Students at Sacramento State University no longer have to take a trip back in time when patronizing the campus’s sole residential, all-you-care-to-eat dining center as the facility recently emerged from a nearly 11-month renovation process with a completely new menu approach.
“It is the first significant renovation of the serving areas since the late ’70s,” says Steven Davis, director of dining services for University Enterprises Inc. at Sacramento State. “The dining area was renovated in 2010 or 11, but the servery area was not remodeled for quite some time, and it showed.”
The $6 million renovation project completely changed the service approach from a traditional steam table line to a modern food-forward approach with 10 branded serving stations emphasizing in-front-of-customers preparation.
The current approach emphasizes set daily menus on a six-week cycle, often with a daily special at most stations, but the plan is to evolve to more customization at stations such as Wok and Chop, Davis says, though some stations such as the deli already offer individualized selections.
The renovation project commenced at the start of 2016 and was slated to finish in August, in time for the start of the new school year, but a variety of factors delayed the grand opening until November 10.
The facility did remain partially open during construction to continue to serve students.
“We had a barrier that [walled off] the servery area while the construction was going on,” explains Davis. “A lot of the food was prepared in the kitchen area that was unaffected by the construction, and we [set up] temporary food stations in the dining area to serve it.”
The renovation ended up adding square footage to the servery footprint, space that was taken from a private dining area that was eliminated. Seating in the updated dining hall is now around 400.
The concept mix was derived from data gathered from student surveys and broader consumer trend data on what is popular with younger consumers.
“I think overall the clear message that has come through is that students are looking for fresh, healthier options, especially if you can give them choices—that’s the most important thing,” says Angela Rader, director of marketing services for University Enterprises at Sacramento State. “They want what they want, not what’s pre-determined for them.”
Davis estimates traffic counts through the dining commons have been up about 20 percent since the renovated servery opened. Dinner is predictably the most busy period, drawing an average of up to 800 daily diners, followed by lunch with around 600 and breakfast with 400.
The venue is now attracting an increasing number of faculty and staff, Davis adds.
He says the new, expanded offerings should also help accommodate students with health issues like gluten intolerance or dietary preferences like being vegetarian or vegan.
In any case, more traffic is expected this coming fall when a new residential facility with 416 beds is scheduled to open on campus. Currently, the on-campus resident population is around 1,500 and all students living on campus are required to purchase a meal plan
So far, the biggest impact of the newly updated facility on other dining locations has been to the Courtyard Market, a c-store with a pizza/sandwich food component that accepts dining dollars from meal plans as a retail alternative.
“That business has been somewhat cannibalized as students who had been using their dining dollars over there have now returned to the dining commons,” Davis says. “In that regard, we’ve just moved the dollars to another location, back actually to where [they] should have been in the first place.”
Coffee makes a splash
As spectacular as the newly updated dining commons has been, it is not the only new culinary show in town (or, more accurately, on campus)
Also new at Sacramento State is the first U.S. retail unit of the Grumpy Mule coffee concept from Great Britain. Grumpy Mule is owned by the same parent company, the Irish firm Bewley’s, which also owns Java City, a familiar coffee shop brand in the U.S. that was originally founded by a Sacramento State graduate.
“Java City was on campus and we were looking at what we could do to create a different experience,” Davis explains.
Grumpy Mule “has a very unique brand concept that I think really appeals especially to a younger demographic,” Rader adds, noting the company’s commitment to working with growers to ensure the product’s organic and sustainability credentials. “They also take pride in what they’re doing. Latte art is another big component, so when you order one, there’s a lot of love in there, not only in terms of the coffee and the beans being used but the presentation.”
The Grumpy Mule unit opened this past August near the campus library, in a space previously occupied by a Java City unit and where it has so far generated around a 10 percent sales increase year over year.
The Grumpy Mule’s debut came about a month after another unusual coffee-related development on campus: the rollout of the first Starbucks “coffee truck” in California and one of the first half dozen in the country. Currently it sets up shop near a parking area and supplements the campus’s brick-and-mortar Starbucks unit, which consistently sees long lines.
Photos courtesy of University Enterprises Inc. at Sacramento State