effectively satisfy their needs and wants.”