When American Dining Creations took over dining services at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., seven years ago, the plan was to renovate Reamer Dining Hall, the main campus dining space. The goal was to tackle two problems: segregated services and a need to modernize.
At the time, first-year students were assigned to one dining hall, upper class members to another. “That didn’t seem equitable,” says Tim Forte, associate vice president of operations for American Dining Creations, which manages dining services at the school.
What’s more, Reamer Dining—where upper-class students took their meals—was a bit worn around the edges. “The last time anything had been to refresh it was in the mid-nineties,” Forte says.
Addressing both challenges would mean not only modernizing Reamer but expanding it to accommodate more of the 2,100 students.
Last year, the college decided it was ready to fund the multi-million-dollar project. The school and American Dining Creations quickly got to work sketching out the transformation.
To avoid disrupting student dining, construction took place during the summer 2023 recess, a 55-day window. The most dramatic change involved building a floor that would extend the second-floor dining hall into an open-air space overlooking the first floor of the student union. That increased seating capacity from 240 to 325.
In the past, seating was limited to square tables and chairs; today, it’s a mix of hard and soft seating, including booths, communal tables and high tops. Before, Forte says, students said, ‘If I’m a solo diner, it’s not a great space.” With the new configuration, “If you want to sit with friends, that’s available. If you’re between classes and want to dine on the run, that’s available,” he adds.
The updated décor is timeless, incorporates Union College’s signature garnet along with greys and brings more light into the space.
The menu, service style and equipment all sport a new look as well. The centerpiece of Reamer Dining is World Market, featuring a 42-inch round flattop that produces a variety of global dishes. Among other stations are Chef U, which allows students to build and cook their own meals on induction burner; Elements, offering cooked-to-order meals free from nine major allergens; and Greens and Grains & Energize U, a salad bar that incorporates produce grown on a campus hydroponic farm along with other ingredients; Wich Street deli, serving artisan sandwiches; and Blended Berry, a create-your-own smoothie station.
For the dining staff, the focus has shifted away from back of the house to cooking at action stations, which has been an adjustment.
“The team was well trained on the concepts for some of these stations,” Forte says, “but for the World Market, there was some pretty extensive training in the summer. It was really (a matter of) getting people comfortable with being on stage.”
“So many team members have thrived in that environment,” he adds. “That’s where we go from having foodservice to having hospitality.”
Students have responded positively to the new options, especially the stations that allow for customization and staff interaction.
“It’s the Chipotle effect,” Forte notes. “People want to see what options they have and put them together in a way that’s unique to them.”
Much of the equipment was nearing the end of its usable life, so it was updated as well. Major purchases include new combi ovens, ranges and a dish machine. The World Market flattop has been a popular addition as well. “It’s limitless,” Forte says. “We’ve been able to have a lot of fun with it and use it in interesting ways.”
After six years of waiting, how did the change come together so quickly? “It really was a partnership between us and the college, the outstanding direction of facilities managing the project and the partnership with student affairs to get students engaged,” Forte says.
And engaged they are: During its debut, Reamer Hall was slammed. One solution that has helped manage the influx of traffic is the adoption of USEFULL stainless steel takeout containers and cutlery that students can rent for free. The rental pieces have also meant more sustainable operations as well, eliminating single-use items.