Northern Illinois University’s Holmes Student Center had stood unchanged for nearly six decades—until this past fall. In October, the DeKalb-based college debuted a totally renovated ground floor complete with fresh dining options, along with a modern seating area designed for both studying and socializing.
Prior to the $20.9 million remodel, the only non-residential dining option on campus was a local Subway franchise. “We lacked a good retail dining presence. For a campus of our size, from a business sense, we should’ve been doing more retail,” says Executive Director of Campus Dining Daniel Koenen. Bringing in new brands was an easy way to boost revenue. And placing the eateries in the student center would help draw more people in.
Koenen knew he wanted to offer a mix of national and in-house brands. To figure out what those would be, NIU brought in a consulting firm to understand what students and stakeholders wanted. “Seating and space were important, but coffee and Tex-Mex were popular elements in those surveys,” Koenen.
The demand for coffee led Koenen to settle on Starbucks. “It was kind of an easy one, everyone loves it,” he says. Students had also been asking for a bar and grill location. That led to The Huskie Den, a pub-style eatery, for the in-house brand. Guests can find typical pub offerings like hot wings, waffle fries and wraps, along with gourmet half-pound burgers and even deep-fried cheesecake. A seating area that can fit up to 200, 12 pool tables, eight TVs, and a bar offering local craft beer and wine make the space ideal for gatherings. The renovation also made it easier for guests to access the student center’s downstairs, which features a bowling alley and a new stage for bands or other programming. “The bowling alley was existing, but it’ll absolutely get more traffic,” Koenen predicts.
With those two locations in place, Koenen sought to complement the food offerings by adding in a Qdoba along with an in-house convenience store. Adding a deli counter with made-to-order submarine sandwiches would make the c-store stand out. “We debated between doing a sushi bar or sandwiches, and sandwiches won out again. The students wanted the sandwiches to be made in front of them and be customizable. That was the main thing,” he says.
Getting more students to take advantage of the new, sought-after dining options meant revising NIU’s meal plans for those living on campus. Before the renovation, students living on campus could only use their meal plans to eat at the residential dining halls. “Now, we’ve changed things up and students are able to use their residential meal plans in the retail operations,” Koenen says.
Having more students come to Holmes to eat also meant a need for more seating options in a more inviting atmosphere. The dark, cramped, maze-like space was transformed into a spacious open floor plan with double the square footage. “The architects focused on wide passageways and spaces for students to gather and eat. They really just opened up the space and brought a lot of light in,” says Koenen.
Students can hang solo in the reading lounge area or gather in group spaces for studying or meetings. The moveable furniture makes it easy for guests to rearrange the space to fit their needs. An outdoor patio, too, adds more space for gathering when it’s warm out. “Our goal from the beginning was to give students a place where they will want to come, a place where they will feel comfortable hanging out, whether it’s just taking a break between classes, attending a club meeting or enjoying some wings while watching a ballgame with friends,” Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Kelly Wesener-Michael said in a press release.
The revamped student center held a soft opening in late October over homecoming weekend. “We’re still kind of in that phase,” Koenen says. The Huskie Den was initially open only for lunch, but will expand its hours from 10:30 am to 9 pm during the spring semester. The c-store will start rolling out sandwiches soon too,and the Qdoba is slated to open in March.
But even with the limited offerings, the renovation has already been worth it. “Everybody’s really positive, they’re excited about it,” says Koenen, who notes that traffic counts haven’t been made available yet. “Just based off of prior to what it was like before the renovation, it’s so much busier. You didn’t see students in there studying before, but now they are.”