The University of Illinois (UI), which already boasts the third largest non-military college dining hall in the nation—the 1,200-seat Ikenberry Dining Center on its Champaign campus—now has an even larger one with the opening of the vastly expanded Illinois Street Dining Center, part of the school’s new Illinois Street residential facility and one of four dining centers on the Urbana campus. With nine micro-restaurant concepts and seating for 1,385, Illinois Street is the product of extensive research by the campus dining team into what students want and what can be learned from nearby Chicago’s dining scene that could be incorporated into a campus dining facility.
After holding a soft opening last fall with limited service—including being relegated to only takeout at the start of the fall 2020 semester—the dining facility exerted its full powers with the start of the 2021-22 academic year, which has seen UI welcome its largest ever incoming class.
“This facility was originally built in the 1960s and had not received a major renovation since then,” offers Alma Sealine, executive director of university housing. “There were two reasons for this particular renovation of the dining hall—first, we were averaging about 2,000 students for lunch and only had about 750 seats, and second, we had significant ventilation concerns—people showing up for meetings after lunch were smelling like the food they’d eaten!”
The renovation project closed down the dining hall for some 18 months until the soft opening last fall. To maintain service over the period, a temporary facility was set up in the Illini Union.
“We were fortunate that this facility is close to the Illini Union, and we’re hoping that that proximity, as well as the fact that it is the dining hall closest to the academic quad, leads to a lot of voluntary meal plan sales because it is an attractive option for students to go for lunch when they have classes on the quad,” Sealine offers.
That attraction has definitely been in force so far, she adds, with students, their numbers swelled by the record incoming class, crowding into the facility—lunch counts are running at around 2,400 daily—and adding pressure to an already short-staffed facility that is also dealing with the currently endemic supply chain issues impacting most foodservice operations around the country, affecting menu planning.
The array of micro-restaurant concepts adds the opportunity for new spins on innovative culinary concepts to be created, along with the “excitement and inspiration that comes from the beautiful facility and new kitchen equipment that is unique to Illinois Street Dining Center,” notes Carrie Anderson, senior assistant director of dining services. She also cites the “modern front of the house concepts that are very customer oriented [and] an inclusive dining experience that literally cannot be had anywhere else. Students can eat from our top nine allergen free Inclusive Solutions station, eat a meal from Pakistan, Japan, China or from a couple hundred miles up the highway in Chicago. They can try meat from a local butcher that we partner with, have fresh pasta that has school spirit, eat micro greens that are grown in house or try one of our Nitro beverages that cannot be found anywhere else!”
“Reaction has been positive,” adds Head Chef Crystol Smith. “Lots of excitement and interest in all the micro-restaurants. The most popular has been Fusion 48, where bowl concepts like congee, hot pot, bibimbap, ramen, pho, shawarma and tikka are served at lunch. Better Burger on Wednesdays is also a favorite. I will add that when I walk the dining room and hear students sharing their excitement with their peers about a dish we are serving, that they truly seem surprised and delighted by it, it makes me smile from the inside out. As a food service professional, that excitement, anticipation and enjoyment are what we look for.”
Illinois Street also offers a sustainable takeout option called Good2Go that employs reusable containers students purchase for $5 and then exchange for a clean one every time they return one. They can then fill then with as much food from any of the stations as they want and take it away to consume elsewhere.
Illinois Street Dining Center is currently open between 7 a.m. and 9:30 p.m. every day, interrupted only by a short closure in mid-afternoon for cleaning. Extended hours service until midnight is available in the Illinois Street complex from a pair of retail outlets, Terrabyte and InfiniTEA, located on the lower level.
Here’s a photo tour of the complex…