Community relations is a goal for many colleges and universities, and it is pursued in a variety of ways. But one of the most effective may be through dining, as it is the sharing of food that tends to bring people together.
Nowhere is that truth more evident than at Kansas State University (KSU), where the huge institution of some 24,000 students exercises a considerable influence on the surrounding town of Manhattan and its some 55,000 residents. How close is the relationship between the school and the community? Well, for one thing, KSU topped the most recent Princeton Review rankings in the area of town and gown relationships.
JP’s is a place for the campus community to gather to support KSU athletics as well as a community hub. (Photo: KSU Dining)
Making town/gown relations a little more friendly is the recently opened Union Station by JP’s Gastropub, which caters not just to the student body but also serves as a kind of destination dining spot for the surrounding community.
How tied to the outside community is JP’s? Well, how many college campus dining spots do you know that has a kid’s menu? It also features a family meal special designed to draw groups of individuals from off campus.
“We are open to the public and during the slower academic times like the summer and Christmas break, we definitely open our operations more and recruit heavier to the general public,” offers John Green, associate director of retail operations for KSU Housing & Dining Services. “That’s almost our bread and butter during the slower times.”
But JP’s is more than just a family restaurant on a college campus, or even just a campus pub with a family-friendly atmosphere. It is also a serious culinary and brew house establishment, offering a wide range of regional craft beers and a menu that may look at first glance like a typical college pub bill of fare with its burgers, wings, pizza and such, but is much more. The burgers, for instance, are made with Kansas-farmed Certified Angus Beef, the wings are house-smoked and the pizza comes from a brick oven and features a hand-crafted artisan crust.
“We like to call it inspired comfort food,” Green notes. “We didn’t want to have a completely East- or West Coast-type of venue that would be unapproachable and come off almost pretentious, [so we] took a familiar basis and added a chef-inspired element to the ingredients and [preparation].” As a result, the menu is made almost completely from scratch and locally sourced as much as possible, he says.
Menu highlights include the Wefald burger, topped not only with hickory-smoked bacon and American cheese but also a housemade mac and cheese; and the Wildcat Willie Cristo, a Monte Cristo-style sandwich made with smoked ham, smoked hickory bacon, arugula, Gruyere cheese and cherry-sage jam sandwiched between slices of French toast and dusted with powdered sugar.
Another very popular item is the Sunflower Salad, which has arugula and baby spinach topped with strawberry, kiwi, mango, blackberry, orange, candied pecans, roasted sunflower seeds, blueberry stilton cheese and smoked chicken topped with strawberry vinaigrette.
The idea for the gastropub “came from students who wanted a place where they can get together during the day,” Green says. It provides a lot of functional space with alcoves where meetings can be held, plus plenty of communal spaces to socialize and private spaces where an individual can settle down to study. There’s even a 90-inch TV screen that can be used for special programming and presentations.
“The great thing is to see a diverse group in there, all feeling like it’s their comfortable space,” Green says. “You could have a couple of the faculty getting together at the bar, some students just out of class socializing and having fun at one table and a family [from off campus] at another table getting together for dinner.”
The foundational idea behind JP’s was to have a place not only to collaborate but also get a great meal, adds Green. The eatery has a full liquor license, so it can serve not only beer and wine—a number of which are available on tap—but also cocktails, including signature concoctions like Powercat Punch (Citron, Chambord and lemonade) and Blood Orange Cosmo (Tito’s vodka, blood orange puree, triple sec, cranberry juice).
JP’s opens for lunch and “really is bustling during the day” during the school year, Green reports. Transactions are cash and commercial credit card only with no tie to meal plans. The venue seats 160 (including bar seating), plus 40 more on an outdoor balcony that overlooks the campus stadium.