chicken Union College

Local, affordable eats come out to play at college’s Farm to Grill cookout

Just in time for spring, the lawn of Union College’s Rathskeller Café sets the scene for a lunchtime draw: a simple, delicious, all-local menu with a nice price to match.

A weekly outdoor cookout lunch option that highlights all-local, mostly organic food…What’s not to like? For one thing, the higher cost that sometimes comes with special dining events.

“Nothing bothers me more than to see something great, but you’re paying 60 percent more…it better be great! It’s disappointing,” says Nick Salvagni, higher education marketing director with Syracuse-based American Dining Creations, the dining partner of Union College (UC) in Schenectady, N.Y. “We’re making great efforts to reduce the ‘exclusiveness’ of great campus promotions.”

He’s referring to the Farm to Grill lunch pop-up that’s happening every Thursday this spring on the UC campus.

The Farm to Grill food—local Italian sausage, locally raised free-range chicken, local grass-fed burgers and local portabella mushrooms—is available for one meal swipe or with cash in the $6 range. Add-on options thick-cut New York state bacon and/or aged Cabot cheddar cheese are $1.50 each, “competitive prices for those who aren’t on a meal plan,” Salvagni says, adding that this has been a good way to get participation from faculty and staff in the campus community as well.

The weekly event is held on the lawn in front of the Rathskeller Café aka the ‘Skeller, a retro-cool basement dining location on campus that normally draws a decent lunch crowd. That crowd increases by about 30 to 40 percent during Farm to Grill Thursdays, according to Salvagni.

Since every student at Union College has the same lunch hour, pop-ups like Farm to Grill alleviate some of the long lines at the other main residential and retail locations. It’s also been one of the most popular monotony-breakers. 

“We have six or seven outlets on campus open at any given time, but as with any campus, it’s the same six or seven outlets,” Salvagni says. “This creates buzz and gets people out of their routine.” 

It’s also a way to introduce local products and the farmers and artisans who make them. UC Executive Chef Patrick Longton has had a long culinary career at area restaurants, most of them focused on local ingredients, and knows local growing cycles like nobody’s business. 

A key point of any local-food promotion is building relationships with those local farmers and purveyors, “figuring out who you want to partner with,” Salvagni says. “We need to know who can get us the right quality [and quantity] of product so we bring them in and sample their product.” 

The local businesses see the value in showcasing their products, and since the Farm to Grill event isn’t meant to be a big revenue generator, the prices on the menu are low enough to make everyone happy. Another win is that this gives the campus dining team an opportunity to run a completely locally sourced location on a small scale. 

Longton works with the team at the ‘Skeller and walks them through the menu items for the events. Portable grills are set up and, so far, the spring weather has cooperated. About 150 to 200 meals are served on average per event.

The burger is the best-seller, “but we sell a ton of the portobello mushrooms,” Salvagni says. “On this campus, we try to do the things they want before they ask for it.” 

Food is grilled outdoors, but when the line gets too long, there’s the option to grill some items inside the ‘Skeller and bring them up to keep the line moving as a plan B, Salvagni says. 

Serveware is compostable boats, but the dining team is looking into some cool branded butcher paper just for this event.

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